June 10, 2010

Food Self-Sufficiency & Meat

In my last post, I updated you on our chickens. Although I mentioned culling them, there is much in my heart that I did not mention. My goal is to do that today.

If you a homesteader and are vegetarian, then the question of butchering your own meat is not a question at all. In fact, the topic is likely disagreeable, to say the least. If you are a meat eater however, it is a question of no little importance, especially if your goal is to be self-sufficient and have a self-sustaining food supply.

In some ways it seems odd that this should be a question at all. Backyard flocks of chickens were once common in our culture, along with backyard gardens, even in urban areas. Butchering chickens was an acceptable culinary skill, practiced by almost every housewife. Yet butchering one's own meat is a concept that it largely foreign today. So much so, that some who've blogged about it have incurred the wrath of protesters who make mean-spirited, anonymous, potshot comments on the subject. I contemplated this before I chose to blog about it myself.

I think though, that the heart of such protests are less about dietary choices and the rights of animals, and more about how far corporate farming and food industrialization have taken us from the natural world. Our so called advancements have mentally and emotionally sanitized us to the point where most people are no longer in touch with where food actually comes from. (It comes from the grocery store in tidy packages , right?) Or what real food is. ("But I like the taste of chemicals," someone once told me.) This isn't limited to meat. I have relatives who refuse to eat anything out of the garden because it didn't come from a store.

Another example illustrating this breach from natural reality, is fabric and clothing. Would it surprise you to know that a common question folks ask at handspinning demonstrations is, "do the sheep have to be killed in order to get the 'fur' "? Whoa. I remember having a unit on farm animals in the 1st grade, don't they teach that stuff anymore? It's as though the more technologically advanced we get, the stupider we become.

Many of us are aware of this, hence the growing movement toward homesteading and simpler living. However, simpler doesn't' necessarily mean easier. Simple living requires a lot of hard work, as well as making a lot of hard choices. If one wants to eat meat, then what to do about it is one of those choices.

When we ordered our chicks, we got straight run (i.e. mixed sex, theoretically 50/50), with the intention of keeping all but one rooster and using the rest for meat. It was a deliberate decision and at the time, we understood that was more than a mere intellectual one. Because of this, we had to view our chickens in a certain light from the beginning, not as pets but as livestock. That's why we never named them. We had to keep in mind that their purpose was not to provide companionship, but to provide eggs, meat, manure, and hopefully, more chickens. In addition, we had to view them with a sense of responsibility, of stewardship if you will, understanding that someday we will be accountable for how we have treated everything we've been given.

Even so, this experience has had its emotional ups and downs. The concept of butchering a chicken seems straightforward enough, but we didn't know the step by step details of the process. We read the books and websites, only to discover that there are a number of methods. This meant more decisions. In addition was the uncertainty of never having done it before, and the sense of clumsiness that comes with any new skill. Our sense of responsibility required that it be done quickly and with as little stress and suffering for the chicken as possible. Could we manage that the first time around?

To not beat around the bush, we bought a killing cone, and Dan slit its throat. We plucked it, eviscerated it, roasted it, and ate it. To be honest it did not go as smoothly as we might have hoped and the truth of the matter at that point, was that we didn't know if we wanted to do it again. In spite of trying to steel ourselves against the emotion of the whole thing, we had the emotions of an awkward new experience to deal with anyway.

Still, we had to do something. We had 11 more cockerels to deal with, some of which were becoming aggressive, greedy bullies. Craigslist was filled with young roosters for sale, from folks looking for their own solution to the same problem.

It made us re-evaluate. Our motivation to raise our own meat came not only from our goal for food self-sufficiency, but also from personal convictions about the sources of the food we eat. What were our other options? Take them to a butcher? Well, that would take the "self" out of "self-sufficiency," wouldn't it? Give up eating meat?

To be honest I've been very take-it-or-leave it (mostly leave-it) when it comes to eating meat. I tried for years to convince Dan to become vegetarian, with no success whatsoever. After reading Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon however, and further researching what I read, I realized that meatless diets, as well as whole grains, and vegetable oils are associated with enough health problems to cause me to re-think everything we eat and how I prepare it.

In the end we pressed on. We allowed ourselves to experience the emotions of our inexperience, but did not dwell on them. We allowed ourselves time to learn and adjust to this new part of our lives. The rest of the processing went better, though I can't say we have this skill down to a science. Both of us will admit that it will never be our favorite thing to do, but Dan is talking about raising meat chicks next spring and ordering the plans for a Whizbang chicken plucker .

Like any other journey, the one to becoming self-sustaining is taken one step at a time. Some steps are easy to take, others are not. The forks in the road must be thought out with care, and with a view to the consequences of the choices we make. Yet there is no other road for us, no other journey we can take. So we press on, rejoicing in the progress we make and thankful to be able to make it at all.


Alison said...

I'm so glad you're tackling this issue. It's an incredibly difficult one for me. I consider myself to be hypocritical about the issue (because I do eat meat), but I think I would find it incredibly difficult to slaughter my own animals, particularly mammals. The rest of butchering - skinning/plucking/dressing/jointing - is less of an issue. Thought skinning - hmm. Certainly, I'd have little problem once it didn't look like *my* animal any more. Slaughtering animals that I don't personally know would definitely be easier.
I think it is the association of a personality with a particular body that gets to me - plus the idea of an individual that I know and have cared for possibly being subjected to distress. And, ultimately of course, the end of that personality. I'm horrendously empathic.
But then, maybe it's fear of the unknown, too. My uncle used to wring chickens' necks with a flip of the wrist. It looked easy, accomplished, painless, instant. The 'perfect' death, in many ways. If I could know that it would be 'that easy' (which, clearly, it wouldn't be, at least at first - you have written about your experiences so well!), then I'd be less anxious. If even someone who grew up around a farm is can have these worries...?

Geodyne said...

I wondered how you felt about culling your chickens as you did it, and I'm pleased you've put your experience there honestly.

I'm a vegetarian, but that's a matter of default: my brain and body just don't recognise meat as food. It's never bothered me that other people eat meat. What does bother me is people who deride vegetarians and boast about their love of meat, and yet get squeamish at the idea of meat coming from anything other than a neat supermarket plastic tray.

