I happily ate mammals, birds and chicken nuggets until mid-way through high school. One day my biology teacher, probably needing a break from teaching osmosis, turned on one of those convenient 50-minute-movies to win herself a free period. The film was on the meat industry and it so sufficiently grossed me out with shots of stunned beasts, machetes and general animal-gore that I didn’t eat meat for like, ages. It was my first foray into vegetarianism, and since then I’ve stayed true to the pattern of being grossed out by various anti-meat docos and staying clear of eating animals until the images fade in my mind and the smell of barbeque wins me over again.
I love animals, and I really do like the way they taste in my mouth, but the reality of slaughtering them has been dependably troubling. Somehow, I’ve felt like a cheat – willing to eat something but not willing to kill it, willing the pleasure of a tasty, energy-laden morsel but not willing to deal with the mess. One only needs to think of how meat is sold in the supermarket to realise how far we, as the consumer, are divorced from the reality of being an omnivore. We simply purchase a tidy package of flesh, wrapped neatly in plastic and deboned, de-feathered, de-clawed, de-furred, de-blooded, and de-noised. No stun-gun thuds, gunshots, panicked whinnies of a creature meeting its end. Just a quiet, tidy, drip-free package.
Since adolescence, I’ve mostly managed to keep eating meat. Just this last summer, when I finally got around to reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, something changed for me. Here was a thesis that got me good: in reading this rather weighty book, I was so thoroughly convinced that eating meat was a bad idea on an ecological, physical and humane level, that I knew for sure I was giving it up. For good. So I did. And it felt good. I was eating lots of salads. I was feeling saint-like with my goodwill towards animals; I could almost feel the creatures draw to me like St Francis of Assisi as they sensed my benevolence towards their kind.
But I missed barbeques, and that compact form of tasty nutrition, and I got annoyed with having to justify myself to my meaty friends, and irked when it was the meat-eaters that I felt should be accounting for their ways. Still, I managed to endure the awkward moment when I had to tell Grandpa that I’d not be partaking in the casserole tonight, sorry; or when friends offered me food they’d lovingly prepared and I’d decided not to partake in anymore ever, sorry. Because I’d decided well and good this time that my meat-eating ways were over.
But like a Tolkienesque Wormtongue, I’d wonder again about maybe just some free-range meaty treats, and the evolutionary use of my canine teeth and The Vegetarian Myth and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I felt like Eve before that apple – would one bite really hurt?
I’ve learned since that eating meat can actually be good for the planet: Joel Salatin, from the ‘beyond organic’ Polyface farms, contends that grazing cattle on pasture is an environmental boon – grasses are the lungs of the earth and sequester more carbon than trees. Grazing encourages more growth, and the resulting animal manure is actually essential for soil health. The negatives associated with eating meat, dairy and poultry all stem from unnatural methods associated with factory farming. Also, because meat is nutrient dense, transportation contains a smaller carbon footprint percentage per nutrients than trucking around fruit and veg. However, even though the seemingly noble ‘grass-fed’ label applies to virtually all cattle in my homeland, New Zealand, the intensive farming methods used for much of these animals is absolutely responsible for the negative changes in soil health and polluting rivers and waterways. The intensification of farming has led to huge increases in the use of fertilisers and irrigation – both of which have increased the environmental pressures on the water systems. I still side with Salatin’s principles, but the complexities serve to remind me that it’s not that simple when organic, free-range, fair-trade and local are just a few of the very worthy factors on offer, and when very often these factors are at odds with one another. Is it really better to purchase food from a farmers market, where lots of growers ship in their produce with trucks from all over the place, or is it perhaps better to purchase food from a big conglomerate supermarket where they ship it en mass with larger vehicles?
So, let’s say anyway, there are some farms that leave the environment in better shape than they found it. If a meat-eater were to only buy meat from these farms, it would be more environmentally responsible than a vegetarian who only ate out-of-season fruits, from exotic locales. But this is to speak about exceptions. The reality is most people still buy (and therefore ‘farm-by-proxy’ to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase) animal products from industrialised farms – the type that produce far, far more waste than even human populations, and sustain their flocks and herds through the use of drugs and chemicals.
The UN recently reported that animal farming is the number one cause of global warming, and one of the top causes of every significant environmental problem on the planet. The huge quantities of nitrous oxide and methane from livestock have seriously huge Global Warming Potential indexes, far exceeding the familiar baddie CO2. The livestock business is responsible for extensive water pollution, from gigantic quantities of animal waste, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals, fertilisers and the pesticides used on feed crops.
Farmed animals also use a third of the earth’s entire land surface. Two thirds of the Amazonian jungle has been cleared to make way for animal grazing. While grass-fed, non-industrial beef seems like a grand idea, one has to wonder where this land will come from. Factory farms have arisen out of the demand for huge amounts of cheap meat – so if quality is ever to be achieved, quantities need to plummet to make room for a better way. The assumption is that industrial farms are the only way the world can produce enough food. But somewhat surprisingly, results show that backyard gardens, and farms with multiple species living together, are actually far more productive per hectare.
I still sometimes want to take a bite out of that proverbial apple; in fact, I don’t really even want to be a vegetarian anymore. But it’s not because I’m craving a juicy piece of animal flesh. Nay, it is because more than that, I want to be someone who cares where all my food comes from. Former vegan Lierre Keith, in The Vegetarian Myth, writes that ‘most people who consume factory farmed meat have never asked what died and how it dies. But frankly, neither have most vegetarians’. I see now that not-meat-eating is not necessarily the environmental high ground. Meat-eater or not, we all indeed farm through every culinary choice we make. And it’s the way that we farm, and the food that we buy, that is landscaping our planet and future.
Briar Hale is a teacher and writer based in Aotearoa/New Zealand.