For more than a generation, discussions on both the politics and environmental impacts of food have focused heavily on meat as a driver of land degradation, and even climate change. On one end of the spectrum, many advocate a plant-based, or even vegan, diet as the only way to feed the world equitably without exacerbating the problems modern meat production causes. On the other end, many argue that meat is the most efficient way to get complete protein, and certain vitamins, into the body. And besides, meat is delicious, so find your climate change solutions elsewhere, why don’t you?
Hand-wringing is inevitable, and it’s easy to argue that both sides of the plant-vs.-meat debate often don’t see the forest for the trees. But, there is no plausible denial that modern meat and dairy production are fraught with problems ranging from there-goes-the-neighborhood manure cesspools promulgated by large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to the substantial diversion of grain produced in vast monocultures to these same feeding operations, rather than into the bellies of the globe’s hungry citizens. There’s also no denying that these operations are grotesquely inhumane, producing animals that often aren’t healthy, and thus don’t meet what I’d consider a basic standard for good food. Equally important, most farm animals, from chickens to pork and beef, are grown as rapidly as possible and have their lives taken before the onset of adolescence, and don’t even get a chance to become an adult. This in pursuit of tender flesh. Some, including myself, would argue this is at the expense of flavor, but there it is.
Meat Matters because at any given time, nearly 100 million beef cattle populate the United States. The pork industry produced over 110 million hogs last year. Both the beef cattle and pork operations each produce more solid and liquid waste than all 330 million American citizens, and little of this waste is subject to water treatment. Much of it, as in the case of range-fed cattle, returns to the soil, but much of it, especially from CAFOs, is one of the most pressing water pollution problems facing our country today. The confined animals in these operations, subject mostly to processed grain and bean meal for food and unable to exercise or bask in the sun, produce meat that is rich in protein, but with poor fatty acid profiles which are low in Omega 3’s and 9’s, and high in the worst kinds of saturated fats.
Meat Matters because when it is done right, farmers can produce meat that is nutritious and with a healthy lipid profile, and perhaps more importantly, enhance the farm’s ecosystem and improve the land. It’s also more humane. Pasture-raised animals that are allowed to live in groups are able to practice their social instincts, play, court, fight, and do all the things animals do. They harvest their own food (no need here for vast crop monocultures and commodity markets) and, after using it to grow, return it to the land. Their hooves massage and till the soil, aerate it, and their manure enriches it, contributing to a complex web of life underground that is a powerhouse of carbon sequestration.
Looked at holistically, the small herds of animals on family farms are part of an ecosystem, and in the case of cattle, sheep, and goats especially, they contribute to a level of biodiversity unseen in most of modern agriculture. They contribute to the life of the soil as previously mentioned, but additionally cattle on the range and pasture fill a crucial roll in the ecosystem that has been left unfilled since the days the great herds of buffalo and elk were decimated during settlement of the plains and the greater West – that of the large herbivore. They coexist with all manner of flora and fauna. Contrast this with the monoculture of grain and soybeans that feeds the CAFO animal – insect life is particularly discouraged through the use of pesticides, as is subsoil life by the application of herbicides. Success in this model leads to mass starvation of birds and reptiles that prey upon them, and the small mammals that in turn prey upon them. And so it goes, the circle of life broken in the pursuit of meat.
Tuesday, November 10, I will gather with ten of Chicago’s best chefs, and James Beard Award-winning author and butcher Adam Danforth will join us from Portland, for an evening in delicious celebration of solutions and meat raised the right way. We’ll also focus on giving older, mature animals a try, and challenge you with some cuts you might not have tried before. For every filet mignon ordered, for instance, there’s a baseball steak or flatiron roast, liver, and tongue. You’ll be in great hands with these chefs.
In traditional American farm culture, November, with the onset of cold weather, was the beginning of meat processing season. Processing was done outdoors because there’s lots of room, and sunlight is the best sanitizer, and it had to be done in cold weather so the meat would keep, to be salted and sometimes smoked, to preserve it before warm weather returned in Spring. This is the perfect time of year to reflect on our meat system and while nostalgia is cheap, there is often a wisdom in tradition from which we can learn today. I hope you can join us.
Meat Matters will be in Local Foods beautiful new retail space, beginning with a butchering demonstration by Adam Danforth and Rob Leavitt, which will include a mature goat. Adam will pull select cuts during the demo to offer tastes and challenge contemporary perceptions of flavor development. The demo will be followed by a tasting dinner with some of our favorite chefs including Chefs Collaborative founding member Rick Bayless, a visionary who, more than twenty years ago, gathered with a group of like-minded chefs and agreed to work for change, and here we are.
Libations will be generously provided by Moody Tongue Brewery and Candid Wines, two companies at the forefront of change in the beverage industry. Some of us chefs will also be offering cuts from a 3 year-old guinea hog from Spence Farm, which will be a rare treat you won’t want to miss.
Tickets can be purchased here. We promise a delicious, fun, and insightful evening. See you there!
For further reading, check out the amazing work being done by Allan Savory and team at the Savory Institute and give a read to this incredible book by Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegan activist turned cattle rancher.