Last Wednesday, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in the front row at The Carnivore’s Dilemma: How to Eat Meat Responsibly, hosted by the Jamaica Plain Forum and Boston Localvores, held at the Unitarian Universalist First Church at 6 Eliot St. in JP. People milled around wearing “Meat of Known Origin” t-shirts featuring smiling cartoon cows, and a raffle was held for a month’s supply of frozen meat (no, I didn’t win, thanks for asking).
The meeting centered around a panel discussion involving three local meat suppliers: Ridge Shinn, a cattle farmer; Kim Denney, owner/operator of Chestnut Farm Meat CSA; and Jamey Lionette, an author and local food activist.
Before those three had their say, though, a 2-minute film was screened, showing the living conditions of chickens, cattle, and pigs who are commercially bred specifically to end up in our McDonald’s hamburgers. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Squeamish fraidy-cat that I am, I had managed in my food/blogging/journalism career to as yet never, ever watch one of these frightful films. I mean, I knew they weren’t treated well. But watching it at the UU church, I was brought practically to tears listening to inverted chickens wail for their lives before being electrocuted into unconsciousness (hopefully, for their sakes), before bleeding to death out of their beaks. (Animal lovers both, Kristie and I reached for each other’s hands at exactly the same moment.)
After the video ended and my stomach calmed, Jamey said something that made me feel better. We don’t need to feel guilty for eating meat, he said. It’s natural. We’re omnivores. It’s not something we should feel bad about. It is something, however, that must be done in the right way.
That right way is easier than you might think, starting with cutting back on our overall meat consumption. You don’t have to get rid of it all (a feat I would personally never attempt to endeavor; we all love our bacon), but a somewhat substantial amount has got to go. Jamey spoke about the “reality of supply and demand”; about how the more beef we eat, the more land we need to feed the cattle (mostly with corn and grain), and therefore the less land we’ll have to actually grow good, real, food meant for people (vegetables! Remember those?).
By purchasing locally grown, 100% grass-fed beef, you can do so much. Ridge referred to the process as being “solar-powered”: because all the cattle eat is grass, no petroleum goes into the production or shipping of grain. “Grain changes everything,” Ridge said. Even when it’s introduced into the cattle’s diet for only their final 30 or 60 days, the acidity can drastically affect the omega-3’s and 6’s in the meat; not to mention the fact that E. coli bacteria love grain (they love it!). There’s no sense in exposing our families and loved ones to meat of substandard nutrition, that may also house life-threatening bacteria.
Yes, I know, locally-grown, organic products often cost more than what’s in mainstream grocery stores (Whole Foods included). Jamey vented his frustration with consumers who are unwilling to pay more for their food, supplying the statistic that Americans spend approximately 11% of our income on what we eat; the lowest our nation has ever seen, and the lowest in the world. Let’s think about priorities, here. I love my cell phone; but I love my community more. I’m not saying we should stop paying our phone bills, but let’s think twice about buying a new item of clothing every week. Food has become a commodity rather an sustenance, as Jamey put it. Food has become a non-priority item for many Americans. According to Ridge, “sustainability is about everybody along the chain making money,” from the farm to the slaughterhouse to your local butcher or farmers market who supplies the local meat you love (I swear, they’re out there.) Wouldn’t it be great if everybody on that chain were all members of your community?
Another thing that makes the food we find in mainstream grocery stores cheaper is that many items are produced with genetically modified organisms, or “GMO’s.” Sounds appetizing, right? Companies that own the patented genetics of your corn use their patents to put small farmers out of business across North America at an alarming rate. If GMO corn pollinates small-farm corn (something that happens all the time and is absolutely unpreventable) and the GMO companies can prove that their genetic material is being grown on Farmer Joe’s property (most likely without his knowledge, much less intent), they sue Joe and his family for all they’re worth. Yes, it’s legal, and yes, most of the time the big companies win. Also, GMO food kills butterflies and other kinds of important Nature. Did we forget to mention that? Good thing we’re eating it, huh?
Long story short…everything’s different about locally-raised meat. Kim names every single one of her cattle, saying that this connection enhances the quality of the animals’ lives. All three of her kids have butchered their dinners, and no doubt have a much different perspective than kids who think beef is born wrapped in cellophane. Demand more local food of a higher quality at your grocery store. Spend more on what fuels your children’s bodies. Grow peppers in your backyard. Join a CSA with friends or family members, and directly support your community members. It’s not hard, it will change everything, and guess what? It tastes better.