Since the 1960’s, our penchant for consuming animal meats has risen 50%. With this demand, factory farms have become the standard for producing large quantities of cheap meat, but at what cost? There is a human health cost, an unsustainable environmental burden, and an ethical cost to the animal itself. For humans, there are clear associations between diets heavily laden with animal meats and fat and the presence of chronic disease. Additionally, with farm animals consuming over 70% of the antibiotics used in this country, antibiotic resistance has been developing rapidly and is a major concern for the treatment of infections in humans. Furthermore, the tremendous amounts of waste products from factory farms affects ecosystems downstream, creates contaminated bacteria-laden drinking water, destroys aquatic life and affects nearby air quality. As an environmental burden, factory farms are an outright disaster generating enormous amounts of greenhouse gases to the tune of 18% of total emissions. Paul Hawken, environmentalist and social activist, estimates that we need to decrease the population of the 3.5 billion farm animals we eat and milk for the health of our planet. And as for the issue of animal cruelty, if we care to look at the journey that a piece of animal meat has made from factory farm to table, I’d bet most of us would drop our meat consumption dramatically. (Easier to read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), than to gain access to a factory farm). One of my favorite animated commentaries on factory farms, now certainly a classic, is The Meatrix (2003) . Moopheus, a trench coat-wearing cow, instructs Leo, a factory pig, on the true realities and illusions of the seemingly picture-perfect farm. Though small family farms are beginning to gain consciousness in the public, thanks to the local food movement and the slew of food contamination stories and food recalls that continue to persist in the news, factory farms have held on. What’s an ethical omnivore to do? Most recently, New Scientist (Sept 5-11, 2009) reported on the very real possibility that animals can be genetically engineered not to feel pain, making it a guilt-free experience for us; the factory farm can then become morally acceptable for some. “If factory farming must exist, then surely we have a moral duty to limit the distress it inflicts.” And this makes moral sense, the author argues, “only in a world that has already devalued animal lives to the point where factory farming is acceptable.” What’s even more disturbing is that research is being done on producing meat in a petri dish (gasp!). Animal muscle cells are grown in vitro and live off chemical nutrients, growth factors, proteins and hormones. There is even an organization called the "In Vitro Meat Consortium" to promote this new science! Hopefully, as awareness takes hold of all of us, will we find factory farming no longer acceptable. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream especially since the world population is increasing at the rate of 74 million people per year. Feeding new arrivals will become more and more difficult. I suppose this is the modern day equivalent to Soylent Green, Charleton Heston’s futurist sci-fi cult flick about over-population and the problem of how to feed them.
Personally, I am not a vegetarian though I do eat meat sparingly and try to comprise most of my diet from vegetables, grains and fish and I do advocate this diet for others as well. However, our country’s attachment to low cost meat will only continue to sustain the factory farm. Only when we treat meat as a condiment and luxury, will we become free, not only from these unsustainable and inhumane practices, but from the chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease that are so often linked to diets largely comprised of meat. I first became aware of this situation when I read Michael Pollan’s pivotal piece in the NYT “Power Steer” (2002) about the meat industry. It made me start thinking about how food, any type of food, gets on my plate. It will take a similar consciousness, I think, for others to start making global, ethical and health-related decisions with what they decide to eat.
What am I advocating exactly?
1. Reduced consumption of meat and an increase in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. This is a no brainer reinforced by observations made in other cultures who consume less meat and who not only live longer but have less cancer and heart disease -- the 2 biggest killers in our country.
2. When eating meat, buy meat from a family farm where cows are pasture-raised (grassfed). This changes the actual quality of the meat: there’s more omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid compared to their conventional grain-fed animals (see documentary film King Corn) and there is an ethical satisfaction knowing that these animals led a life with much less suffering.
3. Eating meat this way is expensive. Eat less of it and increase your vegetable intake.
Hemlock Hill Farm
Finding local grassfed meat was difficult, until recently. My local butcher store in Rockland County, NY raised their eyebrows when I asked for it, Whole Foods only had it periodically and it was rarely local leaving me to buy it on occasion in Manhattan usually at the Union Square Green Market. Then I found Hemlock Hill Farm in Westchester county less than an hour from Manhattan. This family farm has 120 acres and has been in the De Maria family for 70 years. In addition to Black Angus cattle, which they raise grass-fed but grain-finished, they also offer lamb, pig, goat, chicken, rabbit, geese, duck, and turkey. What is most astonishing about this place is that you can just walk around and visit the grounds freely. There is nothing to hide. Animals are treated well and it’s all there for you to inspect yourself. More importantly, Hemlock Hill Farm slaughters its own animals. This is a crucial difference from other small farms which often lack the capability and space to slaughter their own animals. Oftentimes when small farms bring their animals to large scale slaughterhouses, they can’t always be sure that they are getting back the same animal that they so lovingly raised and cared for. When we attended the Young Farmers’ Conference at Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in December 2008, we heard stories from some farmers who would bring a cattle to a slaughter facility and got back a cattle slaughtered and containing five legs! Hemlock Hill Farms has always slaughtered their own meat. John De Maria, a soft-spoken affable farmer and military veteran, brought us into the slaughter area where a large pig was being processed and a showed us a freshly skinned venison in the freezer. I buy much of my meat and poultry here and stock it in a large freezer at home. It is some of the best tasting meat I’ve ever bought. Also important is that since there is not multiple "middle men" between the farmer and the consumer, the price of the meat is reasonable and the farmer is able to make more of a profit.
Want to find meat, poultry, dairy and eggs raised sustainably on small, family farms? Visit the Eat Well Guide for a listing of farms, stores, and restaurants in your area. (US and Canada).
Atlantic Monthly reports on how petri dish pork is one step closer...