Archive for April 2nd, 2009

Eating Animal Products Ethically

Sharon April 2nd, 2009

Several people have asked me recently to give them some guidelines about what the best choices are if they are going to eat animal products.  I realize that plenty of people happily eat no animal products at all, and I admire that choice, although it isn’t mine.  I think people who limit or eschew animal products for ethical reasons are making one possible good choice.  That said, veganism isn’t likely to be everyone’s decision, so it makes a lot of sense to think carefully about how to eat animal products wisely and sustainably.  Colin Beavan once asked me to write this piece for him, but I had to keep it under 800 words, and I just couldn’t do it – some things can’t be summed up quickly.  So apologies in advance for the length of this essay.

I’m going to try and keep the focus here not one whether vegetarianism/veganism is the ideal choice, but on how to make good choices. I’d be grateful if people in the comments would try and keep the focus too.

For me this comes down to a fairly simple set of principles, but ones that aren’t always self-evident, particularly if you don’t think much about where your animal products come from.

1. First and foremost, given a world-wide food crisis, and a rapidly increasing number of starving people in the world, all animal products we consume should come from animals that are not or are minimally competing with human beings for food – that is the primary food source of our meat, egg and milk producing animals should be plant materials that humans can’t eat in perennial pasturage that preserves soil, sequesters carbon and supports wildlife - not grain products that feed human beings.

This, I think is the most central point – if we are going to eat animal products, our animal products should put us in competition with starving people who eat grain as their primary food source as little as humanly possible.  If at all possible, this should go double for our pets.

2. No industrial animal products.  I realize this is a tough one – for low income people, this often means giving up meat and dairy.  But with the exception of low income diabetics, who may require protein dense meats, I’d say that this one should be an absolute policy – industrial meat is bad in so many ways that it should be the first thing we give up.  There are inexpensive options for animal products that are humanely raised – local chicken producers will sell just about all the chicken feet you could possible eat, giving you an unending supply of chicken soup (best chicken soup out there, too) for very little.  Most producers have trouble selling organ meats and other unusual parts. 

 I generally try very hard not to set rich folks and poor ones up against each other, and I know this does – rich people can buy all the grassfed beef they want (well, not quite, see #3), while low income people are probably thinking “great, she wants me to eat liver…” but the economic, ecologic and other costs of industrial meat are so severe that I can’t justify industrial meat in any way.  We’ve just got to stop eating it – and it isn’t good for us either.

For low income pet owners, this is a tough conundrum.  Industrial culled meat has made pet ownership widely possible, even cheap.  It also makes feedlots profitable – 1 in 7 feedlot cows is deemed unfit for human consumption.  If those animals were unsalable, it is likely that industrial meat production would be a lot less economic, but because these products (and euthanized pets) can be incorporated for very low cost into industrial pet food, it makes industrial meat producers more profitable.  This is extremely problematic – but so is suggesting that low income people who love and care for their animals stop feeding them, or bankrupt themselves with expensive food.  It is one thing to suggest that omnivorous people go vegetarian, another that obligate carnivores like cats or even meat-eating omnivores like dogs that are more difficult to raise on a vegetarian diet be forced to adapt.  The only answer I have is to trust that my readers will be as ethical as they possibly can, and make the best choices they can.  If you can afford to feed your pets decent food, please, please do so. 

3.  A truly local animal based diet, aware of seasons, land use and carrying capacity.  What does this mean?  Well, in the future, if we are to raise animals ethically, we’re all going to have to eat a lot less meat.  And I’m tempted to write here that we should probably all consume meat like that right now – but I know that many small scale animal food producers depend on a loyal base of customers who now are probably eating more chicken and lamb than they will be in the future.  I don’t want to undermine the systems we need to feed us.  So I guess what I’m saying is that eating animal products produced sustainably should begin with the recognition that in truly sustainable societies, meat, milk and eggs are seasonal products.  It should also include no waste – that is, if you are going to buy an animal, you should eat all of it, not just the best parts, and make broth from bones, etc… and also we should be learning to cook and eat with fewer of these products.  A study at Cornell a few years ago found that a sustainable diet that maximized the number of people who could be fed in New York State included about 2 oz total of animal products per person, per day.  In much of the world, people eat much less than that.

