Lost in the Food Wilderness – the Meat Conundrum

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.

image copyright Irish Farmers Journal

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.

happy pigs
image copyright Animal Rescue Crusade


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!


2 thoughts on “Lost in the Food Wilderness – the Meat Conundrum

  1. Hi, thank you for posting and I find your conclusion interesting. I live in England on a small farm and we farm cattle for beef. I was literally talkiing to my mum today about buying food of which you have some knowledge of where it has come from and how it (if animal) has been treated. I eat beef and am I firm believer of our cattle having good lives and being treated well before going to slaughter. Therefore I completely agree with you when you say you try to chose free range etc and you ris eating out. However another perspective I bring, as a young person who has been a student and is moving out again, is money! In the UK often free-range/organic etc food is more expensive! So what are we do to about our moral needs and financial needs? It is a difficult one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! Firstly I just want to say I have no problems with folk who want to eat beef, I believe it’s a matter of personal choice and I wouldn’t tell someone what they should or shouldn’t eat any more than I would tell them what to wear or how to style their hair 🙂 I really appreciate your view on cattle living the good life and I agree with you completely – eating free range and organic is easy when money isn’t an issue! It’s a tough one, isn’t it? When finances are tight, sometimes your morals have to take a step back in deference to your budget. Sure, I’ll hold my hand up to having had to make that choice myself. When there’s a fiver in your bank account, sometimes you find yourself putting that Tesco Value Range chicken in your basket, instead of one of the golden-skinned corn fed free range birds.

      I would highlight farmer’s markets as a good option for those who have to be budget conscious. I will grant, the selection isn’t as wide as that as you would find in a large supermarket, but chances are a lot of the vendors there are local farmers with smaller operations. A good example is our local Sunday market – the biggest (and tastiest!) chicken breasts I have ever eaten can be found there at a stall selling chickens raised two counties away from us here in Dublin, on a free range farm. Those massive chicken breasts cost us €2 each. When compared to the anemic offerings from a typical supermarket butcher’s counter for €2.35, there’s really no contest! It’s the same stall where I get my (rich, unctuous) duck eggs. The butter we get from the market comes from a similar operation and the man can (and will, if you let him!) tell you the name of every cow on his farm.

      Really, the only thing I can say is that you have to make the best choices you can. When you can afford it, eat according to your morals and make the choices you would like to make. There will probably be times when you find yourself having to make the choices you NEED to make, rather than the ones you want to make. I don’t think you should feel guilty having to make a non-free range choice. In an ideal world, we’d all eat the food we farm or grow ourselves and trade for that we can’t! Our animals would be well-cared for and appreciated before heading to slaughter, and money would never dictate the quality of life of our meat animals. Unfortunately, it’s not an ideal world – yet!


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