Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Can you eat meat and still be an environmentalist?

In light of my recent post about buying a cow share, I thought I'd ask the age olde question regarding whether or not you can call yourself an environmentalist if you weren't a vegetarian. We all know the arguments, eating meat, particularly those of the beef and pork nature, has a heavy impact on the environment.

Although I would argue that there are plenty of vegetarians that make poor food choices that result in an equal, if not higher, impact on the environment than some more conscientious meat eaters. In other words, there are more involved issues that need to be looked at here.

Anyway, I'm not going to tell you my opinion on the question (although you may easily guess my answer) because I want to hear what you think and open this up for your discussion without tainting it too much with my thoughts on the topic.

Can you call yourself an environmentalist if you eat meat (fish, poultry, pork, beef, etc.)? What about if you eat local, sustainably raised meat on land that doesn't support farming? Can beef fit into the picture, or does it have to be more of the sustainable chicken n' fish variety?


ruchi said...

Well, who is the arbiter for who gets to call themselves an environmentalist anyway?

Can you eat meat and still call yourself an environmentalist? Sure, why not.

I mean, I believe that the ideal (from a purely environmental perspective) is to be a vegan who eats entirely from scratch with no commercial soy or corn products.

But frankly, many of us don't want to eat that way, we don't have the time to eat that way, and we find it difficult to get all the protein, vitamins and minerals we need that way.

So you attempt to find balance.

I know of zero perfect environmentalists. People fly, they drive, they eat meat, they have a distressing addiction to Reed's ginger beer. I do all of these things. And yet I still consider myself an environmentalist. So, sure, if someone ate meat and claimed to be an environmentalist, I think that's fine. Let he who is without sin, yadda yadda yadda.

And because I am sure there will be commenters who say, "But environmentalism has to MEAN something so you can't just call yourself an environmentalist," the definition of environmentalist is "An environmentalist supports any goal of the environmental movement, an information-based perspective on appropriate use of technology to prevent adverse effects on the natural environment. An environmentalist is engaged in or believes in the philosophy of environmentalism."

Basically if you agree with some tenets of the environmental movement, you are an environmentalist. That's a good thing. We want more people who care in the world, not fewer.

ruchi said...

Sorry if that was overly-passionate. I get a little agitated about this subject.

Paula said...

I consider myself an environmentalist even though I have a long way to go to get to where I'd really like to be. It's not going to happen overnight, there are still a lot of things I need to change. But, I've already taken a lot of steps to improve my footprint on the earth. Because I'm not all the way there yet, am I not an environmentalist? It's not all or nothing. I've yet to see one person who calls themselves an environmentalist who doesn't have or do something that another environmentalist would criticize. I buy local foods as much as I possibly can, including meat (going vegetarian is one step I have no intention of taking). I've been criticized in the market by environmentalists that are vegetarians because of the impact of meat-eating on the planet. Well, I only buy locally sourced sustainable meat while their cart was full of produce from the other side of the world in a lot more packaging than anything that I was buying. And they really don't see their own hypocrisy.

Robj98168 said...

As usual, Ruchi said what I feel.

Hazel said...

I was vegetarian for 25 years, and then started eating meat for environmental reasons.
It was always animal welfare reasons that stopped me eating meat (25 years ago, free range and organic meat was not widely available here), but with the exception of dairy, all vegetarian protein sources are imported (beans, pulses, tofu) or manufactured and slightly spooky (TVP, Quorn).

I don't live in an African country with minimal irrigation and thin top soil, where arable farming is impossible, or even in a region with extreme terrain where large scale farming is difficult with poor returns unless you can grow a crop with a high cash value, but I do live on the edge of the Cotswolds in England- chocolate-box pretty, with small, dry-stone wall edged fields, all designed for generations of mostly animal farming. Small scale, local and supporting family owned farms.

