Is Eating Meat a Sustainable Choice?

Judging by the content of the many homesteading blogs that I read, there are MANY of us wrestling with the place of meat in our diets.  Anecdotally, it seems that those of us who have been working with food issues for decades went vegetarian or vegan in the 1990s, when animal rights, the realities of feed lots, and concerns about feeding a growing global population entered the collective middle-class North American consciousness (or when I headed off to university!).  Fast forward twenty years, and so much has changed in the world of alternative food production and our understanding of what sustainability means that many of us are taking another look at our food choices.

At the moment, I’m uncommitted and actively wrestling.  For the last twenty years, I have eaten seafood, eggs and dairy and in the last ten I’ve made sure those were ethically sourced.  I’ve had years where I ate in a more vegan style and years that were more fish-heavy.  There have been times where I have been repulsed by the meat my dinner companions were eating (the first time the Skipper ordered chicken in front of me I freaked out) and times where I have asked to taste the meat on their plates.  I have had no weight or other health issues stemming from this basic diet.

My sister, whom I love dearly and respect hugely, has been vegan for almost as many years.  For her the choice not to consume any animal products is extremely personal and comes from a deep place of compassion and love for animals.  I have always respected her ability to put those principles first, before all other immediate needs that might come up, whereas I tend to bend to culture and tradition when that feels more important to me.  I feel very temporary and small on this planet, and often feel like there are more important factors at play than the choices I might make at a meal in my own home.

My sis is extremely healthy, and had zero issues even when pregnant.  Her now five-year old son has also been raised essentially vegan thus far, and is the sturdiest, tallest, most physically vigorous child you could ever meet.  In fact, he was so robust as a youngster that the “fragile vegan baby” comment became a running joke!  They are also content and thriving in their food choices.

I cite this personal information because many of those in the “post-vegan” ethical eating ranks often comment that they just never did do well on a vegan diet, got tired of the “you’re just not doing it right” criticisms, and felt hugely better when they started eating meat again, even in small quantities.  In my family, we obviously do just fine on lower protein, plant-based diets, and our health is not really playing into these decisions, except in the sense that the standard info that suggest that the average global citizen is healthier eating less or no meat seems to apply to us.  I absolutely believe that everyone, physically, is different and needs to find the balance that is right for them.

My sis recently wrote that she believed that there would be less animal suffering in the world if we all moved to a vegan diet.  We talked a little about that point, because at my stage in this journey, I just don’t believe this to be true.  But she raised issues that did get me thinking, and rethinking some of the commonly held wisdom in homesteading circles these days, and I wanted to sort out my thoughts.

So here are some of the issues and premises that I believe to be true at this point.

1.  No food product that is produced through large-scale mono-cropping that requires lots of heavy machinery, fertilizers, herbicides/pesticides, other drugs (for animals), uses gmos, produces toxic waste products, and destroys topsoil and soil fertility is sustainable.

At the moment, I would argue that this includes most (organic and not) livestock production, all non-organic soy, corn,  (I’ll have to do more research but I suspect) probably most non-organic grain production, much of the non-organic and according to Michael Pollan much of the large-scale organic vegetable and fruit production.  This is also true, in my mind, of most processed food production, and that includes organic processed foods like fake meats and cookies, and also much of the commercial canning industry which uses metal, plastic, and international shipping to get cans of chickpeas and tuna to my local supermarket.

I believe that eating a diet that consumes the above products causes animal (and human!) suffering whether we eat the animals or not.  Whether it’s habitat destruction, carbon emissions, or combines harvesting hundreds of acres and killing untold numbers of animals in its teeth, this system is horrifying.  A vegan eating exclusively from this system, I belive, is deluding themselves that they are helping.  With perhaps the caveat that CAFO animals are living a nightmare and that at least the wild animals destroyed in other ways got some natural experience in their short lives.  Ugh.

2.  A traditional, diverse family farm before industrialization was pretty close to a closed-loop system with animals playing a symbiotic role with all the other parts of food production for the community.  The more I research this, the more amazed and inspired I am by the way the systems inter-related and worked together.  There was no waste, no loss of soil fertility, animals could be raised and killed humanely, and every part of them was consumed.  Much less meat was also eaten in that system than is eaten today in a Standard American Diet in terms of overall quantity.

