Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tabletop activism: The case for conscientiously raised meat

I became a vegetarian when I was in 6th grade. It was part of my earliest phase of activism, which largely involved nagging my family about their water usage and wearing tee-shirts with provocative messages. Though reports of amputated chicken beaks and pig tails were what drove me to a vegetable-based diet, it was only five years before I found myself indulging in a bite-sized tryst with a cooling pot roast.

Since then, I’ve reconsidered the many heath-related and ethical reasons why a vegetarian diet is arguably superior. It makes sense to stay lower on the food chain by eating grain rather than feed it to the animals we intend to eat. It feels good not to contribute to the demand fueling the Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) that supply most of America’s meat. And I would much rather save my artery-clogging intake for cheesecake than steak. Yet the steak keeps appearing on my plate, time and again.

Fortunately, books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and A Field Guide to Buying Organic by Luddene Perry and Dan Schultz, brought to light the solution that allows steak sans guilt: conscientious omnivory. This concept nullifies my every concern about meat eating… well, all but one. I’ll just have to live with the fact that were I required to kill what I intended to eat, I would end up with a collection of named farm animals living in my backyard on permanent reprieve.

What Pollan, Perry, Schultz and more point out is that most of the concerns are not linked so much to the actual impact of eating animals, but to the impact of our current food system, i.e. CAFOs - Confined, as in crammed together so that each animal must use its extremely limited space as its living room, dining area and bathroom at once; and Animal Feeding Operation, as in bringing animals to slaughter weight as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to maximize profits. (It often strikes me that “Animal Feeding Operation” sounds like machinery, as though what they meant was “Car Door Assembly Operation” and not a home for living creatures.)

I’ll use cows, our cute and delectable buddies, to highlight just a few of the differences between CAFOs and ethically-raised animals.

Because the emphasis is on profitability, CAFOs feed cows corn, grain and a mixture of cheap animal byproducts that often include things like chicken litter. Tasty, right? This mixture is not only inexpensive, it’s fattening, thereby shortening the time until slaughter. But cows were meant to eat grass; consequently, the CAFO feed can lead to sickness in the cows and creates a mixture of fats in the meat that is much more harmful than that found in grass-fed beef. In fact, grass-fed beef has less overall fat, and two to four times more heart-healthy omega 3 fats than CAFO beef.

As for eating lower on the food chain, every cow is able to turn grass, inedible for humans, into several hundred pounds of very edible beef. As they graze, they scatter their droppings which fertilizes next season’s grass, rather than adding to the waste holding tanks necessary on CAFOs.

We are lucky in Greensboro that between the Greensboro Farmers’ Curb Market and the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, we can get conscientiously-raised meat of every variety, and some we may not have explored before: beef, pork, chicken, ostrich, bison and even Thanksgiving turkeys.

It will cost a little extra but consider it a deduction from future health care costs and a bit of tabletop activism in every meal.

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