What you're doing is what I feel self-sufficiency is all about: taking responsibility for your food chioces. It's an act that earns a huge amount of respect from me. It's one of the reasons why we do this.

I'm also fortunate in that if I ever decide that one of my chickens needs to be culled, I have a colleague who will happily take it off my hands, kill, pluck and eat it (almost certainly as stew or pie, as it will be an old boiler by that time). I'm totally comfortable with that thought. I'd rather the animal be used the table of a person who will appreciate it than go to waste.

Theresa said...

Bravo Leigh, thanks for another great post. I too am not a big meat eater.We have discussed purchasing both a butcher pig and cow. Needless to say, neither of us was up for challenge. If it comes on this property it ends up as a pet no matter what our goal might be at the end. Instead, we have chosen in the past to go halves with someone who is far more pragmatic and experienced. There are a number of places locally that will butcher your animal. The place where I boarded my horses had one place come out and slaughter on the farm. It wasn't a wise move with the horses, who all freaked ( 20 something of them) but there are also places that will pick up your food stock live and slaughter on their premises. They used this service to good advantage and still do as far as I know.
I am lucky in that we live in an area that has a lot of organic sustainable small farms, from veggies to buffalo and all can be procured on Tuesday morning at the local farmers market. Not to mention local honey and home made tamalies,

Woolly Bits said...

one of the reasons we have no chickens (yet?) is the problem of slaughtering them. I don't esp. like touching any meat from the supermarket and doing it myself is a no-go.(yes, I agree with Alison - I am a hypocrite in this) and if I won't do it, I cannot really ask my DH to do it? I suppose in earlier times there was really no other choice and kids on farms learned from an early age how to deal with this. times have changed to a point, where some kids when asked explain that milk comes from tetrapacks in the supermarkets! which of course led to the point where animals are treated like convenience prducts with no regards to their welfare:(( I admire you for taking the bad with the good for your goal - though I am too much of a coward in this to do it myself.

Laura said...

I have done chickens, ducks and geese, but I somehow can't bring myself to do mammals... I wimp out and have someone with the appropriate tools for the job come and do it.

Email me and I'll tell you the quick and easy way to do chickens... Don't want to potentially incur the wrath of the PETA types out there!

That said, if I'm doing a couple of old hens, who become dog food, I do them myself. If I have 30 to do, I take them to a butcher. Having a fulltime job and a farm makes some of those decisions for you!

Renee Nefe said...

I'm sorry to hear that your got flack for culling the chickens. To me, I know that some animals were created to provide food for other animals...hence the entire predator vs prey thing. While I love how cute rabbits are, I know that they are prey animals and if they aren't eaten then they become a pest. Personally I find chickens a pest from day one ;o) I don't think that they are cute...they are tasty though.

Just the other day a new friend told us something... "There's a place for all God's creatures... beside mash potatoes & gravy on my plate."

And I think folks need to get over the squeemishness they have about food that comes from it's true source. I probably told you this... at the Girl Scout camp my daughter & I helped collect the eggs from the chicken coop and then learned that those eggs can not be fed to the campers...only the staff is allowed to eat them. Because for the camp certification only bleached & pasturized eggs can be fed to the campers. @@ I think there could be nothing better for the campers than farm fresh eggs. And I'm pretty sure it's against the law here to sell those eggs too...I know they're not allowed to sell raw milk. Crazy!

MiniKat said...

I think you and your DH should be commended for how well you are both thinking things through, planning, and keeping your livestock healthy. More power to you for raising your own meat.

One of these years I will be in the same boat as you as the amounts of antibiotics in commercial meats are starting to make me really sick.

I think I will have to work up slowly to the whole process. My FH will have to do most steps at first until I can wrap my head around the idea and processes involved.

Also, I was going to suggest you get an orange road cone for the job. A friend of ours uses one when he culls. It works great.

Benita said...

Actually, you and your husband sound like smart people. Being raised on a farm where we did raise our own chickens, ducks, geese, and steers for butchering and eating purposes (and we did name them), I grew up knowing that they were meant to be eaten. I even remember encouraging the animals to eat because they were "going to taste good come winter."

Yes, too many people don't know where their food and clothes come from, and yes, they need to be reeducated about this. Websites like yours, Farm Folly and Front Porch Indiana are great for this, as well as books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Slowly, but surely we need to take back our food from corporations and put it back into the hands of real farmers and people. I think everyone should have the priviledge of eating the food they raise with their own hands.

I think you have touched on an important subject and would love to see it examined from the angle of just how do we reeducate people into what real food is. As for that person who liked the taste of chemicals, you should have handed them the Windex and told them to enjoy. A lot of what is in their food isn't a whole lot different.

Nina said...

Well, we haven't nor do we intend to slaughter our chickens. We pay the couple of bucks a bird to have an abattoir do it for us. It's not just a comfort matter, but time issues and worries about cleanliness etc. My sweetie works a job with fairly long hours sometimes and is on call most of the time. With all the other work here and also a need for a bit of down time, it's well worth the few dollars a bird to not have to do that ourself and to know that everything is done in a clean environment. We don't have the facilities to do it properly or clean up afterwards here. It's a matter of choice, which is nice that we all have. The reality is there is only so much free time, resources and $ to go around, so we have to decide how each of us will use it for our own best uses.

Lee said...

Hi Leigh - We're vegetarian, and had a similar problem with sheep earlier on this year - too many for our small property. We had four wethers that we needed to cull to get numbers down to what was right for our property.

In this case, it was fairly easy - we herded them over to the neighbour's farm, and then they slaughtered them for us. Our neighbours then donated the meat (minus a portion for payment for the slaughter and butchering) to the Anglicare Food Bank.

As a result of having fewer sheep on our property, the pastures are now looking good, instead of overgrazed with the beginnings of degradation. In short, we had to cut our sheep numbers for the welfare of our land.

I think the question/topic of slaughtering our animals is *always* disagreeable, whether you're vegetarian or meat-eater, or somewhere in-between. I'd be thinking if someone actually enjoyed it, they'd be someone I'd be getting sent to a psychologist a bit quick!

Personally, I think the whole Weston A Price foundation is bunk, financed by the meat and dairy industry.