So I can buy plastic wrapped lentils from the other side of the world (the closest are from France, but are gourmet Lentilles de Puy with an appropriately gourmet price tag...) or I can buy meat (beef. pork and lamb/mutton) from a farm 1 mile up the road, where the beef travels the furthest to the on-farm butchers (maybe 5 miles). The pigs are grazed and/or fed on barley which is grown on the same farm in a field rotation system and fertilised solely with the pig muck. The family provide animals for pig/lamb roasts at the village pub, have an open day with tractor rides for the children. Local teenagers can get summer jobs on the farm, which they can walk to across the fields rather than drive to the town to stack supermarket shelves. I can buy head for brawn, trotters and tail for Chinese dishes- all the cuts you can't buy in Tesco.
And whatever developing country I've bought my pulses from can grow food for themselves.

Of course, I do a combination. The answer is usually somewhere between the two- a balance, as ruchi said. We still eat a lot of meatless meals, as we did when I was vegetarian (DH has always been a committed carnivore). But when we eat meat I've probably seen it in the field the month before.

chiara said...

This is a tough question.
I am not a vegetarian and I find that it is very time consuming trying to get all the nutrients you need with a truly animal-free diet. I alsohave to admit that I like meat.
While I don't think I am perfect (obviously!), I am trying to live as sustainably as I can, given the constraints of living in a city. I don't use the car but public transportation, I buy locally, organic products are a must and a lot of other steps towards being less of a burden to the environment ;-). Meat-wise, I live in an area where there is quite a tradition of meat production and we buy only local meat, fed organically and also we try not to waste by eating all cuts of meat. To sum up, yes, you can claim you are an environmentalist (even if only in the making!) and still eat meat.

Anonymous said...

Sure, there are no rules to being an environmentalist. Everyone can't do everything, we all know that.

We're vegetarian most of the time; my husband and I eat fish about 6 times a year or so. I would not eat beef or pork though. I do have to wonder how "sustainable" those items would be if everyone who ate meat switched to sustainable meat and wanted a side of it in their freezer. Either the demand would so outweigh and frustrate people that they might turn back to feedlot meat or sustainable meat farmers would have to ramp up their production so much that it would also cause issues. Right now it's sustainable, but would it be once the hordes of people who have been trained to eat tons of meat all the time decided they wanted pastured meat? I don't know that it would happen that way - I'm just thinking out loud.

Anonymous said...

I just realised I wasn't very clear. I meant sure, you can be an environmentalist and eat meat. I just don't know how great it is environmentally if more people make that choice.

Anna @ Blue Dirt said...

I think if you care and make an effort you're ok. I've met some hardcore people who stuck up their noses because I ordered a pound of organic basil, IN JANUARY! It drives me bonkers when people get so elitist in any mind set. If you want to have an effect you can't snub everyone!

We eat local pasture raised meat, and it is great. I won't turn down dinner at a friends house, or go vegetarian in a restaurant because the animal was treated horribly. And I still use lunch meat and summer sausage from the store when I need to. My food dollars still show what I care about, at least 75% or more.

And if we weren't growing so darn much corn I think we'd have a lot more pastures for smaller farmers. I live where the soil is extremely fertile and all you can see is corn and beans. I am a farmer. If you bring up whether meat is sustainable there's all sorts of other arguments like overpopulation, big agriculture, and the government. And let me tell you, for smaller farms, those subsidy checks are a very small percentage of our income. You need to look at the large scale industry farms to see where all the money goes.

Greenpa said...

What we have here, is a Gordian Kerfuffle.

There are so many aspects to the question that it is virtually impossible to get two people who are discussing it from mutually comprehensible viewpoints.

Either extreme end leads to complete insanity, like the recent long discussion on the NYT, by an actual university professor of philosophy, as to whether we are morally required to exterminate all carnivores.

Sorry, but that guy is so far removed from reality as to be pitiable. A loon of a different color.

At the other end I think are the "raw" and "cave man" diet folks.

Really good bull-session material, though! :-)

Pony said...

Thanks, Ruchi! You summed it up pretty good :D

I completely recognize that I am in the minority, but it is often forgotten in many "meat-eating/environmentalist" discussions those that hunt/fish/harvest for themselves. My family is one of them. I live in the North and it is a part of my culture. We either do it ourselves or get it from friends/family (and often as a trade). I know people who almost entirely eat only wild meat (and the main reason is cost/access to other meat).

