This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
My last name came from Scotland. I’m not sure how the McEwens ended up in the United States. The last in the line I can trace is to an overcrowded Philadelphia tenement. They seem to have been very poor. There are rumors of a murder, a flight to South America, and then somehow they ended up in Arkansas.
Much further back, the MacEwans were a Scottish clan that held a fair bit of land by Loch Fyne, a place I have often dreamed of going. In the 1400s they were broken up, seemingly due to the chieftain's financial incompetence, and became the vassals of other clans like the Maclachlans.
When I was a child I liked the idea of my Scottish heritage being defined by deep blue Highland lochs bordered by pines. And swords, and kilts. At the time it was more attractive to me that my more immediate heritage. The reality was probably that my ancestors of that clan were probably poor tenant farmers. And the kilt wasn’t even invented when they lived in Scotland.
But I’ve often thought of the clan crest, a cut oak stump bearing shoots of new growth with the motto “reviresco”- we grow again, underneath.
Two years ago an overzealous logger on our land cut down the big oak tree in the front of the farmhouse. My father was pretty angry about it and stubbornly left the stump there, as if to refuse to let the tree go. I reminded him of the crest. When the spring came the stump sent out shoots with green leaves, as I knew it would.
In forestry school in Uppsala we had a couple of acres of willow coppicing forest, a practice I had not been familiar with before. Coppicing is the very ancient practice of cutting down a tree without killing it in order to utilize the re-growth. They told us that Sweden was the only place in the world that was using willow coppicing to fuel a biomass power plant. The coppice forests were rather beautiful too, whirring with the buzzing of both honey and wild bees.
Coppicing has experienced a renaissance in the United States on small farms, where it can be used as a method of producing firewood or material for crafts like baskets.
Oak can be coppiced in long rotations. So we’ll leave the stump there to give it a chance to grow again.
American Chestnuts were once an important presence on the landscape here. Their starchy nuts were an important source of food for many humans and animals. I once heard them called “tree potatoes.” When I was a girl I was often fascinated by the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” of The Christmas Song.
I had never had one. Because of chestnut blight, which was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s from imported Asian chestnut trees, which are immune to the blight. The blight spread quickly, killing over three billion trees.
The American Chestnut should be extinct, but it lives on an an eternal coppice-like state, sending out hopeful shoots that grow and then die again and again in a world that no longer welcomes them. Unless you can get some of the last stock, from nurseries in Oregon and Washington, and plant them far away from these undead remnants. Then they might live, but the odds are against you.
The only hope is for them are scientists, who are have used the genetic material to create resistant varieties. America might yet be covered with chestnuts again. I have wanted to plant some resistant varieties on the farm, but the nursery I want to buy from always sells out so quickly, sure signs that people are replanting.
I tasted my first chestnut while browsing a Christmas market in the Czech Republic, where they sold bags of roasted chestnuts. They were hearty and slightly sweet, not quite the rich fatty nut I imagined in my childhood dreams. These days you can find chestnuts at the local farmer’s market. I think the flour is among my favorite alternative flours, especially for pancakes. It is silky and has maple notes. But it is expensive, which is amusing since in the past, like lobster and oysters, chestnuts were considered an undesirable peasant food.
I was disappointed in not getting the chestnuts this year, but I ordered a random variety of trees from Oikos and the DNR. I’ve been reading Common Sense Forestry by Hans Morsbach, which notes that he like us was a resident of Chicago who had land in Wisconsin. He also owned some restaurants, so I thought it would be interesting to get in contact with him.
Turns out I can’t. Because he died a few years ago. Knowing that imbues the book with a certain sort of melancholy I don’t often experience when reading books on growing things. He talks about how much of what he does he may never see come to maturation. And I know he never will see it.
That’s what’s really incredible. And I honestly can’t see why everybody who isn’t a child, everybody who’s theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn’t spend all his time thinking about it. It’s a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here. Simply having everything stopping for ever, not just for millions of years. And getting to the point where that’s all there is in front of you. I can imagine anyone finding themselves thoroughly wrapped up in that prospect, especially since it’s where we’re going to get to sooner or later, and perhaps sooner.-The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
If the trees I’ve planted could think, they would see me as I see the wood fly that lives for only a few days.
