Last Morsel—Carnivore with a Caveat
Written onDecember 01 , 2009
I stopped eating meat at the impassioned age of 14, when a biology teacher showed a film called Diet for a New America, which graphically described the many and various evils of the modern meat industry. I dumped that day’s turkey sandwich in the garbage and didn’t touch meat again for nine years. My reasoning was three-fold: I believed that vegetarianism was better for my body, better for the planet, and decreased the total suffering of the world. I knew that certain responsible farming practices could, in theory, mitigate or overcome most of my objections to meat, but I’d never seen them in practice and didn’t know how to judge them or trust their claims.
Nine years later, living in Vermont as an aspiring vegetable farmer, I was poised for a personal revolution. Two years of agricultural training had taught me that animals can have a place on the farm and on the land, and that certain grazing practices could even improve the health of the soil. I’d been reading Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, which praises the virtues of animal-based foods, and while I’m still not convinced that lard is good for me, I did begin to reconsider the role of animal protein in a healthy diet. I’d met some backyard chickens, some pastured pigs, and they seemed happy. I’d also seen some cattle feedlots up close, and I hadn’t forgotten any of what I knew about the treatment of chickens, pigs, or lambs in industrial agriculture.
So I started eating meat again, with this caveat: only from Vermont, and only organic, grass-fed, and free-range. I did it for the environment, for ethical reasons, and for health reasons—the very same areas of concern that had motivated me to stop nine years before.
Environmentally, I’d stopped eating meat because large feedlots use phenomenal amounts of resources and produce an equal measure of pollution. But in Vermont, well-managed grass-fed beef can actually sequester carbon by strengthening plant roots during grazing, while improving the soil and maintaining open land. The erosion and introduction of invasive species caused by some range-fed cattle in the West are less of a problem here. In addition, grazing livestock provides a way to extract food value from land that is inappropriate for tillage.
Ethically, I never objected to the animals’ death itself. Not everyone will feel the same, but I’m comfortable with the knowledge that every creature—myself included—will die and be eaten by something, if only worms. I stopped eating meat because of the conditions under which the animals lived—nasty, brutish, and short, as a rule. Having now worked with livestock allowed to roam outside and express their social behaviors, I’m comfortable with being the something that eats them. I know the farmers from whom I buy the majority of my meat, and I’m willing to trust my local co-op’s opinion of the rest.
The final, decisive factor for me was my health. The diet that sustained me for years when I lived in California and Arizona simply couldn’t cut it during Vermont winters. My first few weeks of that first winter were ugly. I couldn’t wake up in the morning, couldn’t get moving during the day, and could never seem to get warm. Then, in a pub one day after an afternoon of sledding, a waiter walked past with a hamburger. My husband still tells the story of how I stared at that hamburger, then ordered one, and then inhaled the whole thing before our waitress could even set the plate down. Then suddenly—it may have just been the afterglow—I was warm.
If I lived anywhere but Vermont, I don’t know if my ethics would allow me to fulfill my body’s needs. In fact, every time I leave the state, I become a de facto vegetarian again. This is a terrible disappointment to my parents, who can’t quite get over their consternation that the daughter who harangued them all through high school and college over eating meat is now eating meat, but still won’t eat the Thanksgiving turkey from Whole Foods, even if it is organic. I don’t know those farmers, I don’t know that land, and I don’t want to eat that meat. Which is just one more reason why I try not to leave Vermont.
Photo by Elizabeth Ferry