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The world wants too much unsustainable yummy meat, where's the ethical path to changing that?  RSS feed

 
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There's a UK-based blog called The Angry Chef that's often an interesting read.  A good chunk of the most recent post lays out the dilemma of beef in a way that will be familiar to most people who have wrestled with permaculture and sustainability issues.  Many here will not agree with everything below (I know I don't) but it's an excellent summary of a very difficult problem:

It seems quite clear and well accepted that meat production, especially beef, has an environmental impact far greater than most other foods. Certainly it is less efficient in terms of land use, water impact, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, I am aware that these issues are complex. Livestock can utilise marginal land, and can be fed on otherwise wasted agricultural by-products. In some circumstances cattle can be hugely positive for soils. Animals can provide valuable food resources in the developing world, often in families and communities where other types of farming are impossible.

I certainly do not think that any one should become vegan unless they really want to, and if they do, they should take care to ensure their diet is nutritionally adequate. Veganism is not 'the answer', and anyone claiming so is guilty of selling a simple solution to a complex problem. But I do believe that the current rate of meat consumption in the developed world is unsustainable. I can see no justification for feeding grains and soy fit for human consumption to animals being raised for meat. And I do not think that we will ever be able to raise enough beef and dairy cattle on pasture to supply current demand, let alone the demands of a growing and increasingly affluent world population.

The problem is, we really like meat. I really like meat. I also love butter, cream, cheese and eggs. They are incredibly nice to eat, and given free choice, we tend to eat loads of them. As increasing numbers around the world have enough money to buy these products, demand is set to spiral out of control.

It may well be that the only way to achieve a sensible and sustainable diet, is for all of us to eat fewer animal products. But how exactly can we make that happen? The solution is definitely not putting the brakes on increased affluence in the developing world. And anyone who suggests that ‘they’ need to stop having so many children can fuck right off. But the fact remains that something must be done. We are in danger of eating the world to death.

The problem is, this goes against everything I believe. People should eat whatever they want, enjoy food and let it bring us together. More than any other food, meat is a culinary symbol of sharing, feasts and celebration. All the options available to reduce consumption make me uncomfortable. If we only allow pasture fed beef, we will end up with more land being turned to pasture, and likely see increased deforestation. If we insist that only marginal land is used to raise cattle and limit feeding with grains or soy, production will be limited and prices will spiral out of control. Meat and dairy will be in danger of becoming the sole preserve of the rich, further widening the health and nutrition gap. If we decide to place environmental taxes on meat, the same will happen. If we ration it, I would despair at what sort of world we had become.

The potential consequences of our love affair with meat are too great to ignore. It will lead us towards an abyss, and people around the world will begin to starve. They will not starve because the we do not have enough food. They will starve because we are feeding so much of our food to animals, in order to supply a rich minority with meat.

Before we reach that point, and to be clear this is not likely to happen for many years, solutions must be found. But within the world in which I want to live, where people are free to eat however they desire, I currently have no idea where these solutions lie. It is all very well knowing what people should be doing. Persuading them to do it is where the problems really lie.



My own thinking is that some portion of the problem lies in the radically increased productivity of land that we permies believe you get when you put more people (permaculturalists) on small intensively-managed plots of land.  My thinking here is that the various animals raised in ones and twos on small plots to absorb surpluses and graze small bits of otherwise unproductive pastureland can provide one hell of a lot more sustainable meat than they currently do today, in a world with a shitload more rural smallholders than we have today.  That's a sustainable permanent culture that many of us are positive about, and some of us, like Paul, are killing themselves trying to innovate social systems in support of (since our current ones basically don't support it at any kind of scale). 

But it utterly fails at population densities approaching the suburban, and we live in a world where most of the population is urban and looks to be fixin' to stay that way for several human lifetimes minimum.  And there are a bunch of good reasons (mostly having to do with energy efficiency for transport) why urban living is sustainable living for most other purposes.  So it's not at all clear that "disburse the entire population of the earth onto intensively managed permaculture plots so that they can eat ethical sustainably-sourced meat" is a reasonable plan.  It might prove, however, that sustainable surpluses of meat flowing from rural to urban areas are always going to be modest, and we need a cultural/economic shift that recognizes that.  It could be that we end up in a world with mostly vegan urbanites, plus a few rich meat-eating urban elites soaking up the rural meat surplusses; but meat lovers for the most part need to shift their butts out into the sticks where sustainable meat production is practical.