Their outdated takes on "meat and lots of it" and "cholesterol, fat and grease are good for you!" don't hold with modern nutritional science, which again and again tells us that a strongly whole foods, plant-based diet (not necessarily a *vegetarian* diet) is the healthiest way to go.

Nourishing Traditions, which I've read cover to cover a couple of times, just strikes me as an outdated cookbook.

Much like my mother's Margaret Fulton and Dairy cookbooks from the 1960s, it is full of grease and cheap cuts of meat, but none of it particularly appealing.

Many of the recipes also take a long time to prepare as well, so are not really suitable for busy mums.

I found the book nowhere near as good as, say, Jamie Oliver's fantastic new cookbooks :-) (I think Jamie's movement to get healthy cooking back into homes and our society is BLOODY BRILLIANT. The guy is a legend...but I digress...). And sales figures seem to suggest that the population, as a whole, agree with me - I don't see Fallon doing talks on TED or releasing cookware ranges any time soon. Jamie is awesome :-) Yay Jamie!

(OK I'll shut up now!)

Our family chooses to be vegetarian, and it works well for us. We donate the excess meat to people who need food - of any sort! We're vego for health and environmental reasons primarily, BTW - not for animal rights reasons.

But in the end, I think food self-sufficiency for most people would be a real wake-up call, if they actually had to try it. Most meat eaters I know have never killed a bird. I have. It's shocking the first time - it really is.

I think the best way to teach people about the value and cost of life is to get people to put their money where their mouths are, and make them kill what they eat.

Eat beef? Kill your own cow - look into its eyes and do it. And make sure that's a cow you raised from birth on your own land, sustainably. Then you know what you're eating.

Frankly, I don't believe our world can support the expected 9 billion people all eating a Weston A Price / Nourishing Traditions diet.

Living on a farm, as we do, teaches us just how expensive meat actually is, in real terms of energy, to produce and grow the animal.

Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I totally agree with you about so much of it!

Leigh said...

Alison, yes, fear of new experiences is an issue, and has been part of our difficulty. More so though, is that I think it's largely a lost concept (culturally) as well a lost skill. Even so, I don't think it's feasible for everyone to raise and butcher their own meat, especially in our day and age. There are some really excellent alternatives in the comments.

We read in several sources that wringing the neck is the fastest, easiest, and most humane way to actually do the killing. Dan really wanted to try it but hesitated. It's that, "but what if I don't kill it straight off" question that nags. Maybe next time.

Geodyne, emotions are a huge part of are experiences, aren't they! I didn't feel it was right to blog about one without the other, especially when so many others are struggling along the same path we are. I've appreciated the "hidden side" of homesteading as others have blogged about it and hoped it would be helpful and of interest to my own readers.

Those who criticize vegetarians are the other side of the coin, aren't they? I think folks who ridicule others for any reason demonstrate a sad basic problem in society today, that of lacking respect for others.

Theresa, thank you. Yours is an excellent solution, really, because it builds local, community food systems. I especially like the idea of going in halves for something large like beef. There's no way we could every eat a whole cow, nor is there any way we could slaughter suck a large animal on our homestead!

Bettina, I have to admit here that Dan stepped up to the plate and assumed the role of the actual slaughtering, so that I didn't have to! I admit I wonder too, if I could do it on my own if I had to. Again, it goes back to home butchering as a foreign concept.

I believe you're correct about earlier times. Scroll down to Benita's comment. She was raised on a farm and doesn't have the emotional issues to deal with on this topic.

[My replies continued in the next comment. Blogger evidently has a 4,096 character limit for comments! :)]

Leigh said...

Replies continued.....

Laura, I have to tell you, one method (that I didn't find on books or on the internet) was one I witnessed myself many years ago. The chicken was hypnotized first. The fellow held it down by it's neck, took his finger, and drew a line in the dirt from it's beak and away. When he removed his hand, the chicken just stayed there, head and neck stretched out along the ground. We were all mesmerized by this ourselves, and stood there staring at the hypnotized chicken. In a flash the fellow whacked it's head off with a hatchet. We were all so shocked I don't remember what happened after that. Except that we plucked, cooked,and ate the chicken.

Renee, that didn't actually happen to me. But it did happen to a couple of gals whose blogs I read. I've seen similar things happen in the fiber world as well.

So ironic about the menu at Girl Scout camp. They feed the girls dead, sterile food for the sake of "safety," yet it's the deadliest diet in the world. What have we come to.

Kat, excellent point. Unfortunately all the new food "safety" guidelines that congress is pushing though will only make the things worse. These are part of the reasons we've chosen to do our own meat. The concept does take some getting used to, both mentally and emotionally.

I heard about using those orange road cones after I'd already bought a killing cone. Even so, I like that ours is stainless steel. Makes proper clean-up a snap.

Benita, it's good to hear your perspective! Really, you support the point that so much of this is cultural.

I absolutely agree about taking back control of our own food, especially now, that the large corps are enabled to have more and more control. I've not read the book you mention, but have appreciated all the other bloggers out there who think and feel the same. In general, there seems to be a worldwide trend back toward agrarianism.

Educating folks though, is a real challenge, especially since there is such a huge difference between facts and experiences. I'm figuring out that head knowledge rarely changes behavior, but experiential knowledge almost always does. If facts alone could do it, no one would smoke, do drugs, drive over the speed limit, etc. Dan thinks everyone should spend a year on a working farm right after they graduate high school and before they go to college. :)

Nina, yours sounds like a very workable solution to your situation. We do have the time and set-up to be able to do our own processing, so it does make a difference. I think just raising your own chickens is a huge step toward your personal food independence.

Daharja, sounds like you've worked out a good solution too, to your farm verses dietary needs. As others have mentioned, dietary needs are highly individualized, and it does take personal experimentation, I think, to find the foods that are best for one's own body.

One question that used to nag me, was how our ancestors (even as recently as 100 years ago) could eat all the foods "science" tells us are bad for us, yet they rarely had the health problems we have today. Nourishing Traditions was the first source that offered an actual explanation to my question, and set me off on some research of my own. Unfortunately most food research is sponsored by industry, but fortunately, there are independent researchers out there as well.

Julie said...

I think that must be the hardest thing to do but something one must do if they are going to live off the land!

Nina said...