4. Eat animal products that support methods of husbandry and slaughter that are ethical – they are humane, they minimize chemical usage, and they allow animals to live as natural a lifestyle to the species as possible.  Humane slaughter issues apply equally to the production of milk and eggs as to meat – that is, there is no retirement home for hens past their laying years, nor for male calves borne to lactating cows, etc…  All animal products involve slaughter at some level – so find out how they do it, or investigate veganism.

What does this actually mean in practical terms?  Why did I put not eating grain ahead of humane slaughter on the priority list?  How does that actually play out in terms of different foods?

Well, in practical terms, I think this means thinking hard about where our animal foods come from.  At the root of it, we are morally and personally responsible for the way animals live their lives and die in our interest.  Disinterested eater is not an ethical position.  I know some people would much rather not know all the details – IMHO, this is one of those “tough patooties” things – the huge impact of meat, the clearing of land for growing grain for livestock, rising grain prices for the poor and their hunger - all those things are issues that animal product eaters are responsible for.  We cannot become less responsible by refusing to think about them - period.  If you don’t want to think about it, go vegan. 

I put not eating grain at the head of this list because personally, I believe that human beings outrank animals in the hierarchy of priorities.  I realize some animal lovers will order things differently, even think I’m deeply wrong for being willing to slaughter animals (this is not hypothetical for us – we eat home-raised meat).  I can accept that worldview, although I don’t share it.  But I believe right now we are facing a very, very dire situation – one that could lead to the deaths of many, many human beings, and that in such a urgent crisis (the food situation may have slipped off the papers, but it has only gotten worse), the biggest obligation we have is to keep human beings alive and allow them to have enough to eat. 

Forty percent of the world’s grain gets fed to livestock.  Aaron and I spent two years researching _A Nation of Farmers_ and everything we found led us to the conclusion that we are very rapidly approaching a bottleneck in our ability to raise food production to meet rising demand for food.  That’s a recipe for starvation, all over the world.  It is already happening – more than 125 million new seriously hungry people were created in the last year.  Many of the gains that were lifting people out of poverty have been lost, and we are expecting to have to feed half again as many people, with big appetites for grain in the form of meat, dairy and eggs.  Climate change is the big wildcard in this situation – if, as seems likely, climate change accellerates past natural tipping points, we are likely to struggle to feed our population.

The only way we are likely to avoid massive world hunger in the coming decades is to cease having human beings, their pets and their cars compete with the world’s poor for human food – more than half the world’s population mostly eats grains in their most basic form.  The same half of the world’s population spends 50-90% of their income on food – so while increased demand for meat or biofuels may merely inconvenience, as the price of food goes up, for other people it is the difference between life and death.  And human life is not something you play games with.  As much as we like meat, eating meat that has eaten 8lbs of human-edible grain and helped increase the price is not ok.  Milk and eggs raise the same difficulties.

But that doesn’t mean that none of us should eat animal products – in fact, animals can enable us to feed more people, if they are used wisely and carefully.  Animals can be raised on land that is too steep, rocky, wet or dry to grow grain or vegetables on.  Animals can make use of weedy plant materials that need to be removed, or of food scraps and food waste that human beings will not eat, and can be carefully used to reduce the need for fossil fueled tillage.  Moreover, as we transition towards a local agriculture, animals can make it possible for small farmers to produce their own fertility and make better use of their land than they could otherwise.   

And appropriate breeds for appropriate conditions (not just climate, but economic and social conditions) can make more animal protein available.  We’ve tended to have an industrial view of the world, in which maximal production is always what is most wanted.  But maximized production can actually reduce available food – for example, in _Becoming Native to this Place_ Wes Jackson discusses a study done in Germany, where local breeds of goats that gave very small amounts of milk were crossbred with high producing Saanen goats.  What happened is that the goats produced a lot more milk – but it became much harder to keep them – the original goats had only produced a few pints of milk a day, but had done so on minimal pasture, hay and scraps, and had done well in the climate.  The new cross-breeds needed better housing, better quality hay, and grain – which meant that in two villages, one where cross breeds had been introduced and one where they had not, in the one where they had not, almost all households had goats and milk, while in the one where the crossbreeds were introduced, only the fairly affluent members of the community had goats, while most farm households had no milk at all.  Helena Norberg-Hodge documents much the same thing with the replacement of the high-glacier adapted Dzo with Jersey cows.  As often is the case, industrial production means more total food production, but far less food access.   So one of the major projects we’re going to have to engage in is finding locally appropriate breeds of animals that meet our real needs.