I do eat non-wild meat (which I am trying to reduce), and my small town is expanding in farming so that I am starting to be able to purchase local meat. But, I do eat wild meat/fish a lot of the time. I recognize that this is a rarity, but also feel that it should be recognized that not all meat is huge industry OR small farm, sometimes it is wild.

Ivy said...


I think this is one of those issues (there are many) where we run into this very peculiar cultural characteristics in the US where we really can't handle any kind of nuance or ambiguity. We want it to be black and white--Meat is bad! Vegan is good! or whatever.

As you pointed out, there are plenty of choices made my those who don't eat meat that can be equally harmful. Including a number of highly processed foods that travel long distances. (And I, too, am guilty of this; I have a dairy intolerance and use vegan substitutes sometimes. Why? Because I miss cheese, darn it.)

The issue with meat is balance and changing habits. Eating meat doesn't have to be done in the same way that may be the norm--factory farmed meat eaten in large amounts several times a day. That isn't good either.

We do need to change how we, as a culture, view meat. The idea of it being the central component of every meal is one that we have to break from. It's not easy--it's hard, especially if that's how you grew up cooking and eating. But it can be done. If we eat less meat, if we eat more sustainably raised or even hunted meat (which, yes, I do find hunting meat for food--not trophies and not more than you can consume--to be entirely ethical) isn't incompatible with being an environmentalist.

Michelle said...

I vote Yea, one can be an environmentalist and eat meat. Healthy ecosystems have plants, herbivores, and carnivores. I think the rub comes in when the meat is raised outside of a healthy ecosystem. For my part, I keep hens and raise rabbits. Once my barn is finished (this weekend, maybe, after 2 1/2 years in the works!) and the fence is upgraded, I'll get some dairy goats. Next spring... I'm getting a steer. The land on which these animals will graze is hilly and brushy/forested, crosses a creek, and has steep pasture on the other side. The farmer who owns the other side can't hay it (too steep for the machinery) and would rather have it grazed than have to brush hog it repeatedly. So - I can't grow other food on that land - growing food on the hoof seems a very responsible use for it. The hens free-range and get table and restaurant scraps, as well as commercial pellets. The rabbits are currently pellet-fed, but I have two rabbit tractors with which I'm experimenting at present, until the ground freezes. My hope is to select animals which grow well on a mixed pellet and grass diet, and move my herd that way. Meanwhile, I'm not using gas in my mower to mow the lawn, and the rabbits are doing a great job fertilizing it for us.

I'd recommend Lierre Kieth's The Vegetarian Myth as part of this discussion. She discusses the nutritional aspects of food choices as well as the environmental and ethical.

Mrs Mallard said...

You can absolutely be an environmentalist if you eat meat! Hazel makes an excellent point about the footprint of many vegetarian foods. Which is worse--the methane from a cow a mile from home or the drilling, processing and delivery of fuel that allows for the harvest, process, package, and deliver vegetarian protein options?

Barbara Kingsolver does a great job of tackling the subject of meat in chapter 14 ofAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: "We still must live with the fact that every sack of flour and every soybean-based block of tofu came from a field where countless winged and furry lives were extinguished in the plowing, cultivating, and harvest" (p 221).

If there's no perfect way to be an environmentalist, you have to choose the way that's perfect for you.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly... Alisa Smith and
J.B. MacKinnon authors of "The 100 Mile Diet" actually went from vegetarianism to eating some local meat during the year of the writing of their book.
I believe it truly depends where you live. My environmentally appropriate diet on coastal North America will be totally different than say North Africa or Indonesia.

Crunchy Chicken said...

thesimplepoppy - If everyone who ate meat switched to sustainable meats, it wouldn't need to scale up due to the fact that the meat is more expensive. I reckon those people would eat drastically less meat as a result. I would actually argue that there would be a shift downward - the total population of cattle/pigs/etc. would go down because the overall demand would drop.

If you had to pay $25 for a chicken (which we do), you'd eat it a hell of a lot less frequently. Same thing with beef.