I imagine that the mandatory use of Sterile "egg" product rather than real eggs, has to do more with eliminating risk of lawsuits than safety issues. Sometimes groups take "due diligence" to the extreme. It's sad, very sad.

Leigh said...

Julie, I think it's hard because it's something we didn't grow up with. But you're correct, if we want to live off our land and eat meat, then it is something we had to learn to do.

Nina, I thought the same thing. Too, since they serve food, then they would need certification from the Dept of Health and have to follow their guidelines. I agree that it's a sad state to be in.


I can relate to your post having grown up the granddaughter, daughter and sister of butchers, I've seen my fair share of slaughter, butchering and preserving meats. I also can see the issue with people not being able to do it themselves, especially if they had a part in raising the animal. With that said, I think that you did what was necessary for your farm as you see fit, there should not be any blacklash on that, it's your farm, your animals and you should do as you need. I'm glad you could express your feelings and thoughts as you did.

Lee said...

Hi Leigh - I think our ancestors just ate what they could.

Food was scarce, which was why meat and dairy were so highly valued being concentrated calorie and fat sources.

It doesn't mean they're actually healthy for us, or contain a lot of nutrients (they don't), but they do contain a lot of calories., which were in short supply then.

I forget how many actual food products the typical supermarket sells, but I know it is in the thousands. Most of them are rubbish.

I like Michael Pollan's suggestion: don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.

That's how we eat. We avoid processed stuff, and eat a very simple, basic diet. I think that's probably the reason it looks like our son may lose his diagnosis of autism - something rarely heard of :-D We're just giving him what his body needs.

I also know that most hyperactive kids improve hugely on whole food diets - getting real vegetables, real fruit, whole grains, and a bit of meat maybe sometimes if they choose.

I think Nourishing Traditions and the whole Weston Price mob deal with more myth than reality, and I like to deal with fact, so I don't think much of them. We're vegetarian, but I don't think that's the key to a healthy diet - what I think *is* the key is eating real food, and most of it plants (although, as I said before, not necessarily vegetarian if the person chooses not to be).

Which is where WAP and I diverge - they're very meat and animal product-based, and the science and evidence of thousands of communities around the world simply don't support their views.

Food should be for thought. So thanks again for a thoughtful post and discussion :-)

And if you're ever down our way, I'll give you a chook, which you can choose and I'll chop it for you :-)

Kids and Canning Jars said...

I am supporting you and your goals. Jealous in some ways and not in the killing part. I grew up slaughter chickens for their meat. We have chickens for their eggs and will kill them off when they stop laying after a few years. Good luck! Becoming self- reliant can be a process.


Leigh said...

Deep End, thanks. The blogs I enjoy most are those by bloggers who aren't afraid to blog about the ups and downs of the things they do. I realized too, that some folks read mine for information because they are seeking the same thing we are seeking. I appreciate the sharing of similar learning experiences and think it would be inaccurate to not share all the aspects of the things we do, especially something so foreign like this!

Daharja, I agree, this has been an interesting discussion!

To be honest, I really don't know much about the Weston Price Foundation. I know they are in a couple of legal battles, one with the state of Illinois to stop substituting soy for meat in state prisoners' diets, and also supporting the fight with the dairy industry for the rights of consumers to buy raw milk. I did read through a few of their articles, but since many were by the same author as Nourishing Traditions, I looked elsewhere for supporting material.

The two issues I was most interested in were phytates in whole grains, and vegetable oils. The most helpful resources (among others) I have found on these have been Phytic Acid Tips for Consumers and Ray Peat's articles, particularly on vegetable oils. These have been the two biggest changes in the way I cook and we eat.

One immediate benefit we discovered from soaking our grains, is that Dan can now eat oatmeal, something he was formerly unable to digest.

What puzzled me about our ancestors, particularly the early settlers and pioneers of this nation, was that they ate diets heavy in meat and used meat fats exclusively, and yet rarely had the cancer and heart disease that are rampant today. As I mentioned, it was Nourishing Traditions that first addressed this with what made sense. I think it does in part point to other changes in the national diet over the years due to food industrialization, but also, that would indicate that these are not source of the problem.

Our concern with meat is what the animal is fed and how it is raised. I now have local sources for pasture (not grain) raised beef and pork which are given no growth hormones nor antibiotics, and are humanely butchered. It's more expensive, but then we don't eat huge amounts of it. Just enough so that DH doesn't complain about "where's the meat." ;)

katrien said...

Thanks Leigh for this post! It is honest and encouraging in its truthfulness. Integrity, that's what this issue is about. Anyone who comments - positively or negatively - should first look deep within themselves and stare their own fears and hopes in the face.
Soon the issue of getting chickens will come up at our homestead (I am keen on getting Fall chickens). We'll have to sit down as a family and discuss this and this pot will help me do some moderating :)

Leigh said...

Katrien, I appreciate your kind and encouraging comment. I truly hope it works out for you to get your chickens. they are so enjoyable and I think they would be a great addition to any backyard homestead.

Lee said...

Hi Leigh - The soaking grains thing is useful for a lot of people. Same with boiling milk - that makes it easier for some people to digest, although I find it still gives me rashes. I think what this tells us is that food is not, and never will be, a "one size fits all" thing.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking topic, and following discussions :-)

Tina T-P said...

Great post and comments Leigh - I've always said if I had to kill my own meat, I'd probably be a vegetarian. LOL - I'll never forget the conversation I had with a friend of mine who asked if we butchered our chickens - I quickly replied that "I don't eat my friends" to which he said - "We don't name our chickens" -
Luckily for the "boys" in the flock, neither of us really cares for lamb. We raise them with love and care, knowing that we gave them a good life - and don't generally press too much when they are sold (altho we do try to find "fiber flock" homes for them.

Take care - T.

Lee said...

Sorry in advance for a long comment!

Great to see you discuss this topic. I wondered if you would elaborate on the "culling" from your previous post, and now you have. It seems we once again share the same world view. My theory is that if I'm going to eat meat, I should be responsible for it. We've helped butcher my brother's chickens before (yes, it's definitely a shock the first time), and we've bought most our meat for the last two years from people nearby. We plan to take the next step this year, raising two pigs in the fall, and meat chickens next spring.