For those who want to include animal products in your diet, there are some really good options out there.  But you have to know something about how they are produced.  So let’s take a look at that.

1. Eggs – I won’t bother going over the horrors of industrial egg production, including the debeaking, the millions of dead chickens, the manure… etc… let’s just leave it at “don’t buy your eggs from industrial producers if you can avoid it.”  But even good egg producers have some issues – while it is possible to raise most entirely grass fed meat, and some grass fed dairy, it is harder (although not impossible, but tough on a very large scale) to raise eggs on a diet that doesn’t include some kind of grain.

Aaron does it – he has an arrangement with a couple of local food producers to save kitchen scraps for him, and his chickens are raised almost entirely on the pasture in their yard and local restaurant scraps.  On a very small scale this isn’t that hard at all, particularly if you have any access at all to food waste.  We have experimented with a similar relationship to a friend who produces food, but we simply don’t travel the distance to her store often enough to avoid mold and other things we don’t want to feed the chickens, and other rural dwellers may have the same issues.

Some breeds of chickens, particularly landrace breeds from countries that are still poor, like the Egyptian Fayoumi and the Black Java have reportedly done very well at foraging entirely for themselves – they are traditionally raised in countries where no one actually feeds the chickens.  Their yield is lower than other breeds, but if you live in an appropriate climate (they would find our cold weather tough, I’m told) and can live with more moderate egg production, that’s one possible answer for home scale production. 

During the spring and summer, our hens get fairly minimal quantities of organic feed – for 25 hens, we are using less than two cups of feed a day.  I would like to get this lower, and indeed, have been steadily reducing it over the last year.  One thing that has really helped is to make sure that *every* single bite of human food not eaten goes to the poultry – down to making sure the water that the pan with the burned rice or bit of oatmeal in it goes in the pan for the chickens.  In the winter, however, they are eating more, since there is no foraging area, and we are trying to compensate for that by feeding more of our own production.  This isn’t perfect – a lot of what we’re growing could be eaten by people too, if anyone wanted to buy our amaranth or worms, which thus far, they don’t seem to, but my long term goal is to barter eggs for food scraps with my neighbors. 

Most commercial egg producers use a fair bit more grain than we do, as far as I can tell, and in cold climates, winter feeding requires a fair bit.  One strategy for minimizing that competition is to buy your eggs during spring and summer when they are flush, when hens are producing the maximum number of eggs with the minimum number of inputs, and either make egg season your primary egg-eating time, or preserve some eggs for winter.  Another good choice is to do your own experimentation with reducing grain in your own chickens.  Eggs, at this point, are the food for which there is the least-good solution, but they also convert less grain to higher quality protein than meat or milk.  So it is a mixed bag.

2. Milk – this varies a lot by the practice of husbandry.  Your local milk may be pastured, or it may not, and how much of the year, how much grain they feed, and what other practices they use vary an awful lot.  In this case, you really need to get to know your dairy person.  Unfortunately, laws about dairy also vary a lot from state to state – in some places, someone practicing very small scale husbandry, even experimenting with primarily grass fed dairy (and there are some grass-fed dairy producers out there who use no grain at all), can sell their milk, in some places (like New York) they can’t – they can’t even give it away.  What is available in your area is going to vary an awful lot.

