Many people assume I’m a vegetarian. Some people even equate “organic” with “vegetarian.” I’ve experimented with vegetarian eating over the years. I’ve even dated vegetarians (well, one). Aside from the fact that I think it’s challenging to eat well and healthfully without eating meat, I truly enjoy eating meat and find it physically satisfying.
But I also love animals and believe they are conscious, emotional, and aware beings who suffer just like we do…even chickens! And I absolutely loathe the practice of raising animals in Confined Animal Factory Operations (CAFO’s) just for the sake of cheap meat. I haven’t bought nonorganic meat in many years, though I’m sure I’ve eaten it at restaurants.
I do think, from what I’ve read, that part of our evolutionary advantage comes from our ability to cook and eat meat. I know at times I feel like I really need it for my body or my brain to function fully. (Interestingly, the older I get, the less often I feel this need.) A report today on Rodale.com says that teens who eat a vegetarian diet have a much higher likelihood of developing eating disorders. That’s not good. Especially because most vegetarian teens say they are giving up meat for environmental reasons.
A lot of people become vegetarians for environmental reasons. And I’ve done my homework on this one: It’s the CAFO’s that are the problem, not the animals. Until the last 100 years or so, animals have always been an essential, integrated part of any farm and farm family. Chickens keep bugs under control and provide eggs. Pigs eat slop and leftovers, and provide pork as well as lard, which was an essential cooking ingredient before olive oil became widely available. Cows provide beef, milk, butter, and cheese, and manure to fertilize the garden and farm fields. Goats keep the brush clear and also provide milk and cheese. Sheep provide meat and wool and keep the lawn mowed. All these animals provide warm and protective leathers. Smoked and preserved meats and cheeses provide food and excellent nutrition for people through the winter months when fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce.
Just yesterday I was visiting my friend Laura, who is a Mennonite (a Christian denomination similar to Amish). We were talking about this whole meat thing and she said, “Why, a farm is not a farm without animals!” As I pulled out of her driveway, two ducks were getting it on in her front yard.
Most of us don’t live like the Amish or Mennonites anymore, but there is an even more important reason than tradition to eat organic meat. Organically managed pasture land is an important way to store—rather than emit—carbon. New research is showing that the negative contribution to global warming that comes from eating meat is the byproduct of idiotic and destructive CAFO farming methods. It’s not just how they overcrowd animals as they try to raise thousands of cows in muddy concrete factories; it’s also how they feed them. CAFO animals are raised on chemically produced, genetically modified (GM) corn. Millions of acres of corn are planted using seed that’s been genetically altered to resist the effects of weed-killing chemicals like Roundup, which allows the fields to be doused with higher levels of herbicides. These chemicals are contaminating our soil, our water, our bodies, and our children’s future. And cows don’t even like corn! Cows stomachs were meant to eat grass. So corn (and the other garbage they get fed) makes cows sick and leads to the rampant use of antibiotics, which leads to antibiotic-resistant diseases like MRSA that kill humans (18,000 a year). Raising meats organically on well-managed organic pasture is actually good for the environment and good for cows. That’s why I think we should turn all of Iowa into grazing pastures instead of corn fields.
I always come back to what Bill Mollison, the founder of the Permaculture Institute, told me once: “Everything eats.” Even carrots have to “eat” nutrients in the soil (and maybe carrots have feelings we can’t see!). To be alive is to eat. To be conscious of ourselves and our world is to be aware of what and how we eat and of its impact on our bodies, our environment, and our future. For me, that means eating organic. Burgers included.