In Defense of Meat: Guilt-Free Choices

Pardon me while I indulge in the defense of meat-eating. It seems sort of politically incorrect these days.

Honestly, I got no beef with a vegan who uses no leather, consumes no products with gelatin, and is disgusted by the sight of cattle grazing on a hillside. I have the idea that vegans are a principled lot, and that there is a line of logic running through their lifestyle which rejects any use of animal products for human consumption, whether on the basis of humane concerns for animals, environmental concerns, spiritual reasons, or just plain health reasons. I think there are precious few who can claim that high road, and I can sympathize with the up-hill battle to convince others of the correctness of their vegan principles, or just to be left alone.

Vegetarians, that's more complicated. I remember working with a guy at a St. Paul co-op in the seventies. We were unloading a truck, and this fellow didn't want to handle the butter, as a matter of principle, because it was an animal product. He was happy, however, to handle the cheese. Hmm. Now that's an extreme example of ignorance, but it illustrates a point; principles need to be examined closely for consistency with the real world.

Preference for a vegetarian diet as a personal matter of taste or health or preference seems reasonable to me. In fact, I could be a vegetarian, since I love many meat-free dishes. I really eat more meat than I want to, because I raise it and it's cheap and convenient for me. But the idea of not eating meat as a matter of principle, humane or environmental, while continuing to eat dairy products is a little silly, if not actually irresponsible. Let me explain:

The average American consumes nearly 1,000 pounds of milk, in the form of various dairy products, in a year (from the Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade, and Consumer Protection 1996 data.) Note that a pound of cheese takes several pounds of fluid milk. I suppose a vegetarian might even consume more cheese and yogurt, say, than the average person, as a tasty source of protein. Don't forget the occasional indulgence in ice cream, cheesecake, or sour cream on those bean burritos.

On the other side of the equation, let's take an average family-sized Wisconsin dairy farm. Its 60 Holstein cows will produce about 17,000 pounds of milk per cow, or 1,020,000 pounds of milk, enough to provide the year's dairy products for 1,020 people, maybe even that many dairy-eating vegetarians.

But where do those cows go when they are through their useful milking life? There is actually a dairy company in Vermont that implies that their cows are allowed to live out their natural lives. I can just see it: Genteel old bossies with slack bags, generations of them, hobbling about on pasture, consuming literally tons of vegetative matter, going gently when their natural time comes. And then what? I leave it to your imagination. Cows are big animals, mind you, 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, easily.

What really happens, of course, is that cows are culled from herds for various reasons, mostly economic. Each herd will have a different rate, but a 25-percent turnover in a year is not uncommon. In other words, 15 of our 60 cows become available for meat each year. If each of those animals yields 450 pounds of hamburger, that's 6,750 pounds of meat as a by-product of this dairy.

That's not all. There's a lot of fooling around with genetics and embryo transplants, but in general, a cow gives birth once each year in order to keep in milk production. She has a 50-percent chance of bearing either a heifer, who has the potential to become a herd replacement, or a bull calf. Hardly any bulls stay bulls, because you just don't want that much testosterone around the place. They become steers, they get raised up by someone (if they are not used for veal), if not the dairy farmer, and they become meat. So if 30 bull calves are born in our herd and become 1,200-pound steers at market weight, we've got another 15,000 pounds of meat on our hands. That's about 21,750 pounds of meat that those 1,020 people are "responsible" for. About 21 pounds of beef per person.

So just eat a burger or two a week, and then you can go ahead and eat your share of dairy products, guilt-free. Otherwise, you'll have to get a friend to eat three or four burgers per week.

IN CASE YOU NEED other facts to assuage your guilt about enjoying an occasional morsel of flesh, whether you are a dairy consumer or not, there are many: Livestock perform an important function in organic and sustainable agriculture. Animal manure provides an important source of nitrogen and organic matter for crop fertilization. This can be accomplished by legume plowdown, but manure is very effective and is part of a holistic agricultural system. Growing hay for livestock consumption encourages healthy crop rotation, so that row crops and grains for human consumption are alternated with soil-building legume and grass production.

Livestock can convert plant matter that humans cannot use, as in grazing land that is too steep and not suitable for grain or vegetable production. Managed, intensive grazing can be a part of a sustainable system that makes very efficient use of pasture and hay land. For many farmers, rotational grazing has reduced dependence upon petroleum products by letting the animals do the harvesting and by extending the length of the grazing season.

Cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry can all make use of grazing, and can even enhance one another by breaking up parasite cycles and making use of different plant species.

Hogs can play a role as "composting machines" on market garden farms, where they are turned loose on vegetable wastes. They also can be very effective tillers of the soil, fertilizing the soil while they root out the weeds on a piece of ground being prepared for a crop.

The ability to "add value" to a farm's production by running feed through livestock can help to make family farming more sustainable, and in turn supports the rural social structure.

I am not an expert in nutrition, but there does seem to be a renewed interest in the complete proteins and minerals available from meats in the diet. I notice that there are a number of former vegetarians who are becoming interested in adding meat back to their diets in moderation for nutritional reasons.

DON'T GET ME WRONG. I do not defend the destruction of the Central American rain forests for the purpose of supplying beef to McDonald's. I see great economic, environmental, and social harm in the highly concentrated feedlots and factory farms in this country that produce much of our meat supply. A small handful of corporate giants exploit human labor, abuse and over-medicate animals, concentrate manure, pollute water, and overuse grain. If those are your objections to eating meat, you do have other choices.

If you want meat to be part of your diet, and still feel like you are being true to environmental, economic, and social principles, you can find local organic or sustainable livestock farmers to buy from, folks who are raising animals in a humane, environmentally conscious way. You can find brands that uphold your principles with label claims that help you figure out how the meat was produced and by whom. Through careful buying, you can have meat as a part of your diet and feel okay about it, and even downright good.

Pam Saunders is a recovering dairy farmer and certified organic farmer near Prairie Farm, Wisc. A version of this originally appeared in Global/Local Forum, 740 Round Lake Rd., Luck, WI 54853; email

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