RURAL ROUTES/Pam Saunders
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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