There are people out there today farming according to these practices, and I love the idea of participating in such a system myself.  But I can’t delude myself, either.  This model takes land (especially for pasture and fallow fields), and it takes labour.  It worked then because families were big and land was available for reasonable prices.  The land-size and system can be scaled down some, we can use goats instead of cows, or mini/heritage cows, for instance, but we still need some acres.  I don’t have acres, can’t really afford acres where we live, and live in a family of 2 who both work full-time.  Much of this blog has been about figuring out how to make the dream fit our reality!

3.  Much of the world’s population lives on small amounts of land, which they do not necessarily own, and eats vegetables and staple crops that they produce with hand tools in small plots.  Meat in small amounts from small animals that co-exist with them provides crucial nutrient-dense calories, fat and protein.  These communities have very little environmental impact in the world and are probably the model that is sustainable on a global scale.

4.  To produce plant foods sustainably takes good soil fertility, which means returning nutrients to the soil in exchange for those that we remove through our food crop harvesting.  That fertility can come from two major places (though it usually comes from both): plant sources as compost, or animal sources as manure.  Jon Jeavons’ work in California has demonstrated that plant sources are adequate and a vegan diet can be sustainably produced, and his system requires that a significant part of your land be used to grown compost crops each year.  I can’t remember what the percentage is, but the whole system requires 4,000 square feet per person.

Small-scale livestock on a homestead can produce major amouts of fertility through manure and bedding compost in a very small space–arguably less than it would take to grow enough compost crops and on poorer land.  My 8 chickens have a generous 200 sq’ of of predator-proof enclosed space in an area of the yard that would be challenging if not impossible to grow in (under trees), and then can forage in the rest of the yard, allowing the orchard, for instance, to do double-duty.  They allow me to stretch my other garden waste to produce the soil fertility I need, as well as eggs and eventually…well, soup stock anyway.  Or more fertility in a garden grave if I didn’t have the heart to eat them. 🙂

5.  Many animals are raised with grain-based feed.  Not all need it–pigs and cows don’t, and pigs produce more manure and consume more waste foods.  But these animals also require more space than we have, so we’d have to buy them from someone else, which means they’re not adding anything to our own system.  But I have yet to meet or hear about anyone who is raising chickens–particularly meat birds–without grain.  In fact, when I decided to look into meat birds as a possible next step in our food production, I quickly realized that much of the conversation around pasturing birds (ie meat birds in a chicken tractor) as an economically sustainable system revolves around the Feed Conversion Ratio–ie, how much grain feed does a bird require to reach a reasonable slaughter weight?

The current dominant Cornish Rock hybrid birds, the ones who have been bred to grow so quickly they can’t stand up by the time they are slaughter-weight at a mere 8 weeks old and who start having heart attacks if you keep them alive much longer than that, have a low feed-conversion ratio of 2.5 lbs of grain for 1 lb of meat.  Many people are horrified by the Cornish broiler and are actively looking at other options; those other options are more expensive because their FCR’s are much higher, if only because they live longer as they put on weight at a healthier pace.  I have seen FCR’s as high as almost 5:1.  This clearly creates a better life for both the birds and the people eating them, but is growing grain for livestock feed at those conversion rates really sustainable?

6.  Growing grain crops to feed livestock to allow more people in the world to eat more meat is not sustainable.  This is well documented.  There are numerous countries in the world who were once exporters of food who are now importers because of the demand for meat and the grain required to produce it.  Undeniable.  However, it’s the industrial system and scale of raising meat that creates the problem; given that all large-scale traditional and sustainable societies ate meat, this imbalance is clearly not necessary.

7.  Wild meat is likely an overlooked and sustainable part of our diets that needs to be reconsidered.  I really think this is a piece missing from both sides of the debate, although the hunting movement is apparently growing.  Around these parts, we have an overpopulation of deer partly due to habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl which is also arguably unsustainable.  But it’s also because attitudes around hunting have removed predators.  And the overpopulation of deer is a massive environmental problem that we need to take responsibility for.  There’s a great source of locally produced food with an environmental benefit and few ethical issues that would beat a can of chickpeas from Morocco any day.

