I’ve never been big into gardening. But I’ve always wanted a garden. I’m not overly into flowers. But I love pretty things. I live in a 2 bedroom apartment on the first floor. I don’t care, I want a garden! I love animals! But I want ham.
Sometimes I think my brain is a 4 year old girl with wicked ADHD. The rest of the time I know it.
When I decided that I wanted to start living in a manner more at harmony with the world around me, one of the things I wanted to look into was ethically and environmentally responsibly raised meat. I’ve been buying free range eggs for years, ever since learning about the fate of battery hens but as far as proactive food sourcing goes, that’s only a very small drop in a very, very large ocean. The next step was to expand the concept of free range to the meat I consumed. I’ve tried vegetarianism. I’ve tried piscetariansim. Neither are for me, though piscetariansim did help me to expand the range of fish I eat and discover new ways of preparing and eating it. I discovered sushi and that I hate seaweed! I’m not going to debate the rightness or wrongness of eating meat, as I feel it is a personal choice everyone has to make. Nor will I question anyone else’s choices, after all, who am I to decide what is right for them?
For me though, this meant some hard choices had to be made. Beef was out. In America, most cattle are raised on feed lots and fed a corn-based diet – a diet that is wholly unnatural to a creature that is naturally a grazer! To combat the conditions found in feed lots and the health effects of this unnatural diet, cattle are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them standing long enough to reach the abattoir. This isn’t even taking into account the steroids and other artificial means of increasing their size as quickly as possible. For me though, the most heartbreaking truth about beef cattle in America is that the longest journey the majority of these animals make under their own power is from the feed lot to the slaughtering line.
However, there is a growing movement in America for more ethically raised beef, and though grass-fed beef is still considered a “premium” product, it’s also becoming easier to find and for a food substance that is so wholly integrated with the idea of “America” (what’s more American than the hamburger?) it gives me great hope to see.
In Ireland, beef farming is much healthier and in my mind, ethical. Irish beef cattle calve once a year and the calves are raised on their mother’s milk until weaning at nine months old. They are then separated into their own herds prior to processing. The cattle (and the suckler herds) are raised on grass and supplemental feeds. Whilst antibiotic use is still required, the extent to which antibiotics must be used is much less and much more tightly regulated. The Irish method is a much more conscious system for both the cattle and the end consumer, however, it still doesn’t take into account the environmental cost of raising cattle.
It’s estimated that the cost in water of raising beef is as much as 2,500 gallons per pound of beef. Even taking into account the source, that’s a hell of a lot of water. I can’t and wont belittle the health benefits of lean beef, (beef is the #1 food source for Protein, Vitamin B12 and Zinc (including Vitamin B12, Niacin, Vitamin B6 and Riboflavin) (again, consider the source when reading this). However, in my mind, adding up the environmental impact of how much land cattle need, the disposal of the copious amounts of waste they produce, the land required to grow their supplemental feed crops and the amount of water required beef is too costly a product to consume. (I have also found that after having not eaten beef for about three years now except for the very rare occasion, every time I consume something with beef it reacts with my stomach terribly and I spend the next couple of days with pain and occasional gastric distress, something that raises several more interesting question for me).
As an avowed lover of cow’s cheese and milk, I do also recognise and own the inherent hypocrisy of my stance.
Oh Ireland. Your cattle are so well looked after, but what about your pigs? Pork and Ireland go together like bacon and cabbage but whilst the standards for raising pigs are improving (a directive that came into effect after the 1st January 2013 requires that pregnant sows be kept in stalls large enough to facilitate free movement for the animal) the vast majority of pork still comes from pigs raised in large sheds or enclosures, and let’s face it, no matter how large and airy the shed, once you keep 500 pigs in there on a full time basis, it gets pretty close and a bit uncomfortable. European and Irish standards for the care and upbringing of Irish pork is improving all the time, but with approximately 158,000 breeding sows in Ireland, sometimes the standards slip.
There is hope however, as free-range and outdoor bred pork is becoming easier to find in supermarkets all the time, and many small butchers obtain their pork from farmers they know and can vouch for the care of the pig the meat comes from. Many restaurants are also moving towards more ethical pork products, to an enthusiastic reception from the Irish public. I know my bacon always tastes better when I know it came from pigs who knew what the sunlight looked like, who had felt an Irish breeze!
Though the production of pork poses many of the same problems as those in the beef model, the space required to raise pigs is much less and the effect on the environment is less intense. Cows can belch up to 500 litres of methane – A DAY and produce about 17.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per pound of meat produced, while pigs, with their much more varied diet, produce approximately half of that.
Hooray for the humble chicken! They provide us with lean white meat, rich dark meat and wings, mmm chicken wings. Free range chickens are easy to find, as are their eggs, the most environmentally friendly of all meats, producing less than 5 pounds of carbon dioxide per pound of meat. They can be very space efficient (in a 100 square foot garden you can raise up to five chickens) and many towns and councils allow garden-raised chickens, though some have rooster restrictions.
However, like beef and pork farming, chicken farming and egg production has its dark side as well. Large scale battery hen farms can ironically be more environmentally friendly, especially when employing energy efficient technology but the fate of the hens raised in these operations is dire. Kept under 24 hour artificial light to encourage frequent egg production, they are crammed so tightly into small cages that they cannot even spread their wings. Many lose their feathers from distress and their short, painful lives are full of suffering. Of all consumption animals, the treatment of these chickens makes me the angriest, especially as it is so unnecessary. I wont even go into the fate of the male chicks born out of operations such as this, but I will say this: if one rooster can service up to 10 hens (those that aren’t artificially inseminated), what do you think happens to the millions of male chicks that aren’t necessary to the egg production process?
I am a strong believer in the garden chicken, and it’s a movement I would love to see continue to gain momentum. However, for those who do not or cannot raise chickens at home, I encourage you strongly to purchase only free range eggs and chickens. I would encourage organic as well, but make sure you read the label on your eggs and chickens carefully, as organic does not always mean free range as well.
So what’s the long and short of this? Well, I don’t eat beef. I eat pork and chicken and eggs, but I make the effort to source free range and/or outdoor bred. I eat in restaurants knowing that there is a chance that I am consuming unethically raised meat and that I take the risk that I am by association condoning the way these animals were reared and butchered. I don’t eat lamb, but that’s because I believe sheep should have the chance to grow up to be big, dumb and smelly before we eat them.
I also acknowledge that there are several other forms of meat, such as duck, mutton, etc, but in this post I wanted to deal with the three most commonly consumed meat species. Fish is a post for another day. So for now, eat well, Readers!