If we’re such green, environment-conscious farmers, why do we raise animals? If we really care about animals, how can we justify eating them? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone went vegan?
Some personal background
Before I address these reasonable questions, I’d like to offer a little personal history as background.
When I was 19, as a student learning to cook, I went to the city market in Leeds to look for some beef for a beef stir-fry dish I fancied. The market has dozens of butcher’s shops, each filled with the kind of stuff you don’t see in the supermarket, like piles of offal and half carcasses hanging on hooks. I got some beef, stir-fried it with orange and ginger, loved it, and didn’t eat meat again for 20 years. It wasn’t for my health or for the environment, but just because all those well-stocked butchers made it impossible to ignore the connection between meat and death. It wasn’t hard to stay off meat, because being a vegetarian became such an important part of my identity that eating meat was something I would never do.
When I was 39, I was offered a meal that made me think. We were in Sweden, staying with friends, and the man of the house had been out with a group of friends and shot a moose. The hunting party shared the meat and everything else of use, and now he wanted to serve us moose meat for dinner. My first reaction was “I can’t, I’m a vegetarian”, but then I stopped to think about what I was objecting to. The moose had lived in its natural environment, leading a proper moose life, until one day it got killed by predators, in the form of my friend’s hunting party. They were hunting for meat to feed their families, not for sport, and not for profit. The moose had not been factory farmed or otherwise kept in torturous conditions, and it was killed quickly, not snared. The hunters followed rules for what they could shoot, how many, and in what seasons, so the wild population was not being run down (actually, as humans had killed all the natural moose-eating predators, humans had to step up to protect forests from overpopulation), and the environment was not being harmed, either globally or locally. The situation stripped away all objections, other than the simple fact of one animal dying to feed another. Did I object to that? My conclusion was “No”, and I ate my share of the moose. I concluded that, in contrast to my initial motivation to go vegetarian, the fact of one animal dying to feed another is not what bothers me any more. It’s not about death. It’s the uniquely horrible ways we make them live before they die, and the ways we make them die. A few months later, I started eating meat again.
Of course, if I went into a supermarket and looked around for meat or meat products to buy, all the other problems would come surging back. All that abundant cheap meat is the product of lives made intolerable and ended cruelly, to extract the maximum profit from animals reduced to units of production. So in practice, we only eat meat from organic, pasture-fed animals. We buy it from a few online shops with known sources, and cook it at home. We can get beef, mutton, and sheep organ meats from those shops at prices we can afford, but acceptable chickens are almost entirely unavailable, and totally beyond any price we could afford even if we could find any. That gave us the idea of growing our own chickens for meat. Raising animals from birth gives us complete confidence that they lived well, ate well, and died well, because it makes us wholly responsible for all those things.
Meat and Farming
Which brings me back to farming at last. Sorry for the digression. The idea of growing chickens did not exist in isolation for us. It was part of the larger concept of combining plant and animal growing within a single farm, which is a key part of permaculture. There’s so much wrong with modern agriculture, it’s hard to know where to start, but the artificial schism between animal husbandry and plant crops is a huge part of it. Once the two sides are wrenched apart, the land that’s growing crops is deprived of manure and other animal inputs and has to be fertilized with artificial fertilizers derived from petrochemicals. Then the animals are taken off the land into CAFOs and feedlots, where they can’t graze and have to be fed crops brought from distant farms. Those animals are crapping all the time, and instead of simply falling on the land and fertilizing it, that manure is just piling up on concrete floors. It has to be collected and dumped into lagoons, where it turns into a huge pollution and waste management problem. The animals are also obliged to eat feed that they would never normally eat, like corn products, so they suffer from poor digestion that leaves them farting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Antibiotics and other contaminants in the feed mean that the manure is not even good enough to put back on the land.
In short, this artificial division leaves the land and the animals without the things they need to live well, and imposes huge costs for the workarounds that become necessary. The thing that leaves me unsure whether to laugh or cry is that this madly inefficient system evolved every step of the way in response to pressure to pursue efficiency above all things.
Does raising animals mean we have to eat meat?
No, it’s not inherently necessary, but even chickens can live for many years, particularly if they live healthy lives and eat the best food, so if we insisted that every animal we ever raise lives out its natural lifespan, the cost of keeping all of them would be prohibitive. They would basically be pets, and we’d just keep a few of them. That would be nice (we enjoy the company of chickens, and a few eggs would be a nice bonus), but the number of animals we could afford to keep would provide very little benefit for the land. Also, some of our hens want to raise chicks, and we want to help them to do so whenever they want to, as is their right.
One of them (Necky, above, named for the unusual blaze pattern on her neck) just finished raising a flock of chicks, who are now between six and seven weeks old. There are eight boys and one girl. They’re wonderfully cute and beautiful now, but if those boys lived to adulthood, they’d all be wounding each other in pursuit of dominance, and the lone hen would be in trouble too. So we have to slaughter the boys before they turn into roosters, which is going to be tough because we’ve watched them every day since they hatched. When we do, we’ll be aware of the real cost of our food, which is the life of the animal.
So, raising animals is an inherent part of the permaculture farming that does so much good for the land and the world, and death is a part of raising enough animals to make a difference. Which brings me to the vegan question. Would the world actually be better if everyone went vegan? Well if there was really only the choice between veganism and factory farming animals, I’d have to go vegan (not just vegetarian), but that’s a false dilemma. The moral, environmental, and practical objections to the outrage of industrial livestock production are not arguments against eating meat, they’re arguments against that abominable industry. The same is true for eggs and dairy. If you can get meat, eggs, milk, etc. that come from animals that led decent lives without harming the environment, that’s better for your own health and that of the planet than abandoning humankind’s omnivorous nature would be.
One way to make sure it’s done right, in the face of the food industry’s corruption of terms like “organic” and “free range”, is to raise the animals for yourself, and that’s what we do.