The comments seem to have really expanded the scope of this discussion, so I'll throw my thoughts into the fray. I believe eating meat has serious implications on at least three levels: moral, health, and sustainability.

From a moral standpoint, I believe humans have as much right to eat meat as any other omnivore. All life on earth is a story of struggle, of predators and prey, of eking out an existence at the expense of others. To think that we can step outside this web is to delude ourselves at best. Meat has been an important part of human diet for 1000s of years, being high in calories, important minerals, and a complete protein. Modern hunter/gatherer tribes in Africa and other places still get a significant portion of their calories from meat. Choosing not to eat meat in an attempt to reduce animal suffering simply trades suffering you don't know about for suffering you do. Plowing kills thousands of animals (rodents and snakes mostly) and destroys a food source for higher predators. The high death rate of voles and mice in plowed fields is actually used by implement retailers to encourage farmers to plow vs. lower impact seed drill methods. Shall we argue that rodents and snakes and a few starved hawks are of less importance than beef cattle? Shall we argue that it's okay for other omnivores to eat meat (bears, foxes, etc) but not for humans? The gazelle does not argue morality with the lion. By comparison, humanely raised livestock have it much better. My brother likes to say that the animals he raises have a very good life and one bad day. (Bad moment to be precise.)

Continued ...

Lee said...

From a health standpoint, I believe a diet which includes meat is healthier than one that does not (disclaimer: for most people). I'm an engineer, I believe in the scientific method, I've read lots of information from both sides of the argument, and I think the food science people are way off. I grew up with a mom who believed the food science people. We dropped butter in favor of margarine, we used vegetable based shortening, we started cooking with Canola oil when we were told to. And now, well, the food science people are saying "Sorry about the whole transfat debacle, the hydrogenated vegetable oils, the huge increase in atherosclerosis from our chemistry set food products ... but really, we've figured it out this time!!" Okay, they haven't really apologized, but it's the same people with the same mindset and the same corporate financed research that is pushing the new products. No thanks. We cook predominantly with olive oil and lard. As Michael Pollan says, eat things your grandmother would recognize. The lipid hypothesis (cholesterol causes heart disease) was started by a scientist who cherry-picked his data sets, and even today there's a study that fails to demonstrate a link for every one that does. For that matter, a recent study showed that most health studies are biased in some way (as many as 98%). Forget studies. Ask yourself: does it make sense that 2/3rds of your brain is cholesterol, but eating cholesterol is unhealthy? That 50% of your cell walls are saturated fat but saturated fats are unhealthy? That grass-fed animal products are a complete protein, high in B12, conjugated linoleic acid, and omega 3 fatty acids (none of which are generally found in plant-based foods) .. but they are unhealthy? I think not. (Note that I said "grass fed". Animal products from feedlots that are loaded up with taxpayer-subsidized corn and are heading toward heart disease themselves are another matter.) I'd love to see an honest study compare people who eat vegetarian, Michael Pollan-style, Weston Price, and Paleo. My guess is that all these diets would be about as equally healthy, a testament to the flexibility of the human body. We can eat anything, except what modern America wants to feed us.

Finally, I think livestock is the key to sustainable agriculture. First, ruminants eat grass, and thus can turn steep and poor quality land into useful meat and milk calories for humans. This makes productive use of land which could not be otherwise used for farming. It gets even better if you replace some of those millions of acres of corn fields with pasture: pastures create habitats, act as a carbon sink, and increase soil organic matter. Plowed fields are virtually sterile, release carbon, and destroy organic matter. Second, livestock concentrate nutrients in their manure, thus creating a sustainable fertilizer. Most vegetable crops require high levels of soil fertility, and composted animal manure is one of the only ways to achieve this without relying on chemical fertilizers.

Leigh said...

Melissa, I missed your comment (#18) when I was responding to the others.sorry! I'm glad Blogger is letting you comment again.

I agree the killing part is not enviable. I feel fortunate that my DH feels that this part is his responsibility. I am there to help with the rest though. It will never be a favorite thing to do, but there is a gratifying sense of satisfaction in being part of the process nonetheless.

Daharja, thanks for coming back to keep the conversation going!

Tina, so much of it, I think, is mindset. Those of us who've grown up in urban or suburban settings can't help but think of animals as pets or zoo novelties to be preserved. Those who've grown up rurally, view animals as utilitarian and necessary for survival. Dan and I both realized that being able to raise our own meat would require a change in mindset. Part of that is a deliberate choice (as you say, not naming the chickens), but part of it is being "used to" the experience. We've just decided to accept that part of the learning curve and press on.

Lee, brilliant comment as usual. I didn't realize the facts of human physiology and appreciate those. Your other points as well. For example, how we tend to assign different life values to various members of the animal kingdom. And the point about land usage. My own experiment with vegetarianism started when I read Diet For A Small Planet years ago. At the time I accepted the author's point about land usage and feeding the world. Then I researched primitive sheep breeds for a workshop I led. That's when I realized how much of the world's land is not arable but still able to sustain livestock. And as you point out, the livestock is actually the key to sustaining the land.

I have to admit that it's because of the food science folks that I now take a very dim view of anyone the media or the government labels an "expert." And now, thanks to genetic engineering, even the foods our grandmothers would recognize might not be real foods at all!

In the end, the only conclusion Dan and I can come to is that if we want a healthy, sustainable diet, then we must take on the responsibility to do it ourselves.

Runic Rhyme said...

It's as though the more technologically advanced we get, the stupider we become.

----so true! Do we know how to survive without "things" doing it for us?

Lee said...

Hi - I'm finding this whole subject really interesting, as a vegetarian for environmental / health reasons who also lives on a farm and has slaughtered animals.

To address some of Lee's points. The one about our brains is interesting. Do you know that our bodies, even without the consumption of cholesterol, will create all the cholesterol we need? It's not an essential nutrient, in that we don't need to get it from our diet.

Eat too much, and I'm sure you know what happens :-(

I don't have a problem with people eating meat, and I don't have a problem with slaughtering animals. I don't enjoy doing it, but have done it and will do it when I need to. But I don't see it as a healthy food, and choose not to eat it.

