Last winter, the environmental/food website Grist briefly considered hosting an online debate over the ethics and realities of meat production, and we were invited to take part as one of a dozen or so folks with various perspectives on the issue. We carefully wrote up an opening statement on our overall perspective as meat raisers, processors, and eaters. The event never happened, in part because the person organizing it departed for another job, but we still really like our essay. Here’s a reworked version, presented for no particular reason other than we think it presents some important and often-neglected perspectives on this complicated issue.
How these goats benefit our vegetable farm
My wife and I currently farm full-time on the fringes of the Ozarks in central Missouri, growing certified organic produce for local markets and restaurants while keeping dairy/meat goats, poultry, and a hog for home use. We are largely food-self-sufficient on the farm year-round, growing & preserving all our own vegetables, doing all our own meat processing on the farm (including hunting), making the vast majority of our cheese and yogurt from on-farm goat milk, and expanding into fruits, small grains, and mushrooms. We’re both serious cooks, and take the sources and quality of our food extremely seriously.
When we moved to this property in 2006, Joanna was vegetarian and I was nearly so. We were thoroughly disgusted with the industrial meat system and found it easier, cheaper, and more comfortable to cook and eat interesting vegetarian meals. This was particularly true during our previous time in rural Virginia where it was quite hard to find meat that met our standards. We love the diversity and skill involved in quality vegetarian and vegan cooking from fresh, whole ingredients, and easily accommodate our many visiting vegetarian/vegan friends without a second thought. Our most-used cookbook beyond Joy of Cooking is Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
However, our core principle in starting and operating our farm was self-sufficiency, both economic and culinary, and it quickly became clear that the best way for us to achieve that would involve managing animals for food along with our produce-growing. Our farm is set in a narrow Ozark-type valley, with rich bottomland soil along a small stream hemmed in by steeper, brushy, rocky pastures cut by ravines. While our flatland soil is good, there is not enough properly cultivatable acreage to either make a full living growing & selling produce or to fully feed ourselves on a vegetarian diet. By properly managing livestock on our larger brushy/pastured hillsides (like the one pictured below), which are otherwise unsuited to cultivation agriculture, we can convert static land to healthy human food while relieving pressure on the highest-quality ground. In addition, good animal management can improve both the fertility and ecology of these former prairie areas, which are otherwise reverting to brushy woodlands dominated by thick monocultures of ecologically boring cedar. In effect, rotational grazing of goats is roughly intended to replace the native herbivores like bison, and results in a healthier overall ecosystem.
Moreover, pasturing goats on the slopes also directly benefits our vegetable production by generating on-farm fertility. We collect and compost the manure & bedding from their overnight shelters, which in effect is solar energy collected by the pasture plants and converted to natural fertility by the animals’ rumens. We view this as a more sustainable source of vegetable fertility than chemical fertilizers or manure imported from off the farm.
My wife’s current rule is to only eat meat for which she’s taken part in the processing (i.e. on-farm), while I’ve been known to order locally-raised meat in restaurants from time to time. Like most traditional farms, meat is seasonal for us, helping fill the nutritional gap of winter and spring while largely vanishing from our diet through the flush of summer and fall produce. This approach makes our self-sufficient goals far more practical, while still saving us money and reducing our need to import faraway food onto the farm (like the “organic” imported beans we used to buy in bulk to provide protein through the winter).
In addition, our farm illustrates an oft-ignored or forgotten point: even dairy & poultry, mainstays of the vegetarian diet, involve significant management and killing of animals. Dairy animals don’t give milk unless bred, which means you have to dispose of the ever-increasing number of young somehow (especially the males). The same is true for chickens; even though hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs, they do to make more hens (chickens are far from immortal). And something still must be done with the roughly 50% of hatches that are male. On our farm, we rarely raise animals specifically for meat, mostly eating the meat that allows us to maintain an otherwise on-farm vegetarian diet heavy on dairy and eggs. Thus we raise & eat any unneeded goat kids from the dairying births, and any unwanted roosters hatched our by our hens. The quantity of meat we eat each year is partially determined by the gender ratios of that year’s births. To do anything else would result in either a farm overrun by animals, or the passing off of the problem to someone else by selling the extras and pretending they weren’t going to be killed anyway. When we do raise a meat-specific animal like a hog, it still has secondary on-farm benefits such as natural tillage of fields we wish to replant, fertility generation, and efficient recycling of produce & dairy wastes into human food.
While vegetarian/vegan diets are perfectly healthy and practical for many people, they also rest on assumptions that may not be applicable to all contexts. There are many cases where raising meat ends up being cheaper or more ecologically sound than the equivalent food value in plant matter, largely depending on which kinds of principles and goals are most valued by those involved. The claim that plant protein is more efficient and sustainable to raise than animal protein is only true for the highest-quality farmland; areas that are more marginal (like hillsides) or ecologically sensitive (like grasslands) can easily be degraded or destroyed by crop agriculture but preserved or even enhanced by proper animal agriculture. The young goats shown below are happily using a landscape which would otherwise be unsuitable for agriculture, while generating fertility and human food.
From a land-use perspective, much of the world’s surface will never be densely populated, and thus can be managed in three ways: tillage agriculture for crops, pasture agriculture for animals, or left alone. The third option is excellent for specific areas of special ecological or cultural significant, like national/state parks or conservation areas, but is not practical at a large scale. The first option, again, is only practical for landscapes and climates already suited for sustainable crop agriculture, which is a relatively small fraction of the world’s overall natural landscapes. Properly-done animal agriculture allows for a more natural and low-impact way to manage areas like grasslands and hillsides, even if it’s less efficient per unit area than crop agriculture in a think-tank world.
This is also true from a national or local self-sufficiency standpoint. Imagine a nation or region which consists mostly of poor cropland but good grassland/pasturage (like parts of Africa and South America, or central/southern Missouri). If animals are forbidden for ethical or carbon reasons, that region will have to either import more of its food from elsewhere, or grow it using methods which are not ideal for that area. Forcing that choice makes no sense.
I’ll happily grant that using good farmland to grow food crops for confined animals is poor practice. So is plowing under native grasslands and erodible hillsides to grow food crops for humans, or growing water-intensive vegetables in deserts like Arizona and California. Choosing the lowest-impact and most sustainable use for all types of climates and landscapes in the world will inevitably lead to some areas benefiting more from animals than crops, and we shouldn’t reject that out of a knee-jerk disgust for current poor animal management practices in the modern industrial system.
An individual has every right to choose a no-animal-product diet for their own reasons, but keep in mind that all food choices, and all purchases, are in effect votes on how we want the local and world food system to work. Rejecting all meat or animal products in essence is a vote for dedicating more and more landscapes to crop agriculture regardless of whether they are properly suited for it, and in many places increasing the local environmental impact while decreasing the local ability to be self-sufficient. And I’ve barely touched on the environmental issues surrounding the theoretical elimination of manure as a natural fertilizer versus expensive, oil-based replacements, or the potential health and cost issues of replacing natural meat nutrition with more processed meat replacements.
In effect, we’d rather choose properly managed animals in a diversified locally-self-sufficient system than crop monocultures in a globalized vegan one. We’d rather kill our own animals raised on local hillside pastures than import monocultured soybeans in the form of tofu and other highly processed non-animal food products. We have no personal issue with individual vegetarians and vegans, having been there ourselves and loving vegetarian/vegan cooking, but would prefer those movements as a whole to be more aware of the large-scale ramifications of their advocated goals.