About meat

Header Illustration Credit: foxypar4

To eat meat or not to eat meat, that is the question.

It is a question that has been on my mind for quite a few years. I answer it for myself and have it settled for a while, only to let it surface again and ponder over it some more.

Where I grew up, animals were raised on real farms and spent their lives between their pen/stable/coop and the outdoors before being slaughtered locally (occasionally at a friend’s or relative’s house in a nearby village, when the neighbors would get together for the “Day of the Pig” and work diligently on making variously seasoned sausages before rewarding themselves with a huge dinner).

Photo Credit: Trish Hamilton

At the supermarket, buying chicken was the only instance where one had to distinguish between “industrial” and “farm-raised” meat.

(I had long graduated to drinking, driving and voting age when France was hit by the mad-cow-disease crisis in the mid-1990s. Shocked to learn that farmers had been feeding their cattle dead animals, French consumers shunned beef en masse for years. The beef industry was rescued thanks to a strict, constraining legislation that helped restore confidence to the market.)

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yndra/

The thought of bunnies, calves and horses going to slaughter would cause me enough distress as a child to have me adopt a lifetime habit of never touching their meat. Lamb, on the other hand, was too delicious to pass for any serious stretch of time. I would repeatedly turn a blind eye to the story behind the fragrant thyme-infused cutlet and give in with glee to the gustative experience.

Watching my aunt behead chickens on the farm, I had also decided that killing birds (a category that included ducks, turkeys, guinea fowls etc.) was no big deal. After all, their stupidity was proof enough that they had been designed as food for mankind. Which was a relief for my conscience as there was nothing so satisfying, I thought, as a chicken roasted to perfection, crunchy skin and all.

And so it was, until a successful experiment as an adult in forgoing all meat for health reasons. Since then, I have been busy refining my approach to meat and dealing with my laps of integrity–as when I indulge in the foie gras, grilled duck breasts and sausage proffered to me when I visit my family back home in the south of France.

I find there are many layers to deciding whether to eat meat, what meat to eat and how often. Health, environmental, social and spiritual considerations all come to mind. They leave a lot of us confused. In some cases, we collapse them into a dogmatic approach that keeps us separate from what actually works best for us.

Here is the map of the land as I’ve drawn it while searching for my own path:

HEALTH

  • pros

Meat is the most naturally occurring, well balanced and easily obtained package of proteins, essential acids and source of iron and Vitamin B12 that you can find.

  • cons

Many scientific studies have demonstrated that meat is linked to the main health issues that plague our Western society (cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, etc.). Not only is it acid forming in the body, but it taxes the digestive system. The latter is poorly designed to eliminate meat in a timely fashion. Putrefaction in the colon, especially, has been shown to be linked to severe illnesses.

Finally, let’s not forget the impact on our health of the various antibiotics, hormones and other suspicious substances that the meat industry routinely injects in the animals we end up eating—whether we enjoy them as steaks, bacon or processed food.

And that’s not even taking into account the various health-frights due to meat packers negligence that regularly pop up in the news.

ENVIRONMENT

“The livestock sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” United Nations report, 2006

  • resource consumption

Meat production is the least efficient way to provide food. It requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than plants per calorie output, according to a landmark Cornell ecologist’s analysis.

It  consumes up to 100 times (or more, depending on the studies) more water than plants per pound produced.

  • pollution

The meat industry is responsible for  51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the most recent Worldwatch Institute report. The main culprits are manure, the fossil-fuel energy intensive crops used for animal feed and deforestation.

The phosphates and nitrates contained in manure are also a major cause of water pollution. Hauled to sea by streams and rivers, manure is linked to the spread of dead zones in coastal waters around the world.

  • demographics

The consumption of meat has doubled in the past 30 years. The emergence and growth of a middle-class in China and India, especially, is linked directly to the steady increase in meat consumption. Simultaneously, the demand for cheap meat is on the rise, pushing the industry to expand “low-[financial]cost” (i.e. high-[environmental]cost) operations globally. In other words, air and water pollution as described above will keep worsening. Unless we keep meat consumption in check and change meat production practices.

LABOR ISSUES

Once a rival to the auto industry in terms of working conditions and benefits, the highly consolidated American meat packing industry has destroyed its unions in the name of lowering labor costs. Working conditions have been steadily deteriorating for the past 30 years, resulting in levels of injuries not seen since the early 1900s and leading to a high employee turnover. Undeterred by their critics, including Human Rights Watch, American meat packers recruit their cheap labor from more and more distant lands and don’t shy away from smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico. The movie “Food, Inc.” has some rather revealing scenes on the subject—well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

SPIRITUAL

Who, among us, does not aspire to live in a world of abundance, peace and harmony? I choose to believe that everything we say and do has an impact. And so I strive to align my words and deeds with the outcome I’d love to see unfold. It’s an uphill battle, obviously. It requires a vigilance of every moment. With regard to meat, my commitment is to NOT support inhumane practices, be it against animals, human beings or our environment. Lest I grow disconnected from my humanity. Lest I relinquish all possibility of abundance, peace and harmony in my life.

There you have it in a nutshell. Feel free to pick and toss all these ingredients as you wish and to create the recipe that works for you.

As for me, I believe I may have finally found a line of action actually anchored in time immemorial: MEAT IS A SPECIAL TREAT TO BE ENJOYED WITH RESPECT.

1/ keeping meat consumption to a minimum (about twice a month on average). My body benefits while the small amount keeps any potential health-related concern at bay (including the sluggishness I would experience years ago). And I can still enjoy meals with my family in France without feeling awkward or guilty about it.

2/ choosing only meat from an antibiotic-, hormone-free animal that was raised on a real farm (not CAFO) and that ate solely what it was designed to feed on—like grass. Also, I want to support the small farmer rather than the big conglomerates, so I make sure that the meat was produced locally. It’s actually as simple as ASKING the butcher or the waiter at the restaurant (if you feel self-conscious about that, bear in mind that consumer demand is a direct factor of sustainable meat availability). When in doubt, I abstain.

3/ when challenged by the price premium of sustainable meat, being present to the high “external costs” (environmental, social and health-related) associated with cheap meat.

Sometimes, I stumble. In a crunch to get prosciutto for a last minute dinner preparation, I crossed the street last night to the  corner market and bought run-of-the-mill packaged slices of cured pork (if the maker is supposedly local, the origin of the meat is unknown). At times, convenience trumps all. I make a note of what happened and renew my vow to keep it the exception, not the rule.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nosha/

Here is another way to think about all of this. A dear friend of mine likes to say: “one should only eat the meat one would be prepared to kill for”. That reality check has given me a newfound respect for hunters who pack deer or elk in their freezer for the year. On my end, I find that, given the abundance of plant-based food available, abstaining from meat altogether is probably the surest way to keep my integrity intact. With the exception of birds, perhaps.

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