Thursday, 2 June 2011

Thinking About Meat

Thinking about anything these days isn't easy. There's a tidal wave of information out there, and the skillful marketing types directing our attention to what they want, or away from what they want us to ignore.

On complex questions (eating meat is easy, thinking about the environmental and ethical issues is way harder), I first try to get back to basics. Most of what we throw on the BBQ are what's called herbivores. They eat grasses, plants, shrubs, even parts of trees. They generally have complex digestive systems  (several stomachs in cows for example), which allows this carbon-rich material to be broken down, something our stomachs couldn't do (just as we can't photosynthesize like plants). So for our pioneering ancestors cattle, sheep, goats etc could graze on poor, sloping land that couldn't grow crops,  but produce protein rich food necessary for survival.

Our current "feedlot" system began after the second world war. It was shown to be much more cost effective to concentrate cattle. for example,  in huge  numbers close to where the feed was being grown. Feed would then come to the cattle, rather than cattle moving onto grazing land.  There were and continue to be huge health and environmental consequences to this. Diseases can spread quickly when large numbers of animals are packed closely together, so the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics has become widespread. And for reasons scientists don't quite understand these low doses of antibiotics help cattle to gain weight more quickly. Medical doctors worry this widespread use of antibiotics cause bacteria to evolve, making the antibiotics less effective, or useless. Then of course  there's the huge concentration of manure and  waste that risks groundwater, and waterways.  This is a long way from the "natural" role livestock played on farms a century ago(eating what we can't eat), fertilizing pastures on their own, but the meat now sure is cheap and widely available.

Then of course there's the killing. In my early twenties I decided if I was going to eat meat, I should raise and kill the animal myself.  I've done that, and I would never say it was anything but unsettling. My only rule, don't do it unless it can be done  quickly and with confidence, it's the only way to avoid (lessen) the suffering of the animal.  According to books I've read, in ancient cultures no one was supposed to be responsible for killing animals all the time, it should be a difficult thing to do if you haven't lost your soul. The kind of specialization we have now started with the industrialization of the meat business late in the 1800's. Now it's done well out of sight in a handful of huge packing plants killing thousands of cattle a day (not the beef plant in Bordon, it's a tiny operation which is one of the reasons the economics are so tough). Most consumers first see the slaughtered steer wrapped in cellophane on a white styrofoam sheet.

My current rule is to buy meat produced as close to natural as possible here in the Maritimes.  The feedlots in this region are considerably smaller than ones in Ontario and Western Canada, and they play an important role in crop rotations, providing a market for hay and grain.

This region has lost a lot of livestock production over the last 5 years (because of depressed prices). There was a report last week from Statistics Canada that on the surface looked positive, but really wasn't.  Cattle and pig prices have been going up, and the Stats Canada report said revenue from livestock sales had taken a big jump, but farm officials warn this is mainly because cattle producers have been waiting for better prices to sell of their herds, to help repay the huge amount of debt they took on getting through the lean years. It's not a pretty sight.

Three stories, one a little strange, on raising and eating meat.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg only eats meat he kills himself
by Leo Hickman  •

I have yet to see The Social Network1, the film about the founding of Facebook2, but, from what I gather, Mark Zuckerberg3 is portrayed as being, shall we say, a little intense.

This perception of Facebook's multi-billionaire, 27-year-old founder and CEO has been magnified over the past 24 hours by his admission that he is currently only eating meat from animals he has personally killed himself.

Earlier this month, he surprised his 847 friends on his private Facebook page4 when he posted: "I just killed a pig and a goat."

According to Fortune, the idea came from a chef called Jesse Cool who runs a restaurant called Flea Street Café6, close to Zuckerberg's home in Palo Alto, California. She introduced him to some local farmers who showed him how best to kill his first chicken, pig and goat. "He cut the throat of the goat with a knife, which is the most kind way to do it," says Cool.

Zuckerberg has subsequently explained, via an email to Fortune7, that his new-found predilection for slaughtering animals is just his latest annual challenge. Last year, he challenged himself to learn Mandarin. The year before, it was to wear a tie every day. (Given this sense of escalation, we now await next year's challenge with some interest.) He said:

    This year, my personal challenge is around being thankful for the food I have to eat. I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat, so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have. This year I've basically become a vegetarian since the only meat I'm eating is from animals I've killed myself. So far, this has been a good experience. I'm eating a lot healthier foods and I've learned a lot about sustainable farming and raising of animals.

