Saturday, November 28, 2009

More thoughts on meat...

While dismantling a chicking this morning, I was thinking about our transition to eating meat. Mike was a strict vegetarian until about 3 years ago. He was the kind of snobby vegetarian who would throw a fit in an Asian restaurant if he found out that the delicious soup he had just eaten was made with chicken broth, and who only ate gelatin-free yogurt and rennet-free cheese. I was a "flexitarian" who would occasionally eat meat in a situation where all other choices were unappetizing, especially in other cultural contexts. Our first trip to Europe was miserable for Mike. There was virtually nothing he could eat. To them, "vegetarian" meant that meat was not the main focus of the meal, or that it contained vegetables.

I began adding small amounts of meat to my diet more deliberately after finally seeing a naturopath about my tendency to black out on an almost daily basis. I had come to accept this condition as part of life, thinking it was probably a residual side-effect of semi-starving myself for 8 years as a young woman. My naturopath discovered that I was low on a kind of iron that we build in our childhood, and it comes only from meat (I hated meat as a kid). When I began to include trace amounts of meat into my diet (at first, I just drank a small cup of broth each day) the black-outs disappeared. I no longer experience the dips in my energy that I did before.

We had both chosen our levels of vegetarianism based on environmental, animal rights, and health issues. Raising our own livestock solved all of these questions, except when it comes to actually killing your meat. This part is still hard to accept, but it has become a very small part of our lives. When you raise animals at all, death becomes a part of your reality. We do our best to protect our chickens, ducks and turkeys from raccoons, but we lose quite a few each year to those ninjas. I find feathers everywhere, body parts strewn about, and I can't help but imagine the terrifying experience of that bird as it was chased and dragged to its death. We lose far more animals to this predatory demise than to our, relatively, more humane methods.

Last year, we lost over half of our chickens and a whole flock of runner ducks to predators. One of our goats became ill and died, another goat got his head stuck under the manger and broke his own neck, and our two longtime canine companions both died - one of old age and the other from the sudden development of Addison's Disease. Compared to the abundance of unexpected deaths we had to process on our farm over the last year, the one afternoon that we quickly dispatched 5 of our turkeys seemed, well, not quite so awful.

To some extent, it probably sounds like I'm trying to rationalize our meat consumption. This morning, I was doing one of my least favorite chores. After we roast a bird and eat most of the meat, I boil it to make broth and strip all of the rest of the meat from the bones. I find it really disgusting. But today, I realized that I was a bit less grossed out than in the past. I was aware of how the tendons connected, the structure of the bird, and less sensitive to the fact that I was handling the flesh of an animal. I guess I'm becoming desensitized.

The fact is, we still eat far less meat than most Americans, and I think it is plenty. We bought 10 organic, free-range chickens from Barnyard Gardens this fall and kept two of our butchered turkeys. These will last the year. Each time we pull one from the freezer, we have one special meal, some leftovers, and then broth for soup. Poultry raised on our small farms does not deplete resources the way factory farms do, they contribute organic matter for our gardens rather than adding devastating amounts of untreated sewage into the environment, they live happy and healthy lives, they are killed as humanely as possible, and we eat meat that we know is free of hormones and chemicals, and is actually far more nutritious than store-bought meat. (That's because our birds eat bugs and slugs and weeds and vegetable scraps.)

Vegetarianism is perfectly sustainable, as long as people are good at balancing meals, and making sure they choose organic, non-GMO sources. For those who choose to eat meat, I encourage everyone to avoid factory-farmed meats of any kind. The conditions are nightmarish, the environmental cost is not factored into the lower price (nor are the tax subsidies), and it is an inefficient way to grow food. With growing concern about food shortages throughout the world, we really need to eat sustainably. The population is growing, biodiversity is diminishing, and food scarcity is a reality in many places, and spreading.

Read Jane Goodall's "Harvest for Hope." The first chapter is pretty depressing, but she does offer success stories and ideas for action later in the book.

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