But I share with the Angry Chef the recognition that there's no way to enforce any this without creating a nasty Maoist dystopia.  How do we let people eat what they want (which is, demonstrably and in increasing volumes as poor people around the world get richer, yummy meat) without eating the world to death, and/or starving the poor to feed the rich by feeding the world's perfectly good vegetable foods to the meat animals?

I have no idea if the Angry Chef has ever even heard of permaculture, but it seems to me he's put his finger on one of our central concerns.
 
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Cattle has been a topic of interest to me as i figure my long term plan on relatively small acreage. The thing that stuck out for me was the fact that the known permie cattle people are not producing cattle. They are buying them at 500 pounds, using intense mob grazing to get them to market weight, then selling them. What is missing is a bull and reproduction.

Not sure how this fits into this topic, but sustainability seems to be missing on this side of the solution.
 
Dan Boone
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If we are, from the standpoint of global sustainability, taking the viewpoint that meat animals should be raised only on marginal land not suitable for more productive uses, or where incorporated into complex polyculture systems, it quickly becomes unclear how often and in which locations cattle are the most suitable meat animals.  There are going to be a lot more places where a few chickens, or a couple of hogs, or a small herd of goats, or a couple of sheep, or some rabbits, or... you get my drift.  And when cattle are the most suitable, it might be that we're talking the old-fashioned model where someone is keeping a dairy cow or a very small herd thereof, and breeding it to the local bull, and the only beef being raised is from surplus calves. 
 
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Some would say the ever increasing world population is just too large for sustainable anything. It has more than doubled in my lifetime. Perhaps even tripled by now. Took many thousands of years since the first Homo Sapiens to reach the population level it was when I was born. I'm old but not that old. hmmmmmm
 
Dan Boone
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Some would say that, but I don't agree.  I'm currently eating a vegetable-based diet for my own cranky medical reasons, but it's caused me to realize how much smaller my footprint on the earth is when I'm doing so.  I firmly believe that we could feed the current population sustainably without chemical agriculture ... but it would require a radical dispersal of people onto small homesteads and plots and a whole lot more human and animal labor and poop doing what petroleum and chem fertilizers are currently doing. 

That's why this topic is in the ulcer factory, because the question is how do you get there without horrid totalitarian gunpoint dispersal of the population from the cities where they want to live? 

You really don't, and that's not an acceptable answer.

So we're looking for some fancy dance down a declining population curve as we first raise everybody in the world up to the kind of wealth and education where they stop having a ton of kids and then figure out a way to disburse enough of the good life out into the rurals that people want to chase it there and put a chicken outside every door and a goat on every unwelcome shrubbery, while leaving enough people stacked in the cities that we don't finish cooking the earth moving people and goods around.  It's going to be really fucking tricky and it may not be possible and we need some kind of wholly new thing (dare I call it a permanent culture?) if we're going to pull it off.
 
pollinator
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Yeah I think it's a real conundrum and actually this is a question that is posed to me a lot since my diet is about 98% meat. The sad truth is I think the world is too overpopulated for us to eat healthy - I don't think a diet high in grains/etc is healthy but that seems to be the only feasible way to feed everyone.

So for me, all I can say is I'm working on doing my part to feed myself humanely and sustainably and hopefully eventually be able to provide food for others as well. Beyond that, unfortunately, I'm not sure if there really IS a solution to providing sustainably produced meat for everyone on the planet.
 
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I do think it would help if we could get more people to open up to the idea of different meats. Personally, I'm not a big beef person, never have been. I don't much care for the flavor and I find all but the tenderloin too tough for me. We eat lamb and duck, guests always seem to find this odd.  Moving different meats mainstream could help utilize different land. Around here, duck, rabbit, venison, goat are specialty meats. You have to go to a butcher shop or ethnic or high end market to get them. They are pricey, so people aren't exposed to them.
 
