Of Calves and Carnivores

Though I’ve been a meat-eater most of my life, I’ve always been squeamish about its preparation. I prefer not to touch bacon until it’s been burned to a crisp. Thanksgiving morning finds me shaking a 30-pound bird over the sink so I don’t have to stick my hand in the carcass and pull out the nasty bits. I prefer cuts of meat that have been euphemized so that I don’t have to consider where they came from – chicken tenders sound tastier than breasts, chicken drummies more desirable than thighs. While Andrew Zimmern travels the globe partaking of delicacies derived from brains, guts and goo, I would drive many miles out of my way not to.

All of this is a long way of saying I was a little out of my comfort zone one recent afternoon as calf wound its tongue around my wrist, and up the length of my forearm.

“These guys are very interested in the world –they like to check out everything,” my host, Catherine Friend, says about the four Jersey – Holstein – mix calves that seem intent on joining us for a nature walk on her farm in the Zumbro River Valley, about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities. The calves are three months old, with heads that just reach my hip. They’re the same height as my four-year-old, the reason I’m here in the first place.

A few weeks before the visit, this particular son surprised me by asking where hamburgers come from. When I told him, he wasn’t just appalled–he refused to believe it. “No way!” he said. It’s true, I told him, adding that milk, cheese, butter, bologna, and those frozen IKEA meatballs he likes so much are among the foods that come from that single four-legged source. “You mean McDonald’s?” he asked, still unable to comprehend the terrible truth.

He’s hardly alone in his blissful ignorance about where food really comes from. “It took me years, and a farm, to finally link a livestock animal’s life with my own,” says Friend, the author of several books for children and adults. In her latest book, The Compassionate Carnivore, she argues that pasture walks like the one we’re taking would be an excellent way to promote health – both for humans and the animals who give their lives for our dining pleasure.

 

Americans eat more meat than anybody on earth, packing away approximately 200 pounds per person in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which forecasts that we’ll add another 20 pounds of it annually by 2016.

An unabashed animal lover, Friend is also an unapologetic animal eater who admits to having survived graduate school on a steady diet of fried SPAM. She is also a “sustainable farmer,” who along with her partner, Melissa, is responsible for the care and feeding of the 35 ewes and more than 70 spring lambs gamboling in a lovely grove of box elder trees nearby. In spite of her obvious affection for the sheep–she calls out their assigned numbers as if their first names and compares the animal’s sturdy shoulders to that of “little football players”– later this year, when they reach their full weight of about 120 pounds, she fully intends to send them to the slaughterhouse. “This is what we do for a living,” she explains. “We’re shepherds.”

The subtitle of her new book– How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old McDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoof Print, and Still Eat Meat – seems intended to reassure rather than enrage the estimated 93 to 98 percent of Americans who make meat a regular part of their diet. In fact, Americans eat more meat than anybody on earth, packing away approximately 200 pounds per person in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which forecasts that we’ll add another 20 pounds of it annually by 2016.

The vast majority of the animals that come to our table are raised on large-scale factory operations and are not afforded the same creature comforts you’ll find at Friend’s farm, where about four dozen chickens wander freely, snacking on bugs and dozing in the sun. Ninety-eight percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens crammed several to a small cage, while 95 percent of the hogs raised in this country spend their entire life cycle indoors, according to the USDA.

Aside from the obvious ethical concerns about raising animals this way, the health and environmental consequences of factory farming are beginning to make even the most dedicated meat-eaters a little queasy. What does it mean to our own health when, as the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used to treat healthy livestock? What do we make of the 2006 United Nations report revealing that our growing appetite for meat is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions? And just how mad are those mad cows anyway?

While recent bestsellers such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation have turned that kind of data into dinner-party conversation, Friend comes to the table at a slightly different angle. Unlike The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, she’s not against corn. “We aren’t huge fans of corn and we don’t feed our lambs very much, but on our farm it’s a challenge to raise entirely grass-fed lambs,” she explains. And unlike Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she’s not suggesting that we all try growing our own food. Friend’s painfully funny 2006 memoir, Hit by a Farm, makes it clear that not everyone is cut out for agriculture.