We keep chickens for the eggs, which my family eats outright and I eat in baking (sometimes), and we keep sheep to keep the grass down. We're looking at getting in goats and possibly alpacas, but I don't intend to eat any of them. We're also possibly getting a dog when our kids are a bit older, and I don't intend to eat that either.

Yes, we have as much right to eat meat as any other omnivore, and the fact that we are omnivores I don't dispute - although the science is strongly in favour of us being primarily vegetarian animals, with the ability to consume meat, rather than the other way round, which is the way most people eat these days in Western societies, on a calorie-basis. We seem to most resemble chimps in that respect, who get as much as 97% of their calories from plant sources (I can provide sources if you want, but go ask your local zoo about their diet if you're interested, it is fascinating stuff).

I firmly believe that we, as a species, simply cannot eat a primarily animal-based diet if we are to support the numbers we aniticipate - roughly 9 billion in the next generation, the way things are going.

For me, the planet comes first. We need to make changes, and a more plant-based diet can be more sustainable, without even considering such issues as overfishing and the clearcutting on rainforest to graze animals for burger meat.

As a farmer (although of a tiny farm), I'm learning the preciousness of meat, and the real cost to get it raised. Our three acres will probably support about 80% of the food needs of our family of four quite well, once we're fully organised with the set up we're building. But if we were meat eaters, there's no way we could do that.

Meat production just isn't as efficient, and I see that in the amount of land my sheep use, as opposed to how many calories I get per acre from my hazelnut trees, for example.

I've digressed a bit, but I do think it would be really useful for all people - vegetarians and heavy meat eaters alike - to come live on farms for a bit. The vegos would learn that sometimes slaughter is necessary, and the meat eaters would learn how expensive to the earth their diet really is, and how unsustainable for the sort of human numbers we now have.

In the end, probably balance is best - raise your own animals, and eat them when you need to. But how many actually do that?

If *we* did that, we'd get chicken a few times a year, mutton and lamb a fair bit (maybe twice a week), but we'd never see any other meat. As for the city dwellers, they'd all be vegetarian! Unless they fancy cat or dog! Or maybe goldfish.

Lee said...

Hi Lee - On the issue of comparing the diets of the various groups, that would be interesting.

Vegetarian: According to Wikipedia, the life expectancy of one very well-studied group of vegetarians, the Seventh Day Adventists, is 83.3 years for men and 85.7 years for women - significantly higher than the US average of 75.6 and 80.8.

Michael Pollan-style: I couldn't find any data, probably because it's not an official dietary style. I'm guessing it would be higher than the average, but that's just my opinion.

Weston A Price: Weston A Price lived to 78 (1870 - 1948). No official data exists for this group that I could find. One would think if they were doing so well, studies would exist. Can anyone find them?

Paleo: From the small amount of study I've done (not much, admittedly) this seems to just be a bit faddish, and not based on actual evidence of what people might have actually eaten.

Using my example of human and other primate similarity, for example, I don't see the insects in this diet, although there are insect-eating cultures around the world and insect-eating clearly plays a role in stone-age cultures worldwide and in other primate diets (e.g. Australian aborigines, Indonesian cultures, chimps, gorillas etc.). Also doesn't include grains despite archaelogical evidence to suggest we've been eating them for millenia.

However, the real question is: is it healthy? Does it result in healthier people? I couldnt find any data to suggest it did.

Overall, if I were going to guess, I'd probably guess that all of the above would result in better nutrition that the typical American diet, simply because the typical American diet is so bloody awful.

I'm vegetarian, and think this is the best choice if vegos eat well (e.g. real food, few processed foods, lots of raw foods), but I've seen awful vegetarian diets (e.g. coke and hot chips).

In the end, I think probably Michael Pollan has it right. Trouble is, I've met very few omnivores who actually do eat the way he recommends. It would be nice to see more people reading his book and actually taking it to heart :-)

So - anyone a dietitian and willing to get such a study together?

Oh, and a few interesting links on the vego stuff:

Veg out, live longer: world's oldest person a vegetarian, and vegetarians living longer than general population

In the above links, I've deliberately avoided vegetarian society websites, which claim increases in life expectancy of up to 20 years longer on average, with citations, as I didn't want to seem too biased :-)

But I'd really like to find some credible WAP stats on longevity. If anyone can find some, please post, with citations :-) The only stat I could find was the age of WAP himself, who lived an average life expectancy for an American educated male of his era.

Leigh said...

Runic Rhyme, that's a good question. I constantly entertain myself with a sort of "worst case scenario" mind game, thinking about how well we could survive if "doomsday" arrived (whatever that is). Skills are a big part of it, as are supplies such as seed, etc., but so is mindset. I know we would eat, drink, and stay warm, but I can't guarantee we'd not get frustrated from time to time, or really long for former comforts. That's why we're gradually changing our lifestyle as well.

Daharja, I agree that balance is always best. And I admire that you have your own convictions, but readily accept that others have theirs too. I've mentioned that Dan is the "big" meat eater in the family, but we both realize that there's no way we can provide ourselves with enough meat to eat it three meals a day. He's content to eat small portions of it, and sometimes substitute eggs instead. I cook with the essential amino acids in mind, so that even our non-meat dishes have complete proteins.

Hopefully Lee will be back to check the comments again and respond as well. It would be excellent to have an objective, unbiased comparison of these diets, though I do believe that individual body chemistry, food sensitivities, and metabolism are key to personal dietary needs. When it comes to research though, it seems it is oftentimes swayed by whomever is funding it!

Lee said...

Leigh - Yup, I'm definitely following along. I can't pass up a good discussion where people can communicate without getting angry.
Sorry to fill your blog with so many long comments. I should go post something on our own blog to show we're still alive! :)

daharja - I think our goals here are the same even if our views are different. Robin and I hope to eventually produce most of our own food from our own land. I have no doubt that this will give us a much greater respect for the value and cost of meat in our diet. Our staple crop is potatoes, and I also hoped to raise a decent quantity of dent corn this year, were the weather more agreeable.

Like I said though, I don't agree that cholesterol in our diet leads to heart disease. Our bodies do indeed make their own cholesterol, so much in fact, that the amount in our diet is small by comparison. People can cut all animal products from their diet and still have high cholesterol. This suggests it is a symptom of some other problem (refined sugar consumption?). This article from Harvard medical school goes into some depth about all the bad advice that's been given on fats and cholesterol during the last 50 years (including admitting that dietary and blood cholesterol are only weakly linked). Of course, they're still promoting low grade Omega 6 vegetable oils as the solution ... maybe in another 50 years they'll have another recommendation?