Unknown said...

I hope that I can still edge towards being an environmentalist while eating meat.

I stopped eating meat for quite a few years until I got Chrohn's/Colitis. I found the only way that I could function (without the massive doses of steroids etc that the doctors were pushing) was to eat a more "caveman" style diet.

This is; little to no processed food, no dairy (although I can tolerate some goat and sheep's products), LOTS of protein and lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. We don't eat a tonne of carbs anymore through wheat products (although goodness knows I get enough from my wine consumption :)

So...we've sourced our meat from people we trust and eat animals that have been happy all their lives and then ended them whith little to no stress. NONE of our meat ever goes to waste and we use all of the animal not just the usually commercially viable pieces and parts.

It's not ideal but it's the best we can do.

Anonymous said...

Crunchy, yeah, you're probably right, I was just mulling things over in my head. I didn't know a chicken was that expensive - I guess price naturally puts a dent in meat consumption.

Anonymous said...

Don't you find when a chicken costs $25.00 you find a way to use every last bit of it right down to the cackle?

Crunchy Chicken said...

Tell me about it. Our last chicken from Thundering Hooves (pastured heritage bird - which cost $25) I made chicken stock after squeezing every bit of meat off the carcass short of snapping open the bones and spreading the marrow on toast like some people I know.

Anyway, I overfilled the canning jars and they cracked in the freezer. I wanted to cry - I managed to salvage two quarts but the rest I had to dispose of. I didn't want to accidentally be eating glass.

A lesson learned about headspace. I'm still pissed at myself.

The Nurturing Pirate said...

First, Crunchy, I feel your pain regarding overfilled jars of chicken stock. Our chickens aren't quite $25, closer to $20, but ugh. I was so mad at myself when I did that...

Also, I learned that I can make 1.5 batches of chicken stock. I make two batches, each with a chicken. Each time I save the bones and vegetables and combine the leftovers of two batches to make a third batch, with no chicken, just bones & veggies. I find I can still get that "magic" gel. And by then, the bones are soft enough, that I can grind them up in the food processor and make a thoroughly disgusting chicken schmoo for the dogs. I do fish out the larger pieces of onion before I pulverize it though. The dogs go crazy for this (not so much the dh, who's in charge of feeding the dogs).

Second, 'Mother Earth' did a piece on this very topic a few months ago. Me, being the passive agressive that I am, "conveniently" left it out when my MIL came to visit. She is an AVID (rabid?) vegetarian, trying to convert the world, including me and her carnivorous son. She actually had the gall to tell me I couldn't call myself an environmentalist, because I eat meat.

She told me this via email - from Wales - where she lives part of the year. Yes, that's right, she flies to/from Wales twice a year, maintains two households, buys overpackaged, overprocessed veg food, and says *I* am not an environmentalist! Ugh. I was so mad, I wrote this long email (almost as long as this post, LOL!), talking about energy to process food, food miles, blah, blah, blah. I never sent it, because my sister wisely asked whether it would change anything.

So thanks for bringing that old family argument to the surface again! :-)

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

I think a minimal amount of meat is environmentally kind, mostly if you raise it yourself as part of a well-diversified homestead where you raise much of your own food and use every possible part of the animal... including the fertilizers that we "organic" gardeners typically buy--bloodmeal, bonemeal, manure etc.

Not that I've been comfortable doing this myself. I'm a city girl who moved to the semi-rural area in order to be more self-sufficient. I raise dairy goats and chickens and haven't gotten comfortable with the idea of killing an animal, even though I am not entirely vegetarian. But I am moving to a place in my life where purchased meat no longer has a place in my diet.

I think purchasing meat in any form--"sustainably raised" is not environmentally kind. Too much gas and transportation issues, what the animal eats for food and how the food was raised, too much monoculture, too much manure produced.

And the animals themselves... well, all I can tell you for certain is that the chicken industry, even those that are raised organically, are totally gross. I know this because the feed store near us gives meat birds away once a year and my husband and I gave it a shot.

