When I was vegan I declared (on more than one occasion) that you could not genuinely care about the environment if you consumed animal products. Yep. I was that guy. I would say that I was up on my high horse – but I was vegan and I didn’t believe that a horse should be ridden.
But as they say, time is the greatest teacher and eventually – as I mentioned here – I figured out that the vegan way of eating didn’t actually suit everyone. Sadder yet, it didn’t suit me. For some – like Kris Carr and Amanda Rootsey – veganism gives them lustrous locks, boundless energy and glowing skin. They are amazing examples and if that diet suits you and helps you thrive, all the power to you. Amazing. For me however I got brittle breaking hair, sallow skin and a demeanour akin to Alf Stewart.
For all the lentils and all the greens…. veganism simply didn’t work for me.
While I don’t dig labels, I now follow a Paleo way of life. I eat grassfed meat, wild-caught fish, avoid grains, love fat and (try to) consume dairy sparingly. All of a sudden my body has started speaking my language again. And it’s speaking to me in Italian. By which I mean the language of love.
But when I first made the switch I had major issues shaking the feeling that this way of eating was wrong; environmentally, economically and just in the sense that I am a human that loves cuddling animals. In my mind ethical meat eating did not exist and going back on my word felt deeply uncomfortable. I wrestled with it for months. More and more these days though I am noticing that I am not the only one. One of my life idols Tara Bliss wrote about her worry about coming out of hte meat-free closet here recently, as did another life idol Jess Ainscough here.
There are these feelings of resistance attached to these dietary labels. We are considering basic biology a choice; as if we can choose willy-nilly whether eat certain things that are bodies call out for. Sadly, our bodies don’t work like that. I felt so proud about my veganism. I was proud not to eat animals. It made me feel like a better human. I went through a massive inner conflict reconciling the fact that my body was yelling at me – loud and clear. But I have come out the other side in tact and okay.
While I had already decided that I was going to reintroduce animal protein back into my life I also did a little (a lotta) digging searching for any justification. I soon realised that not only does eating meat not make you a bad person but it also doesn’t mean you are trashing the planet either. It doesn’t mean you love animals less (though I am sure there would be some counter arguments to that). It doesn’t condemn the world to doom, gloom, food crisis and inequality.
It’s all about choices. The right ones. And by ‘right ones’ I mean; educated, considerate, compassionate choices.
There are sustainable ways to eat meat. Ways that show respect to the planet and the animals that we consume. And yes… I did just imagine myself as the blue chick from Avatar when she prays for the animal she kills for food. Don’t judge me.
So lets take back the power of our choices and get informed about meat-consumption…
Beef is not (necessarily) an eco evil
A lot of the information we read about beef production and its scary effects are based on American or UK studies where real estate is a real problem and therefore cows are raised in feedlots. But Australia is a very different cattle of fish. (See what I did there? Smooth).
So while the standard argument is that we could produce X times more vegetables or grains (boo hiss) on the same amount of land, please consider this; less than 8 per cent of Australia’s land is suitable for crop production. This means that cattle and sheep farming is the most efficient use of our arid, dusty land. Australian cattle and sheep are produced on arid and semi-arid rangelands which are not arable – they could not produce a commercial level of leafy greens even if they vision boarded and meditated on it every day. As I mentioned in this article from my visit to the Food Theatre the UN actually declared our soils as the poorest quality in the world.
On the occasion that these soils do grow crops they still need cattle and sheep to renew soil productivity. Sarah Wilson goes deep into the issue in this article and the information in there is too good to try and compress into one paragraph. So, in the meantime, read her article and open your mind to the fact that beef isn’t the villain that we thought it was. (she busts the methane myth too!).
Get to know your farmers!
Just buying your meat from an organic farmer is not the be all, end all. Organic meat can still be raised inhumanely and be deemed organic. It is important to get to know your farmers (or at least their processes) and this can be as easy as a google or a quick chat at the farmers markets or the butcher.
Ask questions! It is okay. I was really embarrassed at first when I started asking where things come from and how they were raised but you know what? Most farmers or butchers are beyond happy to chat with you about it. It can (and should) be a massive point of pride. I also used to feel bad asking young kids on their weekend job but again, this is something they should know. And the more they get asked, the more that information feeds back to the bosses who will soon start to realise that people do care about this and thus may consider more local choices.
That reminds me of a time I was at a restaurant heralded for its sustainable values and I had a hankering for some squid (it is a pretty enviro choice). There was a young girl waiting the table and I asked her if she knew where the squid was caught.
