Meet your meat
Cam Holt with his pigs. Pig’s natural behaviours include nesting, digging, wallowing, and simply enjoying each others’ company.
For most of us, making a connection between a moist, tender, white chicken breast and a scratching, pecking, feathery farm bird can be difficult. It is really hard to believe, when we pull it off the glowing fluoro-lit supermarket shelf, packaged on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic, that piece of meat actually came from a living animal. Knowing, caring for and watching an animal grow before we eat it is about as strange to us as eating our own pets.
A few years ago our family began to take steps toward becoming more aware of our household’s carbon impact on the planet (see Manna Matters November 2010). We discovered that after air travel, our consumption of meat and dairy was the highest source of our household carbon emissions. These initial steps towards reducing and changing our meat consumption have taken us on something of a meat adventure…
Most of us have heard, and some perhaps have put into practice, the call to eat less meat. As an affluent people, we generally eat too much food, and eating too much meat is a part of this overconsumption. But beyond our own health and wellbeing, there are other very important reasons for reducing meat consumption.
The environmental impact of meat production and consumption in Western countries has now been well documented in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and waste. In Australia, over 56% of our continent is used for for grazing animals and the production of crops used in animal feed. One kilogram of beef is the equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions as driving roughly 170km in a large family vehicle.
Grain crops grown for animal fodder rather than for direct human consumption have a big effect on food supplies and food security. In Australia, standard commercially raised pork is grain fed, and for poultry, feed grains account for about 40% of the cost of total production. Globally, the diversion of grain from human consumption was one of the factors contributing to the 2007/08 food crisis. According to the World Health Organsiation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, on average, 22 people can be fed for a year on one hectare of land growing potatoes, 19 people can be fed for a year with one hectare of rice, while a hectare given to grazing beef will only feed one person in a year. As our global population rockets upwards, this is indeed food for thought.
In addition to the impacts on the environment and global poverty, the mass production of meat has resulted in a system that has largely lost sight of any reasonable care for living creatures. In Australia, animal ethics issues have become prominent in the export of live beef cattle, however, there are just as many reasons to be concerned about the production of pork and chicken for domestic consumption. Most of Australia’s pigs are farmed intensively in factory farms. In these farms, sow stalls measure 200cm x 60cm - barely bigger than the pig itself. Clearly this does not enable the pig to turn, walk, or stretch out. These conditions remain when the sow is pregnant and suckling young. Chickens raised for meat production are bred to grow and gain weight as quickly as possible, some being ready within 35 days. This unnaturally rapid rate of growth brings with it many problems for the chickens such as leg disorders and heart failure. Further, when chickens leave the growing sheds they are packed into crates upon which there is further loss from heat stress and overcrowding. At the slaughter plant, chickens are shackled upside down by their legs on conveyor belts, stunned in an electrical water bath, and have their necks slit by a rotating blade. Somehow, that plastic-wrapped piece of flesh looks awkwardly different when we know this.
We have consistently argued in Manna Matters that caring for all of creation is central to the vocation that God has given humanity. Making connections between the food we eat, where it comes from, and how its production impacts the earth and other people, should be part of how we join in God’s work of reconciliation in the world.
So knowing all this, what options are left for us to make responsible choices around meat consumption? Wendell Berry writes “to live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation… When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament”. With this in mind, our household has tried to make a shift towards eating meat that we have met.
The biggest step in this process was actually coming to this decision. Once our minds became open to this possibility, and once we purchased a chest freezer, opportunities have gradually presented themselves to us. We have been able to source pork from friends living on a small property in northern Victoria who, amongst many other things, raise a few pigs each year. We have been able to source lamb from friends near Warrnambool in a similar way. From another friend who shoots rabbits as a part of land conservation, we have enjoyed learning how to make rabbit stew and curries. Through a friend’s uncle we can make possible the sharing of a cow with two or three other households. And in the past year, we have braved the killing and eating of a few of our backyard chickens.
Choosing to meet our meat has made the reality of eating meat more real for us. It has helped us better understand the work and care required to raise animals well. We have seen and learnt about the living conditions of the animals, and the care which is possible for both the animal and the land, and the resources required to raise it. Indeed, done well, raising animals can form part of an integrated approach to land-use which restores and improves the land.
Meeting our meat has helped us take more seriously that eating meat requires the killing of animals. This is certainly true for us with our own chickens. The pig and lamb have been killed on the farm, and this has enabled the animals to avoid the distress of traveling to, and processing at, an abattoir.
Meeting our meat has enabled us to build links between urban and rural livelihoods and therefore to understand the value of these connections. It has enabled us to support people trying to do things differently on the land, to choose better farming practices, and better treatment of animals.
Finally, choosing to meet our meat, and the consciousness that comes with it, has helped us to reduce our meat consumption. This is better for our bodies, better for the earth, and it has actually increased our enjoyment and appreciation of meat. As Wendell Berry says, “eating responsibly is eating with pleasure; in this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude”.
The journey of thinking more carefully about meat consumption has seen my motivations and understandings expand from simple environmental concerns to a greater awareness of making good choices for the whole community of creation – for neighbours both near and far, for other creatures beyond ourselves, and for the earth itself.
SOME OPTIONS FOR MORE SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION OF MEAT
- Eat less meat!
- Choose kangaroo meat. Kangaroo is available in most supermarkets. Wild kangaroo harvest is supported by ecologists and farmers alike. Being a native animal, their footprint is light on the land compared with introduced livestock. Appropriate culling quotas are set by federal and state legislation. Kangaroo meat is high in iron (higher than beef), and low in fat. It is also free from antibiotics, chemicals and growth hormones.Choose free range meat and organic meat. These cost more and will mean that you will have to eat less!
- Buy meat at your local farmers market: www.farmersmarkets.org.au
- Find a farm near you: www.localharvest.org.au
- Look for any opportunity to source meat from someone you know living on the land.