Ethical Meat: Oxymoron or a step towards a resilient food system?

by: Sara on 10/20/2015


Ethical meat, some may argue the term is an oxymoron. How can one possibly take the life of another being and consider it ethical? Raising livestock is considered a major threat to the environment with approximately 285 million tons of meat produced annually, using up precious resources like water, land, grains and contributing to climate change through the release of methane.

So what is the answer? With the majority of meat being consumed in the west is it realistic to think people will really give up meat completely? Or is there a way to return to raising, butchering and eating meat more responsibly and ethically in a way that benefits the land as was done prior to the introduction of big agriculture?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, a moral one for many. In Meredith Leigh's new book, The Ethical Meat Handbook, Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore, Meredith takes on this tough question offering a new way to look at agriculture and the way we eat meat. Today's blog post is from the foreword of The Ethical Meat Handbook written by Jean-martin Fortier the author of the award winning book, The Market Gardener, A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, in which he shares his own introduction to holistic animal agriculture.

A long time ago I read a book called The New Organic Grower, which opened my mind to the importance and practice of small-scale vegetable production. Eliot Coleman’s famed book not only gave instructions about how to do things, it provided an ethos about good food and the way forward. This book changed my life and shaped the path I’ve been following ever since. Books such as his are just as rare as they are important, because they can transform ideas of sustainable living into practical and proactive practices. I believe The Ethical Meat Handbook is one of these books.

As a vegetable grower, my focus has always been on the plant side of things. My farm is nothing more than a big garden, and if you read some of my work, I’ve often advocated that young growers NOT include animals in the system, arguing that animal husbandry could enslave you to your farm and require a lot of initial investment.

Lately, I’ve been changing my mind about that, mostly as I’ve learned more about the management of perennial systems, based on pastured land where herds of animals are moved very frequently. These are the low-tech, high-management systems that my friend Joel Salatin has been teaching us about for nearly 30 years, systems that don’t require land to be tilled, or for much grain to be fed to livestock.

As I have learned more about polycultures and the overall importance of animals in a restorative farming model, I have had a joyful change of heart.

The fact that every good farmer is aware of, regardless of his conscious practice, is that animals and plants managed together, holistically, provide powerful ecosystem benefits via natural trophic exchange. Plants are the only beings that can turn solar energy into usable energy for all life, but they depend on high energy being returned to the soil. As such, animals offer a simple, closed-circle fertility input that is beneficial to our farmland. When managed properly, and holistically, animals and plants together provide sustainable solutions.

As I have begun to learn about holistic animal agriculture, and work to merge it with my current farming consciousness, one issue has remained to nag at me: what about the slaughtering and butchering of the livestock? Where is the system or thinking for post-production that feels right, and ready? And it is here, at the intersection of the right production points, and this nagging question, that The Ethical Meat Handbook soars. It brings to light not only an ethos about meat consumption that I believe we should all agree on (both meat eaters and vegetarians

alike), but most importantly, it also provides guidelines about how to conduct ourselves responsibly in relationship to the earth.

By drawing on hard-earned experience and profound insight, author Meredith Leigh challenges us to consider ethical meat production as center stage in our food conundrums; or at the very least, recognize the threads in our fraught and flawed meat industry that are patterned through our entire food system. Further, she challenges us to see that a proliferation of small-scale butchers working in relationship with local farmers will play an important role in the rebuilding of our food systems.

The evidence of this is clear: People strongly opposed, saddened and angry at the way our society treats its animals in factory farms are looking for alternatives, and they can find it in ethical meat, locally raised and butchered. The demand for locally grown products is driving

a new cohort of young people back into the business of small-scale agriculture, and this demand will only move forward as we increase our understanding of the ecological, economic, and social importance of ethical meat.

An improved food system will depend on independent, resilient, integrative small businesses, all fostered by a renewed and growing interest in local agriculture. From small farms to feed mills, farmers markets to bakeries, this is the middle economy that The Ethical Meat Handbook so clearly illustrates. Where livestock is used in combination with plant agriculture to create healthy food, fiber, and ecological management, the artisan butcher will be indispensible. It’s a trend that will inevitably create plenty of opportunities for people interested in pursuing farming careers and lifestyles.

This is a powerful, positive book about a powerful, positive alternative, engaging us in shaping a new food and agriculture narrative. It leaves us with an overwhelmingly clear picture of just how important ethical meat is to the future of the entire food system. It is exactly what our movement needs, a call for people to take action, educate themselves, and participate. This book is a gem, a gift to everyone looking to be the alternative to a passive recipient of the status quo. This book — its philosophy, honesty, artistry, and practice, represents a way forward — the only way to go.

Jean-Martin Fortier is a small-scale organic farmer, writer, and educator. Heand his wife are the founders of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, an internationally recognizedmicro-farm famous for its high productivity and profitability using low-tech,

high-yield methods of production. His acclaimed book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Farming, tells the story of how they started their farm, and how they successfully operate it. []


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