I'm fine with discussing diet from an evolutionary standpoint too. Scientists currently think that chimpanzees and humans diverged between 5 and 7 million years ago (Wikipedia – I've also heard 11 million). No doubt both species have changed quite a bit in the interim. I don't think chimpanzees are a good indicator for human diet, although I do think modern hunter/gatherer tribes are. In the Dec 2009 National Geographic I was just reading about the Hadza people of Tanzania. The men hunt, the women gather wild fruits and tubers. More of their calories come from tubers, but both nutrition sources are important. Note: all their meat is grass fed. :) There are relatively few documented primitive groups that eat vegetarian, and few that eat only meat. Most had some mix. All are healthier from a heart disease, cancer, and diabetes standpoint than Americans.

I'll note that current theory suggests that we share a common ancestor with Neanderthals about 660,000 years ago. They were a muscular, northern-dwelling species with no evidence of farming. If they survived in those climates, they survived primarily by hunting. (This is not the evolutionary link people like to bring up when discussing meat-free diets.) On an even shorter time frame, humans have adapted to some local dietary conditions within 1000s of years. Northern Europeans are generally not lactose-intolerant, because domesticated dairy was an important food source in that climate (the grass still grows even when it's cold and rainy and the vegetable crops die .. this Oregon spring has proved that). Similarly, Japanese people carry a special bacterial strain in their digestive track that allows them to better digest seaweed, an important part of their diet. (Neither of these is suggested as a pro-meat argument, just that chimpanzees are bad reference point.)

On to your second post ..

I don't think the dietary comparison you are seeking exists. I've heard the stats on vegetarian health, and I'll admit it's really impressive. Cancer and heart disease risks are lower too! The only problem in these statistics, is that they use "average American" as the comparison, and that pretty much strongly biases the result. Average Americans eat terribly. A vegetarian, almost by definition, is someone who cares about their diet and their health. They probably don't eat fast food very often, and they might even (gasp!) exercise. :)

Lee said...

I don't think there are any statistics for the other groups, because there's no money to back them. Michael Pollan is down on corn .. that kills any money to research his suggestions. The Weston A. Price people are pretty down on grains (there goes corn again), and they advocate foods like bone marrow (which the meat industry probably couldn't produce safely, and won't allow any local meat processing thanks to their monopoly) and raw dairy (which the dairy industry sees as a threat to their monopoly). I'll agree that Paleo is something of a fad, but I think it's reasonable. If modern day primitive cultures are healthy, let's try to eat like them. Humans may or may not have farmed grains for millenia .. I'm doubtful on that, but if they did, it was on highly nutritious small-seed varieties (like Chia, which is high in Omega 3s), not the big starchy Omega 6 grains like wheat and corn.

Ultimately, I think the problem with our diet isn't meat, it's corn. Americans may eat too much meat (especially, too much badly raised meat), but think about the average fast food meal: mega size coke (corn-based sweetener), fries (potatoes, fried in corn oil), hamburger (fed corn during the last days of it's life .. so it's fat profile looks like corn too). Calorie-wise, meat is only a small component of that meal. Corn leaves a unique carbon signature in our bodies, and if you test us, Americans are about 70% corn. We've added more calories to our diet during the last 100 years, but most of those were carbs (not protein/fat from meat) and most of them from corn. Somehow the meat and fats got blamed for our health (and corn-fed meat is not healthy, so that's partially right), but it's corn that caused this. The ridiculously low prices of subsidized corn is the only reason the meat industry finishes every beef cow on corn for months of it's life. Unfortunately, this has also made us dependent on the strange texture of corn-feed food. The chicken is mushy, the beef is riddled with fat. One of our neighbors said their friend bought a large freezer and a half of grass-fed beef, then sold the freezer + beef together because they couldn't stand the taste. That's the taste of healthy (high ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and very lean), and we've been trained not to like it.

As a grain, corn is pretty much a worst case scenario. It's a warm season grass, but the only one with outrageous water requirements. It responds to natural-gas derived nitrogen fertilizers better than any other grain, and Monsanto has GMO'ed it for RoundUp too! Corn is the poster child for destroying human health and the environment. Thank goodness we now have to feed it to our cars as well (by law in most states).

I think balanced meat consumption is a part of the solution (for reasons previously stated, especially if you intent to eat locally), but a lot of other things have to change. If the diet is based on corn and soy, it's going to fail to improve human health: vegetarian or omnivore. On both sides, there's too many bad statistics thrown around. I routinely hear people say that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. This is disingenuous on multiple levels: a.) beef is the least efficient meat source, b.) virtually all U.S. raised beef is brought up on grass to 600-900 lbs, then finished on corn c.) beef put on about 1 lb of meat per 6 lbs of corn, but most of their weight was put on with grass d.) many beef cattle are feed spent brewery grain and other 'waste sources' of grain, and e.) a pound of beef contains more calories than a pound of grain. I'm not saying any of this is healthy for the cow, for the planet, or for the people that eat it, but the 16:1 number is there to sensationalize, not to be accurate.

Lee said...

I believe the book "The Vegetarian Myth" considers many of these issues in much greater depth. If you've read "Diet for a Small Planet", perhaps this is the counterpoint. I'll admit that I haven't read it (it's on my list), but the reviews I've read suggest that it's pretty balanced. Obviously not everyone thinks so: the author was recently attacked by a group of militant v*gans at a speaking engagement. (Word obfuscated to protect this blog from random Google searches by angry people.)

Lee said...

Hi Lee - I've never heard of "The Vegetarian Myth" but have read "Diet For A Small Planet and didn't think much of it. I know it was an important book in its time, but the insistence on food combining for "complete" proteins was very outdated when I read it (in the 1990s), and scientifically inaccurate.

Like I said in my post, I think you could plonk just about any diet based on real food up against the standard US diet and it would win out big time, simply because the standard US diet is so bloody awful.