Mike Barkley
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we need some kind of wholly new thing (dare I call it a permanent culture?) if we're going to pull it off.



No doubt. Trying my best to do my part. Also spreading the word. THAT is an uphill struggle for sure.
 
pollinator
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Hmm,



On a more serious note.  Lots of people believe that we can grow all of our food organically, using animal manure, etc.

It occurs to me that the amount of crops you can grow, using just manure as fertilizer, is roughly equivalent to what those animals need to eat, leaving no surplus for humans.  Eating the animals seems to be the only way humans can balance the scales.
 
Bethany Dutch
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Stacy Witscher wrote:I do think it would help if we could get more people to open up to the idea of different meats. Personally, I'm not a big beef person, never have been. I don't much care for the flavor and I find all but the tenderloin too tough for me. We eat lamb and duck, guests always seem to find this odd.  Moving different meats mainstream could help utilize different land. Around here, duck, rabbit, venison, goat are specialty meats. You have to go to a butcher shop or ethnic or high end market to get them. They are pricey, so people aren't exposed to them.



Actually - you know what? I think, if anything, this might be the solution. Rabbit, for example - it has a tremendous feed to meat conversion rate. Not only that, but you don't need acreage to do it either.
 
Peter VanDerWal
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Actually, chickens have a better feed conversion ratio if you consider total feed input vs edible meat output, and Eggs are about twice as efficient as Broilers.  For a small homestead, eggs are probably the most cost efficient way to grow edible protein. 
Per gram of protein, eggs are even more cost efficient and have a lower environmental impact than most forms of plant protein.

While my family could probably get by just eating eggs (and cheese) and no meat, I still like chicken and beef occasionally, and of course BACON!!!.

From what I've read, from a purely dollar costs vs meat output, pigs are about 1/2 way between chickens and rabbits.

 
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Rabbits seem like they could be a sustainable source of meat.  Chickens, as well.  I'm reading some interesting different takes on meat production that by no means concur that it's destroying the world's food (or at least, that it doesn't need to).  Grain fed meat is certainly problematic, but pastured animals are both healthier and tastier, and frankly live better lives.  Joel Salatin and others make some convincing arguments.

The bottom line in most discussions of this nature is that there is NO one-size (one climate) solution to feeding people.  Areas of the world are so different.  Most of the problems with feeding people seem to be related to using land in ways that deplete it (whether that's animals, vegetables, or grains), and bad governance and bottlenecks of supply (i.e. big companies, middlemen, etc., behaving like vampires on the food supply and squeezing producers and consumers at both ends). 

It seems to me that the best way to feed the world is to learn how to build soil, to grow or farm or ranch sustainably, in whatever works in your climate, and to build a localized, resilient food system where ever possible. 

I'm currently reading Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, by M. Kat Anderson, which is very eye-opening.  Native cultures had developed ways to work with the land and let it, or help it, renew rather than stripping it for foods.  Colonizers saw only through the lens of agriculture (plowing, ranching, etc) and didn't see what was being done to manage the land, or acknowledge that actually, the abundance wasn't an accident, it was all part of the ethos and traditions of the people living there, and their very real and active land management choices.

Sustainability is possible when we can learn from permaculture, native management techniques, and our own lives, and be open to what the land can offer in different climates.

There are places in the world where it is completely unreasonable to expect the native populations to switch to vegetarian diets.  That's not how they've survived in their landscape for centuries, and it would not be sustainable on their land, or affordable to fly in all the vegetables outsiders might think they should switch to.

Diversity is a strength in the natural world, and I think the more we can dive into what works sustainably in different cultures and climates when it comes to feeding people, and the more localized the food supply, the better all of our chances.

I will say that, intellectually, I'd love to be able to afford meat that's raised humanely and without chemical poisons, and raising rabbits or chickens seems like a way to do that...I think I probably couldn't do it.  I tend to get attached to animals very easily and I would probably just end up with a lot of pets!  I would, however, love to be able to support local farmers who get into any of this, and I hope that happens someday in my area.  As it is, I currently can't eat most meats most of the time because of how it reacts in my body.  I think there are solutions to this other than vegetarianism, but pragmatism means I'm close to vegetarian lately.