Though she’s well versed on the health and environmental concerns that come with conventionally-raised meat, Friend says that’s not why she wrote her latest book. “My main interest is in the well-being of animals,” she says, calling out to one of the three llamas that protect her flock from animal predators. “I know it seems odd, but this is how farming works–we work our butts off to keep our animals alive and healthy, and then we kill them.”

To critics who wonder why she hasn’t become a vegetarian, she argues that meat-eaters have more impact on the lives of farm animals by “remaining at the table” and using their muscle as consumers to force more humane farming practices. After all, she says, the increase in vegetarians–about 5 percent of the US population, according to estimates she cites– hasn’t decreased the demand for meat which has grown by almost 25 pounds per person in the past 25 years.

“But as carnivores, because we’re responsible for [the animals’] deaths, we’re also responsible for their lives,” she writes. It’s a paradox, she adds, that most people seem to appreciate. A 2004 Ohio State University survey found that 81 percent of respondents believe the health and well-being of livestock animals is just as important as that of pets.

Improve farm animals’ lives in the following ways, Friend says, and the positive side effects will also include improved health for those who eat them:

First, she says, “pay attention.” Though clever marketing tries to convince us that protein springs fully formed from the freezer section, there is carnage involved: almost 8.9 billion animals (not including fish) are butchered every year to feed us. Since that number may be difficult to grasp, Friend, a former economist, performs a rough calculation in her book, dividing that number by 300 million Americans (minus the 5 percent who don’t eat meat) and then multiplying the results by 80 years, and arrives at 2,500–the number of livestock animals butchered for each meat-eating American in his or her lifetime. Eating less meat wouldn’t kill us–or nearly as many of them. As Friend points out, the 16-ounce steak that’s common in many restaurants is in fact 300% larger than the serving size recommended by the USDA.

Second, she says, “Waste less.” According to Friend’s research, Americans throw 22.5 million pounds of meat in the garbage every day–the equivalent of 15,000 cows, 36,000 hogs and 2 million chickens. “No one–no one–can feel good about these numbers,” she says.

Perhaps predictably, Friends suggests replacing some of that factory-raised meat on our plates with the lamb chops and chicken breasts raised on sustainable farms like here—though she’s not the only one making this suggestion. Various sources from the Sierra Club to New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman have been promoting this sort of change, and the menu options are improving apace. Even a small but growing number of fast food chains such as Chipotle and Burgerville have been eschewing factory-raised meat in favor of animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.

Less predictably, Friend suggests going meatless more often, a campaign the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has promoted since 2005, when its “Healthy People 2010” report showed that vegetarians typically weigh less than meat-eaters and suffer from lower rates of type 2 diabetes and other diseases.

 

 

I quite enjoyed my visit to Friend’s farm, and when I got home I was still ruminating on what I saw there. The little calf that nipped at my backside nipped at my conscience a few days later as I stood in the grocery meat aisle, comparing the conventionally-raised sirloin at $4.99 a pound with the grass-fed variety priced at $10.99. I swallowed hard and thought about how happy that calf and his buddies looked. So I bought the expensive stuff, but less of it than usual. It was, I must add, delicious.

Something similar happened on a rotisserie-chicken weeknight, after my family had picked through the breast meat. Holding the bird’s rib cage over the garbage can I thought of the chickens I’d seen on Friend’s farm, and as I paused to consider what I was doing, I realized there was still food attached to the bones. I believe it’s called “dark meat.” Chicken salad the following evening was great– plus it was practically free.

My farm tour helped me connect the dots between where animals live and where I do. This month while we’re taking in the last of the fall colors, I plan to take my kids on a pasture walk of their own at one of the growing number of sustainable farms that are glad to sell their products directly to people like me. It’s time to teach my kids what McNuggets look like when they’re still on two legs.
This article was originally published in Mpls/St. Paul magazine, October 2008

 

 

 

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