“I am sure it would be from Australia – where else would it be from?”
I gently asked if she could check. Just in case. She came back and had a genuine look of shock on her face. “It’s from… China?“. Her mind was blown. You could see it on her face. She couldn’t understand. She left – I hope – with a more questioning mind.
The same happened when I asked the young girl at a chemist what brands she had that weren’t animal tested. She did not think that cosmetics were tested anymore.
Friendly, open discussions about the big issues can open people’s minds and eyes to new ideas. It can be a scary place – be gentle with those that are just starting out.
Buy happy, pasture fed meat
About 70% of Australian beef and lamb is pasture-raised however they are often grain-finished. As I mentioned in my post about The Food Theatre grain-finished meat spends between 100 and 300 days being fattened up by grains as an economic measure. This produces what Pete Evans recently called ‘toxic’ meat.
And try to source meat from trusted farmers that are known to treat their animals well. This can be a slightly harder task and one that I have found is a word of mouth affair. Though, checking on their websites to see if they mention any environmental commitments or values regarding the treatment of animals is a good start. And again, there is always the phone!
I’d like to point out the elephant in the paddock – the fact that these animals are raised happily does not change the fact that they have to die to feed us.Being an animal lover, I wrestle with this everyday and probably always will. I am still choosy about what I eat (no type of sheep will cross thine lips). It’s an unfortunate fact of life but in the meantime I will choose to honour the animal and earth by being grateful, not over-consuming and not wasting meat.
Make meat the side-dish
The amount of protein we need is severely overemphasised. There are all sorts of complex equations you can use to get an exact metric measurement of protein we need to be consuming. But generally, if you are consuming a balanced diet taking into account protein you are likely going to get enough.
An awesome sustainable rule of thumb? Consider meat the side dish. Fill up on vegetables. [click to tweet]
For example, once upon a time I would use a 400gram pack of mince to make one (!) nights worth of spag bowl. Now I cook a mammoth pot of sauce and include as many vegetables as I can; mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, capsicum, zucchini, eggplant. What used to feed us for one night now stretches over three or four meals. This is great for time management too.
Good trick – fill your plate with vegetables first (and go crazy. You can’t have too many!). Then garnish with the meat.
Eat the collar cuts
Experiment with the scraps of the animals. Collar Cuts as they are called, are often rubished as lower grades of meat but when cooked correctly are absolutely delicious. I wrote here about the brisket. Jamie Oliver’s cookbook Save With Jamie is an awesome resource for ‘unfashionable’ cuts of meat and how to make them stretch. For other resources, check out Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s books or The Sustainable Table.
Expert tip: Once you have finished cooking the meat if there are leftover bones save them in your freezer (along with vegetable skins) to make bone broth when you have enough stored up.
Buy entire animals, reuse everything
Chicken breast is often trumped as the premium cut but it has the least flavour and can only be used once. Organic chickens are comparatively expensive to their conventional counterparts (around $30 for one) however this is for good reason. Delving into the production of chicken in any country can be a slightly sobering one. Using chickens with an organic certification is important for your health and the environments.
If you buy the entire animals you can roast the chicken first, batch up sections of the meat and then use the bones to cook bone broth from.
Offal ain’t Awful!
This is a territory I am only just starting to dip my toes into. I was so surprised when reading through this baby recipe book by Jude Blereau to see the first recommended foods for babies were liver and brains. And for good reason – organ meats are amongst the most nutritionally-dense meats you can eat. They are often discarded because they are unfashionable.
These are the things that our grandparents were brought up on without a second thought, because it made good sense both in terms of health and economics. Expect many more coming through on this website, even though the thought of cooking brain terrifies me.
Final word on the matter…
Finally, I would like to say that the wormhole of food production is still a long, twisty, dark tunnel that can lead you into Doomsville. You are amazingly brave for stepping into it – everyone needs to. That doesn’t stop that fact that It can be utterly overwhelming and make you want to crawl into a ball and wait for the impending Armageddon.
Be gentle with yourself. Make the right decisions where you can. Always strive to try your best and when you can’t; accept it, let it go and start again tomorrow.
P.s. I am VERY aware that fish are still meat but the post would have gone on for a year and 3 months had I tried to cover fish as well. So stay tuned for my next article on sustainable seafood choices. Or, sign up to my newsletter below so you can get a link delivered straight to your inbox.