With all this said (and more to be said–I haven’t touched on fat or fish yet, but this is getting epically long!), I still haven’t changed any of my eating habits yet.  But while I’m still not eating meat at the moment, I’m also not NOT eating meat. 🙂  Because my position right now is that we live in a highly imperfect world enmeshed with an unsustainable industrial food production system.  And although we are personally working our way towards eating only ethically produced foods, there are still gaps, when we look REALLY closely.  I do believe that we have created enough resilience on our own property that we COULD survive if we needed to off what we produce or what is available here.  But that’s not what we’re doing at the moment, which is fine.

But the point I wanted to make is that when I look at all of these facts, what I see is that eating meat or not, in and of itself, is not the deciding factor of whether a particular diet is sustainable.  Very few of us in North America are eating a truly sustainable diet either way, and there is work to be done for all of us to improve the systems.

And I think it’s true for all of us working on environmental issues  that there are easy changes to make–like growing lots of your own produce–and then there are much harder, and potentially higher impact things that need changing.  And if we keep slapping ourselves on the back for opting out of the easy things, we may not end up really doing the work to change the more difficult ones.  And that’s a challenge I think it’s time I took up a little more seriously.





7 thoughts on “Is Eating Meat a Sustainable Choice?

  1. It was wonderful to read this article after having given much thought myself on the same topic. You brought up some issues I had overlooked, like sustainable hunting as a source of ethical food. Good points. With respect to feeding animals grain, there are many people out there looking for ways to get around this. Backyard Chickens dot Com is a great source of information and I know there are people there working on how to provide their own feed to omnivores such as chickens and pigs. Even rabbits. It seems that our penchant for grain-feeding is more to do with wanting heavy, meaty animals and of course that ever-present hallmark of success, the feed conversion ratio. Chickens that grow to harvest weight in 8 weeks and pigs who do the same in 6 months are very convenient, but perhaps there will come a time when the costs (i.e. producing the grain for their feed) outweigh the convenience factor, and we’ll go back to eating animals only when their other jobs around the farm are done.

  2. I recently watched a presentation on YouTube on “natural farming” of chickens:

    They have done some work on sustainable feeding of chickens, and are down to just 15% commercial feed. I’m sure this could be taken further. They’re not using much grain at all in their feed system.

    Personally, I think it’s ethical to eat the animals from your system – surplus roosters (fryers and roasters), ageing layers (boilers), non-performers, etc. To cull them and bury them is a waste! If you wanted to remain vegetarian/vegan, though, they’d make fine food for your dogs, cats, etc. I try to squeeze as much food from them as possible – keeping bones for stocks, using offal, using feet and necks, etc.

    Rabbits seem to be a decent meat option for feeding from the garden, without requiring large amounts of grain or commercial feed. They don’t give many eggs, though :-). I’m going to be adding rabbits to our system soon, if all goes to plan.

    As a meat-eater, I gained a new understanding of the value of meat after raising my own meat animals. The supermarket price of mass-produced industrial meat certainly doesn’t reflect that value! When you raise your own, you eat a lot less meat.

    I love what you’re doing here, and will continue to follow your updates!

  3. Freelearners, thanks for your posts on this topic too–as you know, you inspired me to think a little more thoroughly about my own beliefs at this stage. You’re absolutely right about the potential for lower-grain feeds. Certainly in a traditional system, it sounded like chickens ate a lot of the surplus/waste from the farm (as would the pigs, of course), and grain would almost be a supplement. And I just can’t see all those throughout the developing world who always have a few chickens scratching around in the backyard going to their local farm supply store for bags of feed! So there must be other ways. But (I think I’ve written somewhere before), I think it may also be a matter of adjusting our expectations, as you say, which are now shaped by all of this industrial culture to hit “optimal” production in everyway.

    Darren, thanks for commenting, and thanks for that link. I’ll look forward to watching the video. Just have to say, I can’t do the rabbits. I get why people go there, and I have eaten rabbit and been fine with it. But 1) I had rabbits as pets growing up and I hate rabbits in cages, and 2) rabbits are a pest worse than deer around these parts, so the idea of farming them just seems silly! 🙂 Skipper’s always quipping that he needs a pellet gun and we could have all the rabbit stew we could ever want!

    I think you’re bang on about eating your own animals. At the moment, those are the only animals I want to eat, and the ones that make sense to me. That also means not eating chicken very often! Which is also ok. But I also realize that the only reason we have surplus meat birds is because we’re raising a flock for the eggs, which we don’t actually *need* from a vegan perspective. But the fertility and pest control is so useful for growing the plant foods, and I’m not convinced that I could grow an equal amount of protein on the same land as the chickens take for eggs, so it’s probably a draw. 🙂

  4. I agree, the chickens are great for processing scraps into fertiliser. That they produce eggs and meat makes them an even more useful part of the system!