Doesn't mean the diet you're using as comparison to the standard US diet is good or ideal though - just not as bad as what is probably the worst diet ever devised and what in my opinion constitutes child abuse if you feed it to kids.

We'll have to disagree on the cholesterol issue - I think the weight of scientific studies are on my side, though - like thousands of them.

However, there has always been a fringe suggesting that cholesterol has no relation/association to heart disease. Probably always will be. Me, I'll go with the science.

The way we eat at home is pretty straightforward - all whole foods, all vegetarian, with eggs from our chickens. We don't consume dairy, apart from a bit of homemade yoghurt. Seems to work well for us and we love eating this way. When eating out, we've never lacked for vegetarian options, except at places I wouldn't want to eat at anyway!

The Harvard article is pretty interesting, in that it cites figures in the 30+% for fat as %age of calories. That is a high fat diet in every sense of the word. That's why Americans are obese - that, plus lack of activity, and sugar probably making up a fair slab of the rest of the calories!

My view is that consuming no type of oil oil is healthy for you. Its a processed food, which we stick clear of. I can't remember the last time I cooked something for myself with oil in it. Ugh!

Finally, yes, I agree with you that there is a problem with lack of variety in the standard diet, which is why we don't eat it! Check out the labels on the packaged rubbish at your local supermarket next time you're there - it's all loaded with corn, soy, rice and wheat. What a waste of money. My husband also has a rule that he wont eat anything he can't pronounce - no chemical additives or flavourings, colourings etc. He's the healthiest person I know.

Interestingly, I visited the WAP website today, to check some facts, and found they've now created an "open letter to vegetarians" in which they're now stating that the WAP diet is possible in vegetarian form. This is a HUGE change from their stance not so long ago. Looks to me like they're seeing the writing on the wall, and are perhaps considering their stance on their old, to my mind outdated and unscientific / incorrect, ideas.

In the end, I don't think people have to be vegetarian, and it isn't something I would recommend for everyone - a lot of people find that they prefer to feel like they're part of the mainstream more, and don't feel comfortable checking ingredients, asking for the vegetarian option etc. when out, or may even prefer just to eat meat for various reasons to do with habit and custom.

I think the bigger issue is eating locally, eating whole foods, and learning to eat sustainably. In other words, thinking before we eat.

Thanks for a good chat!

Leigh said...

Lee, no problem about all the comments! This has been an interesting and informative discussion.

The only thing I could add to the cholesterol debate is an article by Ray Peat, "Cholesterol, longevity, intelligence, and health."

Daharja, I think what we've demonstrated here (you and Lee especially) is that our choices should be based on careful research rather than emotion. There is a wealth of information in these comments, thanks to the links and information you all have provided.

I would only like to toss in one last chip in regards to American obesity. I honestly believe that there is enough data to point to high fructose corn syrup rather than consumption of natural fats, as the cause of the problem. A couple of sample articles: one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and one by Christian Finn are just a few. High fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats are two ingredients that automatically disqualify a product for being purchased for our home.

Carrie said...

We have done the hypnotizing thing and it is just amazing. My husband saw it on youtube (though it wasn't associated with killing) and had to try it for himself. He's tried it on our three chickens, and even the flighty one falls under the "spell" immediately. And then they just lay stationary on the ground like that for about 10 seconds or so. It never ceases to amaze me. As we're new to the whole chicken keeping thing and plan on mainly using them for eggs, we haven't had to cull one yet. But I can see how the hypnotizing could be an invaluable tool to have under your belt - I would think there would be minimal to no stress for the bird vs. hanging them upside down in a cone or whatnot. Something to look into further I guess.

Leigh said...

Carrie, thank you for that. It really may be something for us to try too. The goal is little stress, but really, just catching the chicken is stressful for them, unless one plucks them off the roost at night and has a holding cage. Even then we found they were stressed out. Hypnotism does seem less stressful doesn't it? For the chicken anyway.

Carrie said...

Because we only have three it's been relatively easy for us to catch them and pet/hold them so they get at least somewhat used to us. It has made it a snap to get them back in their coop if we have to go out (we try to let them free range whenever we are home). But you are right - the first few days we had them it was stressful - but on the birds AND us - to try to round them up.

Tom Stewart said...

Hello again. I know this maybe a little late for this postm But I wanted to say a couple things.
1. People are so in the dark about where thier food comes from and eatting habits that they pick up from thier family. There is a lady I work with that will not eat a brown egg! Because the color shows that the chicken was raised on dirt! WHAT? As aposed to being raised in a cage and fead hormones and medication, under constance light and then when the production slows down, shipped off to "Cambells" to be made into Chicken noddle soup?
2. If you and DH are raising chickens for meat and are processing them yourself, check out the DIY Chicken Plucker" at "Jack creek Coles" Blog. A 4" PVC pipe cap, bolt and nut,Bungie cord and an electric drill! Total cost about $8.00!

Leigh said...

Tom, thank you for that link! We recently bought the Whizbang chicken plucker plans, but it's for a pretty big tub plucker. The Jack Creek plucker looks perfect for a small operation like ours.

I agree it's insane how out of touch people is with where their food comes from. The scary part is that it makes them increasingly dependent on industrialized agriculture, which is already showing signs of being a disaster. That's why blogging is so great. It helps us common folk avoid media propaganda and share real information with one another.

Unknown said...

Hi Leigh, im wading through the posts enjoying my ME time. At this point i should tell you i was raised on a self sufficient farm in the 60's, one of six children, to a mixed cropping 1000 acre farm. We were money poor but so so wealthy in the things that mattered. We were, are, strong Christians. I grew up having to help with chores from an early age and so ive dunked my fair share of chickens into boiling water and then so you have the right image, sat on a big log with my siblings with a hot chook between my little legs and plucked those stinky feathers out by hand. I helped my Dad slaughter sheep and my mum milk the cow before breakfast. Butter Pats found there way to my rear end as often as they did to homemade butter. Clothes were all homemade by Mum and skills were passed along. Im a city dweller now and though im not squeamish in the slightest about handling meat im not sure id put my hand up to do the killing. Your post and the comments above have been interesting. My Dad always had a radio going in the shed and more often than not it was classical. So when he was killing livestock he always had the music playing and it was done in an atmosphere of calmness. This was life.

Heather said...

Well said, I agree!