 
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Here's some rambling thoughts on this subject........

Here in Hawaii there is a movement to produce more of the food locally. So some of the problems with producing sustainable food has come to light. Whether or not changes will be made to overcome these hurdles is yet to be seen.

The cattle here are grass fed....very sustainable. Most pastures, not all, are on land not suitable for vegetable production. Those that are slaughtered here are finished with a grain supplement, but are not stockyard finished. They remain on grass. So far, so good you say. But now comes the problems........ 1- there is little market for local grass fed beef here because buyers are expecting the visual carcass quality of grain finished beef. 2- there are not enough slaughter facilities to handle the demand to provide local beef and government is  severely, severely limiting the ability of providing more. I can state this as a fact since the island just recently added a mobile slaughter unit after years & years of negotiation, and even so it was only approved to provide services that locals were not really interested in, although it has proven to be fully booked and utilized due to the severe under servicing of the area for slaughter facilities. In order to meet a demand for local beef, slaughter facilities needed to be dramatically expanded, which simply won't happen due to government resistance and slowness. 3- grass fed beef needs to be hung longer in order to make it tenderer, as preferred by the customer. Due to lack of adequate slaughterhouse facilities, longer hanging times are not happening. Meat is getting rushed through in order to open up space for the next carcass. As a result, local grass fed beef is getting a bad review because of it's toughness.

I hear locals complaining constantly about having to get on a waiting list that can be weeks or months in order to get cattle slaughtered, dressed, and hung. On top of that, once the cattle are delivered to the slaughter facility, service is often delayed days or weeks. Owners never know when their meat will be ready to pick up. To make things worse the honesty of the slaughter facilities are being questioned. Owners are strongly suspecting that carcasses are being switched, or that animals being held days prior to slaughter are not being fed adequately, thus losing carcass weight and quality (not a problem with the mobile slaughterhouse, one of the reasons it is popular and booked months in advance).

Thus changes that need to be made are expanded slaughter facilities, an understanding of the need to properly hang grass pfed beef, the need to educate the consumer about local grassfed beef.

Another big change that is needed but won't happen is for the mobile unit to be allowed to slaughter on a farm and return that beef to that same farm. Right now, that's not the case. The carcass, regardless of species, must be transported to a land based slaughterhouse for processing. Therefore, locals wanting to raise their own cattle and sell or even keep for their own use their own beef cannot do it without adding the expense of transport and butchering costs to the land based slaughterhouse.

Another change needed is to expand local refrigerator space so that local carcasses can be hung locally. In Ka'u there is demand for "reefer" space. People are willing to rent space and time for hanging they own carcasses. But the reefer that use to operate here is now gone.

Another hurdle is the difficulty with government regulations when it comes to home raised meats. I live in a rural area where home raised livestock happens to some degree or other. Because of the lack of legal slaughterhouse and butchering facilities, and because such facilities are required in order to sell the meat or even share it outside of immediate family, many people who would like to raise some livestock for meat purposes aren't doing it. My own area in a 20 miles circumference around me could easily produce enough meat to met local needs, but it can't because of government hurdles.

I believe that raising sustainable meat to be used locally can be achieved in many areas if services and regulations were improved. But since the government is involved, it simply won't happen without considerable effort, time, and expense. Sustainable meat for shipment to other areas could also have a good chance of being achieved, again, if services and regulations were to be changed. But again, the government is involved in the necessary changes.......PLUS big business would get involved in hindering it. If something threatens their profits, they will surely fight it, regardless of how beneficial it would be for the consumer. Established feedlot businesses would surely fight any changes, since it would adversely affect their business.

Around where I live, locals are aware of the hurdles. They get around them by slaughtering & butchering their own (or hiring one of the underground one-man services), then selling the meat among friends, neighbors, and family. The health department occasionally tries to shut this sort of thing down, and patrols local farmers market, restaurants, and mom & pop stores looking for violators.

