If you missed last week, I’m hoping to write a series on things that I have been trying to do to practice what I believe. I want to share these thoughts and ideas with you, not only to have a space to keep me accountable, but also to have a discussion about the best ways that we can nurture our relationships with others, with God, and with the environment.
Meat – The Issues
When I think about practicing what I believe, one of the things that is so important to me is my relationship to the environment. I believe that humans were made to nurture the earth, and that everyone is responsible in some way for this. If we are not farmers ourselves, then we should be supporting the farmers who care for the earth and it’s creatures.
Meat is a tough topic because many have strong opinions about it. There are four main issues here: the ethics of eating animals; the mixed science on health benefits; the quality of the animals’ lives; and the impact of the industry on the environment. My family and I have done a lot of research and thinking on these, and we are trying to find the best ways to buy humane and environmentally conscious products. While I do admire anyone who has chosen not to eat meat at all for ethical reasons, we have peace about eating animals that had happy lives and believe that raising these animals in ethical ways is helpful for the species and the environment. However, when it comes to health, I have come to believe that balance is needed, and that we often are eating much more meat than we need.
There is a misconception about beef and the environment going around that, while often true, can make the issue seem black and white–this or that–rather than dynamic and variable. If you search online for the best things you can do for the environment, eating less or no beef is at the top of most lists. This is because the beef industry has a massive carbon footprint–much bigger than many of the things we might do such as driving less or turning off lights. Cows are also raised in horrific conditions where they eat corn–which has been shown to increase risk of e-coli–and live on feedlots where their waste is piled and pollutes the area. It is a similar condition for chickens, who eat grain and live so close to one another that they can’t move.
Based on these facts, it would be easy to say that eating meat is bad and going vegan is good. This is why the impossible burger and other plant-based foods have become so popular and claim to be more ethical.
What Needs to Change
The problem is that this black-and-white thinking leaves no room for the redemption of agriculture and forgets that there is a way for people and animals to live in partnership. Not only can animals be raised to live happy, healthy lives, but they can also be raised in ways that are carbon friendly. In fact, the use of animals on farms is extremely important for its biodiversity, and cows can actually play a role in sequestering carbon. This is because, when manure is utilized correctly, it can feed plants and the soil, both of which hold carbon. This same system allows cows to eat grass and stay healthy while reducing the need for monoculture cornfields. Similarly, chickens are excellent for the environment and work in partnership with cows, eating insects and spreading manure into the fields.
On the opposite end are the plant-based foods, which we assume are better for the environment. While crops can be grown in healthy ways, many of these foods are made with corn, soy, and other crops that have been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, or Round-Up herbicide. This means that more poisonous chemicals can be rained on the plants. No only does this get on our food, but it also gets into the soil and, eventually, the waterways that we drink from. Crops can also create a high carbon footprint when they are farmed with big machinery, as well as when the soil is not taken care of, leading to the loss of carbon-sequestering topsoil. Finally, crops must be fertilized, which means that, often, chemical fertilizers are used on these crops instead of natural composts.
We have two systems that could easily help each other but are instead hurting the environment. The cornfield is grown to feed grass-eating cows that live in their own manure, which the cornfield needs to be fertile. If, instead, the cows were put on pasture, and their manure was composted, both crops and animals would be healthy, and there would be no need for chemical fertilizers, and much less of a need for antibiotics.
These are just some reasons why I have chosen to stop eating conventional animal products but am encouraged to buy environmentally sustainable ones.
I recognize that this is not a choice that everyone can make. Buying from small, local farmers is often expensive. In some places, it is even inaccessible. But I don’t feel this exempts me from trying so that these things can be made more accessible. This is already happening with many organic foods that are becoming more and more available in regular grocery stores. However, because of the expense, this does mean buying less meat for me, which is a healthier option anyway.
So here’s what my family and I are trying to do:
- Buy local when possible. Local is not only more carbon-friendly, but it also supports the small farmers in our area. This doesn’t always mean buying “organic.” Organic farmers can be certified without having good, ethical, and healthy practices. We are looking for local farmers that let their animals live good lives on lots of pasture. For us, this means going to a local butcher in our city, the farmer’s market when open, and The Turnip Truck, a grocery store that often sells local, ethical foods. Finally, we have talked about buying meat in bulk from farmers in the area that we can freeze for the year.
- When local is not possible, we choose humane brands. Applegate (lunch meats, hotdogs, and sausages); Kerrygold (butters and cheeses); Happy Eggs are all brands that I can buy at Kroger that claim to have humane practices. I have also looked into Simple Truth Organic meats, and they seem–on the surface–to be okay, though the dairy farms may need more research.
- Choose vegan options when needed. We’re not always going to have access to these products, especially at restaurants, so we will choose other options when we can. However, when we do eat these products, we should consider where these come from as well.
Of course, with all challenges, it is important to have grace for ourselves when we can’t meet our own standards. Food is a big issue because we must eat several times a day, and it can be stressful and discouraging if we are breaking our “rules” that many times. I have to remind myself that this is a journey, and that we won’t be perfect. I especially believe that, when being served food as a guest, it is more important to be a kind guest than to stick to rules.