Now here’s one place that I’m a little ambivalent about “no industrial” – industrial dairy farming is often not good, but with the exception of the really huge operations, dairy farming tends not to be quite as awful as confinement egg or meat production, or feedlots.  Most dairy farmers can’t afford a lot of extra inputs, so they aren’t going to feed any more grain than they absolutely have to, and a lot of them pasture their animals and don’t spray their pastures simply because that’s the cheap way to raise milk.  The same reasons often apply to why they don’t use BGH – the cheap way is also the good way.  So I don’t insist on no commercial milk – in fact, there’s a real chance that your local convenience store dairy is the most ethical milk you can get, if there’s no one selling direct, particularly in areas where there are a lot of Amish dairies.  But you should do your research.

And again, with milk (cow, goat, or sheep) or its products (butter, cheese, etc…) you want as much of the food value to come from grass as possible.  Permanent pasturage is an ecological good – it supports more wildlife than anything but a forest, and lots of manuring can mean that the organic matter in the pastures sequesters as much carbon as a forest.  There are areas of the world (grassland plains) that *should not be tilled* and until we develop perennial grain species really ready for prime-time, pasturing animals is one of the best options we have for marginal, eroded, steep, etc… land.  If you can find a grass-only dairy, or one that is conscious of this issue and produces its milk with as few concentrates a possible, great.  If you raise dairy animals, before you try this, do a lot of research into animal nutrition – milk production in animals (including humans) requires some calorically dense material – light graining is often necessary.  Farms that grow their own are another possibility.

Most of all, remembering that milk is also seasonal is important – if you are going to make cheese and butter, or eat a lot of trifle (and probably none of us should eat a lot of trifle ;-) ) and custard, do when the grass is lush and plentiful in your area, rather than when the pastures are dry or the snow is three feet deep.  Remember, this is normal – food is seasonal, eggs and milk and meat too.  It was not usual for most people to have ample milk in February, or tons of eggs in November.

Meat: There are a lot of ways to look at the animal slaughter question, even among people who worry about slaughter.  Some people eat milk and eggs, and either ignore the slaughter involved in these, or accept that they are doing what they can and reducing overall animal slaughter.  Some people differentiate between kinds of animals, rejecting mammals, but eating poultry and/or fish (my friend Jesse calls this “beady-eye vegetarianism” – ie, he’ll eat any animal with beady eyes, but if it has big brown cute eyes, he won’t) for various reason.  Other people, particularly in non-vegetarian Buddhist cultures, actually make the opposite distinction – they argue if you are going to take a life, you should take as few lives as possible to feed as many as possible, and would thus say that killing a cow is more ethical than killing 50 fish.  I’m going to leave fish off the table here, and I’m also going to refrain from choosing between these viewpoints.  I think that every person who consciously tries to minimize their impact, even if the conclusions they come to are different, deserves respect.  What I’m going to focus on is the impact of different meats.

Ruminant animals – sheep, goats, cows, buffalo etc…  can generally be raised entirely on pasture and hay to butchering weight, and in fact, until not really that long ago, that was how all animals were raised.  In many countries, they still are.  IMHO, there is really no reason for feeding grain to these animals at all.  That, of course, means that we’ll all be eating less beef, but in the rich world, that would only be good for all of us.  For these animals, raising them entirely on pasture is simply the way to go.  Ideally, you want them to be raised on land that wouldn’t otherwise be used for other kinds of agriculture – which means that people living on the prairies would be producing a lot of beef, lamb or buffalo again, while the rest of us would probably have less. 

Cull animals – these are the side products of egg, milk and breeding production, and they are an inevitable consequence of these practices.  If you are drinking milk, that means that the cows are having calves, or the goats kids.  Half of these babies will be male, and since any given herd only needs a couple of males (and may not need any on site with Artificial insemination), most of those will be killed, as will some of the female kids/calves that are not well suited to becoming future dairy animals.  While some very small producers can create markets for neutered animals, and while we may see some return to draft (which also creates markets for neutered animals) oxen or goats, this will probably be true for a long time.  The other category of cull animals are those adult animals that are either no longer suited for breeding, or past the age of production – old hens, rabbits that eat their litters, goats that throw a defect, sheep that don’t mother well.