One more point.....sustainable local meat costs more than supermarket meat. Not that this prevents people from wanting and buying it in my area. But it does limit the market to sell it.
 
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Do you know, there have been so MANY lies told about cattle that I cannot tell what facts are true and which are not. For example, before we had farting cows in the Midwest we had farting buffalo in the midwest. And yet some people take farting cows VERY seriously.

I am not convinced that not eating meat is a solution. Back before they fed good grain to cattle they fed them hay and straw and let them graze on brush. That might be a better idea that feeding them large amounts of grin.
 
Dan Boone
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I almost want to pull a Paul Wheaton and invent a word in order to draw attention to a distinction not normally made.  There's been talk in this thread of meat "production" and I feel like going out on a limb and saying that meat "production" is by definition unsustainable.   But first I need a Paul Wheaton word for sustainable meat raising.  I think I shall call it "polymeating" and the product is "polymeat."

Meat production uses inputs that have lots of other uses: grain, good pasture land that could also grow crops, and so forth.  Meat production is where you end up feeding perfectly good food to your meat animals, or displacing food production so you can graze them on grass.  Ultimately too much of this means that the rich will eat meat and the poor will starve.

Polymeating uses animals that are worked into your polycultural systems, eating scraps and leftovers and weeds and slops and mast from your trees and surplus crops and bits and bobs and the browse from that rocky field that ain't worth plowing.  The barnyard chicken is the original polymeat animal; it never got a bit of "feed", just kitchen scraps and dropped oats and bugs pecked up from the horse patties and whatever it could find in the barn.   The one hog eating slops and pressed apples and acorns and wormy cabbages and cracked turnips, same deal.  The calf every year because you have to keep the dairy cow fresh.  The goats penned on that rocky hill that's not good for much else. 

Are there places where cattle are the right animals for polymeating?  Absolutely!  Can we feed the world on polymeat beef?  Absolutely not!  In fact, to the extent that polymeat production is fundamentally incidental to the production of a vast array of other agricultural produce, it won't support heavy meat consumption on a world wide scale.  

Here in Oklahoma, we have a lot of land that's not suitable for plowing and conventional chem-ag crop production.  Conventional wisdom is that it's fine for beef production; and that does work here, although the cost in soil loss if it's not done very carefully seems very high to me.  However, it's not the highest and best use of Oklahoma land; we have enough water and soil fertility and a long growing season that permaculture-type intensively-managed small-holdings can be extremely productive here, with no risk of soil loss.  There's plenty of room for polymeating in the interstices of that, but it's by no means clear that beef cattle are the most efficient animals to use for it.

Various people upthread have pointed out that in parts of the world, there are few or no options for doing anything but eating meat that raises itself in the sea or on the tundra.  That's true, and I've been to those places.  The key to survival there is that populations are miniscule, in line with the overall tiny amount of biological productivity that exists in a place that's frozen so many months of the year.  We are talking many square miles per person.  It's a thing that exists, but it's not very relevant to discussions of how to feed world of 7.7 billion people.

 
Stacy Witscher
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Dan - I agree with you completely. Personally, I don't think that I'll have any problem producing enough meat for myself and my family. I could easily forgo meat, I eat mostly dairy, but I see no need. As for others, I think a multi-prong approach is best, for this and many things. Adding diversity to the diet can reduce beef concentrations without reducing overall meat consumption. Some of the things that I think are important to keep in mind are that many people like beef texture and flavor, so while rabbits are a good use of space, they taste more like chicken, than beef. Americans already eat a lot of chicken, not sure trying to increase this is great. I like pigs because they are great on small holdings and dairy farms, eating a lot of the excess and damaged food. So much can be done with a pig, and they can be made to taste many different ways. Lamb and goat are much more like beef texture wise, but with their own distinct flavors. I think that it a mistake to concentrate just on other protein sources, because as the title of this thread says people like yummy meat.

A while ago, cricket flour was in the news, and I was intrigued. But when I looked into it, it was mostly being used in granola type bars, and quick breads, like banana bread, and the protein count wasn't any higher. That doesn't make much sense to me.
 
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