    I understand about the rabbits. I wouldn’t grow them either if I could hunt them. I’m going to be keeping them in traditional cages to begin with, but want to experiment with Joel Salatin-style pasturing as well.

    One thing I’ve found very enlightening is to read books intended for non-western growers – especially from aid agencies and organisations like the Peace Corps. For example “Kai Kokorako” was written for Solomon Islanders to raise chickens, and I’ve read good resources for Africa and Central America on raising rabbits. They’re often available for free online. Because these aren’t written for western countries, they advise people about how to improvise, grow and forage food plants for their animals, build cheap housing out of natural materials and scrap materials, etc. All excellent stuff if you want to be sustainable and not rely on the feed store (and cash) too much!

  5. Darren, that is just the best idea I have heard in a long time. Thank you so much for that suggestion! (cynical and jaded eyeroll about westerners trying to teach formerly sustainable societies how to become better farmers notwithstanding… ;p) More research!

  6. As per usual, you’ve got me thinking and responding simultaneously – so just a few notes as I went…
    What was/is referred to as the “family farm”, like all of the ones my school mates and I grew up with, were mostly dairy reliant; but everyone had a vegetable garden. The manure pile from the barn was spread on the fields at planting time and there was no problem with bacteria like e-coli or c-dificile, even though they were existance then, as now. Nothing was ever wasted: as you said “a closed loop”. I hear the echo of my biology teachers’ terminology of “life cycles” and “the biosphere” – everything interrelated.
    Compost crops: Might they also be called “green manure” or “cover crops”? Feed the soil to feed yourself.
    Meat:vegetation ratios: For proper blood pH maintenance (barely on the alkaline side of neutral), dietary ratios should be 1 part acid (meat/grains) and 3 parts alkaline (fruit/veg). Anything else causes ill health/disease. Think of our ancestors’ diet – which was most easily acquired meats or vegetation?
    “Grain-fed” animals: Pasturing is the normal means for ruminants to feed – grain was used only to “finish off” the meat before slaughter. In the wild, all animals put on a layer of fat (and a nice, new winter coat) to get ready for winter. This is also when hunting was/is done: breeding season is well over and the next generation well on it’s way. Culling out the weak and infirm is nature’s way: the weak perish to feed the strong.
    Whenever you have an internal struggle, look back to how things worked in the natural progression of things; not in this “convenience” store, “fast food” world we inhabit. We are the way we are because of heredity from our ancestors and this is how we function best. Keep your diet close to the earth and you will be healthier for it.

    Wow, sorry! I got totally immersed (again; ) Thanks for getting me thinking.

  7. Deb, thanks for those thoughts–wise words as always. Although I’m late in responding, I just wanted to clarify, for the record and future readers, the concept of “compost crops”. In the Jeavons system (biointensive), there is some use of cover crops and fallow time, but as this is is an intensive system (ie high production in small space), he does not presume there is enough land to take some out of production for any really useful length of time. He’s also in California, which means 3-4 seasons for growing, and again, not really a great opportunity for the kind of rich cover cropping that can be so valuable in other climates. So compost crops are specifically designed to replace animal manure, and they are crops grown in beds out of production to be turned into enough compost to feed the beds that are in production. In other words, you need N x as many beds to grow compost crops as you have vegetable beds.

    Sometimes those crops can also produce a side crop for human consumption (sunflowers, jerusalem artichokes, fava beans, wheat), sometimes it’s purely for the land (alfalfa, rye, etc). But my point here was that, on my property, I don’t have space available to grow compost crops in any useful way, as I don’t have arable land to spare for non-food crops. So I’m convinced that in cases like mine (which I suspect are very common), chickens or other small livestock that can be sustained on poor land areas produce animal manure to provide the necessary fertility instead. However, again, because of space restrictions, I can’t do ruminants which usefully eat just pasture grass (although I’m lucky enough to have friends with horses who do who share their manure), which means supplementing grain feed, which leads to some of the trade-offs I’ve outlined here. But as I think deeply about micro-small-scale farming, it’s becoming clear to me that the loop to be closed will not be an individual one, but a community-scale one.

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