    I started thinking about this last year when I had a pig roast at my house. A bunch of people told me that even though they loved eating pork, they really didn't want to think about the fact that the pig used to be alive. That just seemed irresponsible to me. I don't have an issue with anything people choose to eat, but I do think they should take responsibility and be thankful for what they eat rather than trying to ignore where it came from.

I imagine some vegetarians might want to argue with him on the point of whether he can described himself as "basically a vegetarian" just because he slaughters his own dinner, but it is certainly a far more thought-provoking challenge than wearing a tie each day. In fact, I would go further and repeat the sentiment of Michael Pollan8, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma9, who tweeted10 earlier today: "Good for him."

Anything that helps to show meat-eaters - of which I am one - the full, often harrowing process involved in getting that lump of dead animal to their plate should be encouraged. It is often noted that most meat-eaters are ignorant - and wish to remain so - about the mechanics of how an animal is reared, slaughtered, butchered and packaged for human consumption. Hopefully, Zuckerberg's high profile will ignite interest and debate around this sensitive subject.

Farm income increase cloaks danger signals


Despite a muscular boom in farm income in 2010 accompanied by a sharp drop in expenses, the farm picture "isn’t as rosy as it seems," Canadian Federation of Agriculture Ron Bonnett said last week. Ontario Federation of Agriculture general manager Neil Currie described prices as "volatile" with "wild swings" threatening stability.

After studying two end-of-May reports from Statistics Canada, Bonnett said rising prices and a recovery in the livestock industry "look like good news" but the reality is that farmers sold off inventory – "stuff they had in storage" – and input costs dropped last year "because a lot of crop was never planted, especially in Western Canada, so it didn’t need fertilizer" and the price of fertilizer also fell.

"What’s of great concern is that the farm debt-load also increased and a spike in interest rates will threaten the viability of many farm operations," Bonnett said.

On Tuesday, the Bank of Canada announced it was maintaining its overnight rate target at one per cent but warned in a news release that “some of the considerable monetary policy stimulus currently in place will be eventually withdrawn, consistent with achieving the two per cent inflation target.”

On May 25, StatsCan reported that realized net farm income in 2010 soared to $4.5 billion (46.1 per cent) and the upward trend continued into the first quarter of 2011, hitting a record high of $12.1 billion, an increase of 8.8 per cent over the first quarter of 2010.

At the same time the price of fertilizer dropped abruptly (30.9 per cent in Ontario, 22.2 per cent nationally) after rising sharply in 2007-2009.

Noting that StatsCan’s revised 2009 income report "shows a net loss of about $1.5 million while the 2010 forecast was reduced to a positive net income of $627 million," Currie said: "Income volatility such as this cannot be managed by farmers themselves. These wild swings reinforce the need for pragmatic and bankable risk management programs that work for farmers across commodities.

"We anticipate continued volatility in the coming years due to significant weather impact and market reactions," Currie added.

StatsCan said realized net farm income (the difference between a farmer's cash receipts and operating expenses, minus depreciation plus income in kind) rose in every province except Alberta and New Brunswick. The increase in 2010 followed a 16.6 per cent drop in 2009.

The slight drop in farm cash receipts for the first quarter of 2011 follows a 7.5 per cent decline between the first quarters of 2009 and 2010.

For 2010, farm cash receipts, which include crop and livestock revenues plus program payments, increased in every province except Manitoba (-4.0 per cent) and British Columbia (-2.2 per cent). Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island all recorded double-digit increases in receipts, StatsCan reported.

Market receipts from the sale of crops and livestock this year amounted to $11.3 billion, up 8.6 per cent from 2010. Crop receipts rose 9.7 per cent to $6.4 billion, while livestock receipts were up 7.3 per cent to $5.0 billion.

Firm grain prices are expected after the International Grains Council reported that
global carryover grain stocks are set to fall to their lowest level in three years. In addition, estimates for oilseed stocks tightened, fuelled by growing demand from emerging economies and for biofuels.