And the thing about these cull animals is that culling (assuming that you don’t think the whole project of livestock is wrong, which some people do) is necessary.  That is, the breeds of animals that can live on what is available and thrive, while also producing human food in local circumstances are the product of vigorous culling – of human breeding of animals for their locality.  If we want to keep appropriate livestock at all, we’re going to be culling animals.  Some animals can simply be relocated, but really responsible breeders sometimes are going to say that this animal simply can’t improve the breed, and should be removed.

Most of us do not eat older animals, which many culls are – this involves different techniques (old hens are perfect for stewing or coq au vin, older ruminants also need long periods of wet cooking to tenderize, and can be helped with marinades), but this kind of meat eating is one of the more ethical options.  These are also good choices for feeding to pets – some high quality pet foods rely primarily on these older, organically raised animals, or you can buy the meat directly sometimes. 

Poultry and pigs are not ruminant animals – they are omnivores that should be raised on minimal grain, but will often be raised using some grain or legume foods.  Both, however, can forage and can be fed on human scraps (remember, you want good food scraps – if you pork is raised on twinkies, its value will be lot less than if it is raised on past-prime produce).  So ideally, you want your chickens or your pork to come from a producer who is getting as much food as possible from woodland (pigs can be raised on acorns and in the days of chestnuts were often raised on chestnut mast), food scraps and/or pasture, and feeds grain minimally.

 Geese are a major exception to the poultry rule – they can live in fairly cold climates on pretty much forage alone.  One of ours escaped some years ago and lived several years (before she was caught by another creature) on our local pond, surviving quite happily.  Geese are the one really grass-fed bird, and if raised that way, are a great option. 

Rabbits (though sadly not kosher) are also a great option – in many places, rabbits are raised entirely on garden scraps and marginal weeds that are cut, and can be dried as hay.  Most people use pellets for convenience, and you’ll get higher production that way (and while not perfect, alfalfa pellets are considerably better than grain, if the alfalfa doesn’t come from irrigated pastures, which can be tough to find out – actually, rabbit pellets aren’t a terrible feed supplement for many animals, instead of grain, again, assuming it isn’t California irrigated or something), and probably will want to choose animals well adapted to that form of production, but rabbit is also a meat that people and animals can eat pretty sustainably.  Rabbit can’t provide all the fat in a human or animal diet – it is too lean, but it can provide much of the meat for many people.  The problem is finding a producer, and one who uses sustainable methods – this is a potential backyard food niche, if you can build a clientele.

Hunted/snared wild meat – like eating more meat than you might eventually because you are supporting local producers and there is more local meat than beans, or because you live on a farm and have more eggs than you can donate to the food pantry, this is one of those “doesn’t necessarily work if everyone does it, but isn’t a bad idea now” things – in many cases, highly edible animals are overpopulating local areas or are a major pest problem, but because of our prejudices against eating certain foods

Remember, also that meat is seasonal (does it feel like I’m repeating myself?).  Other than very small lambs and broiler chickens in late spring early summer, in much of the country, there isn’t much meat in the spring and summer in the natural order of things?  Why?  Because sustainable meat producers mostly reduced their costs and the number of animals they had to carry through on stored food in the fall.  The ones they kept were breeders, and the babies born haven’t had time to eat enough to be eaten (this is somewhat different in hot, dry places).  Meat is most abundant in the late fall and winter, when the animals have put all the weight they can on by eating their pastures or foraging.  If the situation is different with your producer, ask why – for example, older hens may be culled in the spring or summer.  But mostly seasonal eating means not a lot of meat in spring and summer, but lots of eggs and milk, while the eggs and milk taper out in the fall and winter.  This is a natural cycle, it is normal, and it is worth being aware of if you are trying to eat sustainably.

While I consider it essential, I should add that I’m really reluctant to put the “no grain” policy in truly absolute terms, because so many small, otherwise sustainable producers are using as little grain as they can.  We are among them – we use a small amount of commercial feed for our goats and poultry.  And I’d get rid of both animals, if I didn’t think that modelling and developing both breeds and practices for low-grain, or eventually no-grain husbandry was so important.  If you know farmers making the transition, or working on finding a balance here, support them.  The reality is that deindustrializing agriculture is a big project, and all the people involved in it deserve your assistance.