May 29, 2011

Eat Meat. ~ Sasha Aronson

Photo: Point N' Shoot

A Mindful Approach to Being a Modern-Day Omnivore

Mindfulness and meat-eating don’t appear to go hand-in-hand. But as someone who tries their darndest to infuse mindfulness into everything they do, I’m convinced that being a vegetarian or vegan isn’t the only approach to an eco-conscious diet.

To eat, or not to eat?

It’s a diffucult question for myself and countless others (perhaps not the average elephant, but we’re out there). Here’s what I’ve gathered about carnivory from Ecology courses, elephant journal posts, and speakers who discuss the subject:

The government subsidizes our food (the stuff that’s conventionally grown that is, not organic food, but I won’t get heated over that right now). As a result, we can go into the store and buy meat for, say, as little as $1 per pound if you’re just going to the local supermarket.

What is troubling about government subsidies is that it makes meat seem far more accessible than it actually is. A great deal of money and natural resources — not to mention the not entirely commodifiable value of an animal’s life, are all necessary in order to make meat widely available.

In order for that beef or chicken, pork or bison to make its way into our shopping carts the animal had to first be supported by tons upon tons of grain and water. This system is incredibly demanding of our natural resources, and is actually a very inefficient (see the ecological pyramid) way to feed our society. I’ll paraphrase the ecological argument here, and use simple, somewhat approximate numbers for clarity’s sake:

Photo: C.W. Wycoff
  • It takes 10,000 kg of wheat to produce 1,000 kg of beef, which sustains 100 kg of humans (roughly 15 adults)

[This system requires 10 acres of land.]

An alternative model that removes livestock completely from the equation looks like this:

  • 1,000 kg of wheat supports 100 kg of humans (roughly 15 adults)

[This system requires just 1 acre of land.]

You’ll notice that the same number of people is fed with just a fraction of the amount of grain that it would require if these same people were eating meat.

As we move from one level of the food chain to the next, only 10% of the available energy will transfer. The available energy gets diluted when it has to travel through yet another link of the food chain. To compensate for this energy loss, we would have to consume 10 times the amount of meat in order to acquire the same level of energy.

I don’t cite these systems to wholly discourage people from eating meat. I myself am clearly neither vegetarian nor vegan. But, I was told that a good way to mitigate my meat-consumption (for those of us who can’t just quit cold turkey) is to eat locally-raised meat one or two times a week. So, adopting this method, I’m able to enjoy barbecues with friends while still doing my very small part for sustainability. Who knows, maybe someday my one or two times per week will become one or two times per month, and so on.  As long as I can continue to afford it…which brings us to cost.

Photo: Basykes

After the animals are raised, they must be “harvested” in order to get to market – be it a local one or big-box grocery. I won’t beat a dead horse here (pardon the pun) by dwelling on the conditions under which some animals are raised for human consumption. But I will say that in worst cases, animals are raised and slaughtered in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, and some few instances, they are not.

Once the animal (I guess we can call it “meat” at this point) is in the hands of your friendly grocer, you’re going to want to look at the different cuts, compare prices, and so forth. What is important to note at this stage is that the entire process of raising and harvesting cattle is subsidized by the government, and so you’re not actually paying the full cost of raising, harvesting, and shipping the animal.

This raises the question of, “how much meat would people eat if we had to pay the actual cost of it?”

I can throw together a quick dinner when steaks are on sale for $1.99 a pound – I might even stock up, and eat steak a few nights that week. But there’s no way I could justify eating meat with such frequency if I were paying its actual per pound cost, which is something like $20. Take a moment to picture your last food bill with this slight price adjustment (Vegs, you can use this time just to take a deep breath or snack on some kale).

If meat was sold at its actual per pound cost, we would be eating much less of it – it would be a luxury item.

As it stands now, selling an animal’s meat for pennies is just downright disrespectful. Because the question is, all things considered, would you pay for meat at its actual cost? I know you’d pay $1.99 for a few pounds of ground beef, but would you pay $20? If you aren’t willing to pay that much, then perhaps you don’t really need as much meat in your diet as you’ve grown accustomed to having.

Photo: Fwooper

For the sake of contrast, Native American Buffalo herders harvest buffalo for survival, but according to tradition, they follow strict slaughtering practices and don’t harvest more than they truly need. The indigenous people value that the animal they are harvesting is part of a herd, and part of a family within that herd. While killing the buffalo is part of a necessary symbiotic relationship, they recognize that the animal holds great spiritual value just as any human being does.

A recent post stated that eating low-grade meat several times a week isn’t very good for the environment, and it isn’t very good for you either. From barnyard to basket to backyard barbecue, the best thing to do is to recognize the reality that another being had to die so that you could eat, and respect that.  Do so by buying locally, loosening up the old wallet and paying more, and eating slightly less meat.


Sasha Aronson has a degree in Literature from Colby College. She has worked for publishers in the Big Apple, but prefers living mindfully and adventurously in Boulder, Colorado.

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