Cattle and calf receipts rose in the first quarter of 2011 by 9.5 per cent to $1.6 billion, while hog receipts increased 10.8 per cent to $926 million. In the supply-managed sector (dairy, poultry and eggs), farm cash receipts from the first quarter rose 4.3 per cent over the same period in 2010.

Hooked on Meat

KAS,, TURKEY — I sit on this peaceful peninsula marveling at how long it’s been since Odysseus sailed the eastern Mediterranean. Then I realize that those millennia are nothing compared with how long our species might take to adapt to the inexorable spread of the American diet.

Once, we had to combine hunting skills and luck to eat meat, which could supply then-rare nutrients in large quantities. This progressed — or at least moved on — to a stage where a family could raise an annual pig and maybe keep a cow and some chickens. Quite suddenly (this development is no more than 50 years old, even in America), we can drive to our nearest burger shop and scarf down a patty — or two! — at will.

Because evolution is a slow process, this revolutionary change has had zero impact on the primal urge that screams, “Listen, dummy, if you can find meat you’d better eat it, because who knows when you’ll eat it again!” At some point our bodies may adapt to consuming unlimited quantities of meat or — a better alternative — our minds will crave less. Right now, primal urge and modern availability form a deadly combo.

We’re crack addicts with a steady supply. Beyond instinct and availability, there’s a third factor: marketing. When you add “It’s what’s for dinner” to the equation, you have a powerful combination: biology, economics and propaganda all pushing us in the same direction.

Those who were born in mid-to-late 20th century America take this for granted; I grew up eating meat seven days a week, usually for lunch and dinner, sometimes for breakfast, too. But the phenomenon is global: there’s more than twice as much meat available per person than there was in 1950. Citizens of most developed nations have gone down the same path, and as the poor become less so, they buy more meat, too.

Now, some European countries appear to be leading the way out of the abyss, not only with the food they call “biologically” produced (a term roughly equivalent to “organic”) but in saner ways of eating, which start with cutting back on some animal products; Germans’ per capita consumption of meat is down about 20 percent since 1990. (American meat consumption has dropped ever so slightly in recent years, most likely the result of a decline in income and an increase in both population and exports, which reduced supply and increased prices. Maybe conscious eating gets some credit also.)

As better-educated citizens of wealthier nations change direction, however, those whose opportunities and privileges have been delayed until now have every intention of catching up, not only by buying cars and TVs but by “enriching” their diet. Remember, it’s our nature.
Instinct, availability and marketing leave us addicted to meat.

The extreme example is China, whose soaring meat consumption is dramatically affecting the global markets for corn, soy, poultry and pork. But even here in Turkey, which is hardly an economic miracle, the diet is rocketing into the 20th century, moving away from the traditional and toward the inevitable.

Turkey’s diet was classic Mediterranean, of course, high in all kinds of plants, olive oil, some dairy (yogurt and feta, mostly) and a bit of fish, lamb or goat. Now it’s a jumble: a rural grocery store I visited displayed American-style breakfast cereal and plenty of soda front and center, along with (good) local vegetables, industrially produced dairy, and a small supply of expensive, stylishly packaged legumes and grains. There was no fish, lamb or goat, but there were at least 10 cuts of beef and lots of chicken. (Chicken consumption has nearly tripled here in the last 20 years.)

As in much of the world, the local fish is mostly gone. A fish store had wild sea bass, a half-dozen farm-raised species, and a freezer full of commodity fish from elsewhere. A restaurant in Istanbul that had blown my mind 10 years ago with its local variety was offering wild turbot (decidedly not local) and swordfish, along with a few fish that the waiter kindly un-pushed: “These are from the farm,” he said, “so why bother?”

As much as we like eating animals, naturally crave them and are encouraged by misinformation (often a better word than “marketing”), the waiter’s advice — “why bother?” — holds true for at least 90 percent of the animal products we’re offered, no matter what their form. They’re produced badly, they cause immeasurable damage to both our bodies and the earth, and — compared with the real thing — they don’t taste that good.

In limited quantities, meat is just fine, especially sustainably raised meat (and wild game), locally and ethically produced dairy and eggs, the remaining wild or decently cultivated fish.

No matter where we live, if we focused on those — none of which are in abundant supply, which is exactly the point — and used them to augment the kind of diet we’re made to eat, one based on plants as a staple, with these other things as treats, we’d all be better off. We can’t afford to wait to evolve.

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