But they don’t think of this. And while trees sometimes take me into melancholy thoughts of mortality, to try to put yourself in the place of the woodland plant is to imagine that which cannot as Wendell Berry says “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
But it is only for the moment that one can escape there. Even the “peace of wild things” is a “memento mori.” The gaps in our vitality the forest claim. A horticulturalist relative of mine told me he was clearing away the orchard to prepare for this. Past the orchard gate at that same orchard once I remembered peering into the dark forest. The hinges on the gate was twisted, closed by little vines like those oak or chestnut shoots, testing the world outside, seeing if it had been made ready.
Once a friend told me I had trouble sleeping. I told him how I get to sleep when it comes slowly to me. I go in my mind to past dreams, some of them now old enough that perhaps they are worlds of their own. One of the most vivid is a place of murky waters and thick forest. The trees are very old and imposing, holding many strange creatures and towns. It is my grandmother’s Southern Louisiana swamps, the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the dirty miasma of the Skokie canal, the rushlands that were once great Viking rivers in Ultuna. It is all theses places I have known in once, and perhaps places I haven’t. At some point, moving so much, without a home, this became the place I was from.
The call came in the morning, it was some cows we couldn’t keep in our fields, that another farmer had taken to his own farm. They had escaped. We drove northwest there, a shudder crippled my heart. It was as if this were the place in my dreams. The karst topography, holes on the surface of the Earth filled with waters of mystery. There was a heavy fog that morning. The cow had broken her leg in a hole, bellowing sadly stuck in the swamp. There wasn’t much else to do besides get a gun. There wasn’t much blood or commotion. We pulled her out of the swamp into the grass. She looked as if she was sleeping. Her large belly still sighed. It would have been filled with a calf soon, if misfortune hadn’t followed her into the deep green land. Instead the microbes that helped her thrive in life had turned against her flesh for one last meal.
We found a cow skull once; we thought it was
From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun
Shone into the holes through which it had seen
Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel, had heard
Its truculence cursed, had learned how human sweat
Stinks, and had brayed-shone into the holes
With solemn and majestic light, as if some
Skull somewhere could be Baalbek or the Parthenon.- Galway Kinnell's Freedom, New Hampshire
We cut her open. The butcher handed me her liver, it was heavy and dripped with blood on my boots. I also took her sweet breads, they were large and succulent. They always are the best in a young cow. An unfortunate delicacy.
Like hunters we left the gut pile there by the swamp. An offering to some whose home we had disturbed. This land never belonged to any person, it never could belong. It has too close of a relationship with ancient disorder. That’s why it took our cow before we could. You don’t always get to prepare your orchards for when that day comes. I was reminded of this when my grandmother said she’d brought her son’s ashes back to Louisiana. I felt sorry I had been so far away for so long.
Later at home I was tired, but I had to process all the organs, cut away the sinews and freeze what I couldn’t eat soon. I didn’t want to waste anything, and besides it is one of those rare activities where I can be satisfied with work, where the time of work passes quickly in the mundane work of hands.
I cooked the liver and sweetbreads on a hot cast iron with a little salt. They were the best I’d ever had. The sweetbreads popped like popcorn, salty and fatty. I hesitate to give cooking advice for these things. I don’t recommend recreating that day.
That night I dreamt I gave stillbirth to a young lamb and laid him in the grass. I believe it was the lamb from Magnu’s Nilsson’s Faviken book and this artist's depiction of a small microcosm of life growing out of a death. Nilsson has said “ Meat is the remains of what was a living individual that we selfishly raised and killed with the sole purpose of feeding ourselves.”
I felt a million living tendrils
rooting through the thing I was,
as if I’d turned to earth before my death
or in my death could somehow feel.- Christian Wiiman
We always kept our distance from this particular herd of cows. They don’t have names. They have sharp horns. She died much like a wild deer I had seen while hiking once, its skeletal form bent against its tree where its foot was still tangled. Except maybe we are a little less cruel than nature and she didn’t die slowly, stuck in a hole for a long time waiting for the wolves. A part of me welcomed this nourishment from a death that was not a choice.