The chicken breed that nearly all who raise chicken is a franken-bird called the cornish cross. It is a bird that is bred to gain wait so fast that they cannot walk, let alone breed naturally (they are artificially inseminated). Pasture raised chickens is a total joke, as these animals rarely move away from their grain. They sit, eat, and poop (think of the amount of waste your heritage breed chickens produce and multiply it by at least five). They frequently die of heart attacks because of the way that they are bred. I could go on and on about this breed and why you shouldn't eat chickens that don't specifically say that they are a heritage breed but perhaps I will just refer you to the stories I posted on my blog. Hopefully you won't think of this as spam... feel free to remove the link if you wish.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

I was having trouble posting. Sorry about that.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

As a farmer who raises livestock, the least sustainable and the hardest on the environment in our situation is chicken and pork, our beef cattle have the least impact on the environment. And on the subject of fish being sustainable, it isn't...fisheries are over fished, and farmed fish is fed soy and who knows what else just like their CAFO counterparts. Our farm is beautiful, because of our livestock.

Nubby Tongue said...

No one can really eat "perfectly" because the issues are so multi-faceted and complex. I say eat as wisely as you can, and then try a little harder than that so there's less room for excuses.

I totally know what you mean about vegetarians with a bigger impact though. Last night I saw a recipe for "Healthy 3-Ingredient Vegan Brownies" and the ingredients were: dairy-free chocolate chips, pumpkin puree, and a box of DUNCAN HINES cake mix. Healthy my foot!

Once my husband was interviewing a potential employee at his natural foods store. He asked the guy where his favorite place to shop was and he said, "Well, I'm vegan, so definitely Walmart. They've got a lot of good vegan stuff so I buy everything there."

...He didn't get hired.

EngineerChic said...

We need a "like" option for comments, because so many said it better than I can.

But yes, meat-eaters can be environmentalists as can people who travel often for work or occasionally use their clothes dryer. It's all about balance - we don't have to be 100% off the grid or live a life free of possessions to conscious, environmental choices every day.

emmer said...

i second the comment about reading the vegetarian myth. she mentions, by the way, a link between veganism and crohns and other gi problems. i would also suggest reading some of joel salatin's books. he virtually invented pastured poultry (doesn't use cornish cross), has used his varied livestock to enrich his acreage and has managed to make a living doing it.
i believe that we need not eat a lot of meat, but what we eat can be raised on land unsuitable (read: too damaged) for crops, and if not grained, can be a good source of scarce nutrients without excessive enviro costs.
personally, if i don't eat some red meat, i am significantly anemic. i am aware of one other individual who has the same problem. if i eat about 12-14 oz of red meat a week, i am not anemic and i am able to donate a pint of blood 4 times a year.

Adrienne said...

Of course you can. You can be a vegetarian and drink water from disposable plastic bottles all day long. You can eat meat and do a thousand other things that lessen your impact on the environment. Preferably, if you eat meat you only eat local/ grass fed/ etc. meat, which is what I do. It's a lot more, if not perfectly, sustainable.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Emmer, Joel Salatin does use the Cornish Cross breed for most of his meat poultry. And he does it well, showing that an industrial breed in a less industrial setting is more economical and ecological than a slower growing heritage bird, that eats more grain to produce less meat, therefore causing more environmental damage due to the growing of annual grains for feed.

Crunchy Chicken said...

I believe that Thundering Hooves chickens are Cornish Cross as well.

Lane' Richards said...

I definitely think you can!

I tried to be a vegetarian a year or so ago and failed after 9 or so months. I was raised in Alaska - and I don't mean just Anchorage. Think Fish Camp and hunting for bears and moose.

I made a compromise with myself - since I went vegetarian for environmental reasons, I told myself I'd eat meat again if I made better, more sustainable purchasing decisions.

So, I purchased an 1/8th of a local, grass-fed cow (30 miles away from my house) as well as chickens raised on the same farm. I'm also purchasing a small share of local, organic pork. In addition, I prepare meatless dinners a couple of times a week.

It obviously goes beyond just meat and well into overall food purchases. However, I feel much better about my decisions and have no regrets.