Meat – Not Grains – To Live Sustainably
Written by: Shannon Hayes
A girl doesn’t grow up farming the mountainsides of the Northern Catskills without becoming deeply acquainted with her meat. For centuries, my economically impoverished community, rooted in the tail end of Appalachian culture, depended on grazing livestock when all other farm implements and technologies failed. The steep-pitch of the fields rendered them impossible for crop production beyond subsistence gardens, as did the 11 months of frost. The winding roads made us improbable candidates for modernization, and thus the agricultural industrial revolution passed us over. Subsistence farming, centered around livestock, was how the families in my town survived. The month of November meant deer carcasses hanging from front yard trees, slaughtered pasture-fattenedbeef and lambs cut up for the freezer on kitchen-tables, and outdoor smokers preserving the pork harvest. As a child, I learned that meat was more essential to my survival than money.
Thus, it didn’t sit easy with me, as I grew into adulthood and an ecological consciousness, to see my family and neighbors, living close to the land, being implicated for America’s myriad troubles: for producing saturated fat that supposedly made the nation obese, for raising livestock that were supposedly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and for producing a product that, by virtue of is price in comparison to lentils, was regarded as cost prohibitive.
As a result, I spent a number of years studying these issues and earned a PhD in sustainable agriculture before returning home to resume the livelihood handed down to me from three generations of my family. By the time I re-joined the farm, I was keenly aware of the false myths implicating animal fats for heart disease, and of the role grassfed livestock farming plays in environmental stewardship (you can read more about that here). But as grassfed producers, we continued to hear complaints in the media that our products were too expensive, and that while our farming methods were more responsible than our factory-farming counterparts, there could never be enough meat produced sustainably to satisfy the American diet. According to mainstream media reports, our food was nothing more than an occasional luxury.
But mainstream media never worked with me in our on-farm cutting room, where I witnessed the mountains of waste generated with every butchering session, because the American diet has limited itself to steaks, chicken breasts, burgers and an occasional roast, completely overlooking nearly 30% of every Animal we harvest, because most Americans are not interested in cooking with the bones, the skin, the fat or the organ meats.
And mainstream media, in evaluating the costs of grassfed meat in comparison to conventional grains, or even organic adzuki beans, fails to account for the unseen expenses. Legumes and grains, touted as the ecological and economic saviors of our modern times, seem cheap on the store shelves, but they add up in many other ways: from the ecological implications of monoculture crop production, for the inflammation disorders they provoke, for the insulin demand they place on our bodies (any type I diabetic who must pay for their own insulin can assure you that cooking with grassfed meats and bone broth is far cheaper than cooking with grains), for the health care expenses that ensue as a result of their consumption.
Meat, particularly from grassfed farms, is possible in times of ecological and economic crisis. Indeed, it is one of the most sensible dietary choices we can make. However, mainstream media is not entirely wrong. The typical American meat-based diet is extremely wasteful. If we are going to have a meat based diet that isn’t centered on grains and legumes, we need to change how we go about it:
1. Make full use of what is there. As I mentioned already, 20-30% of every animal that moves through our cutting room goes to waste, because most meat customers will not make use of the bones and fat. Piles of bone and suet are often sent to the compost heap, to the delight of the local coyotes, because we often only manage to sell chops and roasts. But animal fats, when rendered, are cheaper than butter and olive oil, and perform better in the kitchen for frying, sautéing and baking. They are far superior to the loathsome hydrogenated oils associated with heart disease. Bones, boiled into broth, are less expensive than canned broth or wine for braising, taste great as a filling warm beverage for breakfast or as a snack or light meal, and can form the base of an infinite number of inexpensive stews, soups and casseroles.
2. Increase the nutrient density of our food. The prevailing habit in this country, when eating on the cheap, is to select foods that are inexpensive and filling: Rice. Pasta. Legumes. Potatoes. Grains. If you are curious about the true costs of these foods, carry a glucometer for a week and test your blood sugars on a grain and legume-based diet. Or add up the costs of the inflammatory and digestive disorders they stimulate.
Instead of “eating cheap” by using cheap foods, my family eats cheap by increasing the nutrient density of our meals. And the key to increasing the nutrient density lies in those lovely under-utilized resources I mentioned above: the bones and the fat (organ meats are good, too, although there are less of them). Animal fats are satiating, and they are sources of the fat-soluble vitamins, which enable our bodies to make more effective use of the minerals we ingest. Bone broth is high in proteinaceous gelatin, minerals and electrolytes. This makes it an especially healing food with hydrophilic colloids that attract your stomach’s digestive juices to the surface of cooked food particles, aiding in digestion. The gelatin in the broth also helps the body make more efficient use of protein. Thus, if you can’t afford to buy a lot of meat, broth helps to maximize the nutritional benefit of any protein you can get. By using these ingredients to increase the nutritional density of our foods, our bodies are satisfied on less. We are able to go a long way on less food. That keeps our food prices down, our pharmaceutical prices down, and it helps to make sure that the existing local food resources can be stretched to accommodate a whole lot more people. And finally,
3. Re-use the food, recycle the nutrients. Those little bits of hamburger left on my daughters’ plates taste great when added to broth with some vegetables for a soup. The tiny amount of leftover chicken will be just the right amount when added to a frittata. The leftover veggies can either be added to soup or added to the broth pot, along with the carrot tops, kale ribs, and onion skins that can be saved up from a week’s worth of cooking.
Food waste is more than just a carbon emissions and a landfill problem. It is an economic problem as too many families discard valuable nutrients, then repeatedly spend money on fresh ingredients. By sending food to a landfill and failing to compost whatever scraps remain, we also fail to replenish our soils. When our soils are nutritionally deficient, so is our food. When our food is nutritionally deficient, we aren’t sated, our food costs go up, and our health care costs go up. Whatever is left on the plate after a meal should go toward another meal. If it cannot be re-used, it needs to be turned back into soilby way of the compost heap.
If we can change the way our nation consumes food, everyone stands to gain. Our lakes and rivers will be cleaner, our health will be more vibrant, our farmers will be fairly compensated for their labors, our soils will be more fertile, and there will be ample nutrition for everyone. And little farms like mine, nestled away in the mountains, will resume their place as vibrant contributors to the local economy, nourishing the bodies and souls of our neighbors, as well as many future generations of farmers.
This article was based on Shannon Hayes’ newest book: Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. Hayes is the host of Grassfed Cooking.com, works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York, blogs daily at www.ShannonHayes.info, and is the author ofThe Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, and the controversial best-seller, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.
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