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.- Galway Kinnell Freedom, New Hampshire
When I was about thirteen or fourteen and first had regular access to the internet, looking back into the past of my name, in boredom. I came across a women who shared it, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a poet and writer. She had died a year after I was born from the alcoholic malady I sometimes feel is a particularly Celtic curse. In pictures she has the most haunting eyes, eyes that seemed far older than her face.
There is one poem of her that I have been remembering since. It is Dark Pines Under Water:
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
I think of it often. I think it must be stored in the deepest part of my brain, where it has gathered a hold of the way words are in my thoughts, like a strange prayer that emerges in the woods and at night. Before her I didn’t really write, but it has been like an infection since.
I was never the sort that anyone could call private. But there is so much that just must be left unsaid for now at least, people whose shadows I trace with my words, deftly avoiding showing their faces.
One way I do that is to write of the past. Of things that no longer live in consciousness on this world. But even then people always seem to have a stake in things.
Instead I try to write of things that seem a bit more mundane. Like trees.
I knew it - you would have too, if you'd been there; it was a figure I’d glimpsed in a car park as a child; an expression crossing the face of a stranger late one night at Waterloo Station as I hurried for a train with my parents; a carving in the portico of a mediaeval church. In some nightmarish way it was particular, and it was also infinite. It was itself, it was the wood, it was the last roses in the garden, and yet it was also a wider sentience, perhaps best described as the feeling that the trees and fields we look at have always secretly been looking back into us.- Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele
I think referring to conventional feedlot cattle as "grain fed" is unfortunate. I think it's an insult on small local family farmers who raise their cows mainly on pasture, but supplement a little grain here and there. Sometimes I buy this kind of beef. It's not terribly different nutrient-wise from completely 100% grass-fed beef. And many people prefer the taste. Furthermore, it's often very affordable, as low as $2-$4 a lb if you buy in bulk.
Such cattle might also have received antibiotics, but for sicknesses, not to promote growth or to make up for unsanitary conditions like in a feedlot. If you have a sick cow and only a few cows in your herd...you are going to want to give the cow the medicine it needs.
Conventional feedlot cattle receive much more than just grains, they often receive antibiotics, hormones, antimicrobials, and nasty industrial byproducts. Just like my post on how Americans aren't eating meat, they are eating sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched garbage, industrial cows aren't eating grains, as much as they are eating crap.
The difference between these cattle and the cattle that receive a little supplemental whole grain is like the difference between someone eating a standard American diet and someone who eats a "paleo" diet and has tacos a couple of times a week.
I was reminded of this today when I saw the headline "Farmer feeds candy to cows to cope with high corn prices"
The worst drought in decades has destroyed more than half the U.S. corn crop, pushing prices to record levels and squeezing livestock owners as they struggle to feed their herds.
To cope, one Kentucky cattle farmer has turned to a child-tested way to fatten his 1,400 cows: candy...
The chocolate and other sweet stuff was rejected by retailers. It makes up 5% to 8% of the cattle's feed ration, Smith said. The rest includes roughage and distillers grain, an ethanol byproduct.
Yum? I'm not crazy about ethanol byproducts in feed either.
Now, meat and bone meal from cows is explicitly banned from cow diets. But it ends up in chicken feed; a significant amount of it spills into bedding and ends up in poultry litter; and poultry litter gets fed back to cows.
Official numbers on just how much poultry litter ends up in bovine diets is hard to come by. But with corn and soy prices at heightened levels in recent years, feedlot operators are always looking for cheaper alternatives, and poultry litter is very much in the mix. Consumer Union's Michael Hansen claims that 2 billion pounds of chicken litter are consumed by cows each year—as much as a third of which consists of spilled feed, including bovine meat and bone meal.
So much for "grain fed" beef.
It does raise the question of what exactly should be done with America's massive amount of chicken waste? