When I began this series I was out to discover how red meat could affect individual health and the environment. What I found was a complicated web of interconnections between politics, the law and our diets, as well as a wide range of ethical, cultural, and practical perspectives on eating meat. I discovered how people at Harvard are approaching meat, from fellows at the Food Law and Policy Clinic, to faculty in the Philosophy departments, and at the Medical School, as well as dining hall coordinators and my undergraduate peers.
Learning about the ideas and initiatives that other groups and individuals are pursuing is a strong reminder of the importance of consumer responsibility. But there is still the question of how best to use my consumer power to affect change.
More providers are beginning to offer free-range, grass-fed meat from non-industrial farms. While this method of raising meat is more costly, some argue that it is the consumers’ responsibility to support more sustainable practices by purchasing these products.
The environmental, health, political, and ethical aspects of our food depend on our personal choices that we make every day.
So is it better to support more sustainable meat or not to support meat at all? If people conscientious about the environmental impact of meat choose not to eat it, who will be left to support sustainable meat options? The consequence could be that meat-eaters continue to eat more affordable, industrially raised meat and the smaller, pastured providers will be unable to compete.
However, James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, argues that “sustainable meat” is a myth (New York Times). “Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming,” he says. There is also the question of the land required—McWilliams claims that raising all cows in the United States on grass would take up half of the country. Land for grazing cattle is being carved out of rain forests and causing desertification.
What about holistic planned grazing, the sustainable grazing model promoted by Allan Savory that is supposed to revive healthy soils and reverse desertification? McWilliams argues that in practice farmers still feed their animals soy and corn products that they can’t grow themselves. Growing large amounts of plants for livestock rather than human consumption is simply not sustainable. In addition, this process would be most effective if animals could live out their natural lives contributing to the nutrient cycle, which is “interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal.”
With our growing population, raising enough meat for every human being in an ethical, sustainable, and natural way does not seem feasible. Perhaps our consumer power is better used backing plant-based meat alternatives or just shifting away from meat products.
In the end, consumer responsibility comes down to you. The environmental, health, political, and ethical aspects of our food depend on our personal choices that we make every day. Perhaps the choice is not becoming easier, but it is becoming clearer.