With the return of acres of lush lawn and cooling of weather, past the dry hot risk of drought, dead grass and hunger, we have cows again.
Four beautiful calves, two which you can see here looking fairly majestic against the soft almost Vaseline smeared stocking lensed morning light on dewy grass, a borderline cow pin up shot.
With this next round, we are conducting an experiment in community supported agriculture – sharing the meat raised with our friends and families.
We will tend, feed, care for and get to know our cattle, providing them with as high a quality of life as we can manage. In around six months time, we will send them to a local abattoir where they will be humanely killed, and then sent to butcher, divided and distributed.
Come September, logistics will kick in, with boot space and ebay and gumtree rifling for well priced chest freezers at the fore.
It’s been important to balance the necessary financial logistics and momentum needed to get our beef raising project going against the danger of reducing a beautiful life to numbers.
We are embedded in our nature, like any other organism in the dual and interdependent cycles of consumption and degradation, reconstruction and growth. We can’t escape this, although we try, and disconnect, disengage, and sanitise the reality that we are engaging in every day. We kill things and then we eat them. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and also animals.
In terms of the environmental ethics involved, vegetarianism vs animal consumption isn’t a straightforward choice.
I was first really moved to consider this in a Human Ecology class that I took at the Australian National University years ago, led by some pretty seminal minds in the sphere of human impacts on the environment, Robert Dyball and David Dumaresq. If you’re curious the school itself and the Society for Human Ecology are well worth a look; they are really pushing front of the pack research and commentary on environmental sustainability, with food security a key objective of a healthy integrated human relationship between self, society and our supportive ecosystems.
David taught us about a recent study into the environmental impacts of beef production in Australia’s majority western rangeland farming systems, comparing them with carrying out equivalent grain or vegetable production on the same area of land, which was found to be significantly more environmentally devastating, and even more detrimental to animals at large. Mike Archer’s recent article in The Conversation explores a similar line of reasoning.
See Patrick Moriarty’s rebuttal for a compelling take on the other side of the argument, however there is significant evidence that naturally farming animals as part of an integrated food growing system, such as those advocated in permaculture can be more favourable than their mass produced vegetarian protein alternatives.
Phoenix based Marisa Landrigan keeps a very thoughtful blog We*Meat*Again, which tackles this ethical dilemma head on.
In her mindful words:
“Eating meat is ethical because it allows the eater to face the reality of suffering head-on, so that we can choose how and where to invest our food dollars to do the most good. Suffering is an inevitable part of our food system, the unavoidable byproduct of any species trying to feed itself. The ethical dilemma of the eater, then, is not to avoid suffering altogether because that avoidance is impossible.
Attempts to circumvent suffering often lead to dietary choices that are willfully ignorant of the part they play. For example, vegetarians who purchase boxed meat substitute products like soy burgers or chik’n nuggets are simply purchasing subsidiary brands of the same multinational corporations, such as Smithfield or Tyson, that own and operate inhumane and environmentally destructive concentrated animal feeding operations.….
….What I’ve seen of living animals on small-scale, locally-owned farms, and what I’ve learned about corporate connections, environmental degradation, and human suffering in the food system suggests that the way an animal is raised and killed for food affects much more than an individual’s eating pleasure. How the animal is raised impacts the ground on which it lives. The quality of that land impacts the farm and the farmer, and their larger community, environmentally and economically. The practices on a farm and the pricing of food affects whether a community has enough jobs, which affects whether or not members of that community will be able to afford to eat. Whether or not someone will buy an animal to eat impacts the labor conditions and pay scale of farm workers.
The question of whether or not to eat meat is not simply an animal-rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, a labor rights issue, a fair trade issue, an issue of our global community’s economic, environmental, and human progress. If our ethical goal is to live in harmony with our world, eating a hamburger doesn’t have to run counter to those ideals. It can be a way to invest in them, to practice them with every bite we take. Only by being honest about our participation in the suffering of animals can we seek to minimize it.”
This kind of healthy honesty is difficult to broach, particularly in a society which is actively avoidant of it.
We need to face the discomfort of the shadow reality that we are actually killing an animal when we eat meat. It is upsetting, and should be. It is something that people need to be brought up with and taught to consider maturely, really acknowledging this.
When I think about the typical vector of meat consumption in Australia, and in most western nations, it is shrink-wrapped, hermetically sealed and disconnected. It reminds me of a moving piece of art I saw once, featuring human faces wrapped in meat trays, to challenge how easily we can separate ourselves from the real death that leads to this product we consume.
I sadly couldn’t find an example of this to show, but there is another work which hit me for six in a similar fashion – which David Lynch developed in a collaboration with the musician Danger Mouse on Dark Night of the Soul which explores with shock and the frankness of the realities of food and loss of life (and an excellent album in its own right).
Confrontation with these hard realities is difficult, but it doesn’t help us to avoid this. Taking on a greater degree closeness to the process really does, because we are acting in a full awareness, with presence, and an open heart and the proper degree of respect and regard this affords. If, aware of the real, sad ramifications of meat consumption, we opt to be vegan or vegetarian – fair enough. But if presented with this hard reality we then choose to eat meat, we are aware of exactly what we are doing and can be truly motivated to ensure it is produced in an ethical and respectful manner – to make a real heartfelt connection to the provenance, the origin of the food we consume.
Unfortunately we don’t have a huge wealth of resources to call upon to guide us in navigating this territory. Few of us know how to deal with this face on, because we have been shielded from it for so long. There are a few good books and blogs out there that I’ve been engaging with that I’ve found helpful.
Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma has helped me to flesh out an ethical, health and quality of life focused stance on animal rearing and consumption.
Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie, which explores the sustainability focused attitude towards animal raising for food and sets out to evaluate its role in a thoughtful human diet.
Sally Fallon’s inspirational and brilliant Nourishing Traditions touches on the healthy, integrated traditional nutritional role of meat.
Lierre Keith’s work, The Vegetarian Myth explores the history of agriculture and the critical role of animals in a sustainable inter-connected system of food production.
Rohan Anderson from Whole Larder Love in Melbourne has been really leading Australian discussion on taking personal responsiblity for meat raising, slaughtering and processing, in a thoughtful, ethical and mature way.
A great Sydney providore Feather and Bone also tackles this in an insightful way with regular talks, articles, debates and gatherings on the issue of meat provenance, led by founder Grant Hilliard; one of Australia’s pioneering ethical butchers and meat retailers.
And further off abroad is the very inspiring Portland Meat Collective who have a very well integrated, compassionate perspective on all things meat.
And fellow local Berlin Reed, formerly tagged “The Ethical Butcher” now pursuing a broader suite of food sustainability and provenance issues.
I’m personally looking to delve a bit over the next few months into examining histories of traditional cultures, how they integrated treatment of meat consumption into a functional society, and extant societies where this still occurs.
In a small way I’ve started this process, and I was slightly surprised to discover that taboos around the consumption of meat were quite common in traditional societies and remain that way in contemporary hunter gatherer civilisations.
Meat eating wasn’t a rampant, reckless activity, but something that was checked to times of necessity, and kept in a natural balance, with a strong inherent regard for the life involved.
We need to come a long way in developing a proper, mature regard towards meat, but I am finding actively engaging in this journey very rewarding.
May we live and make our food rearing choices guided by love, respect and responsibility for the animals we are raising, appreciation of the bounty we have been provided and harmony with the turning seasons of life.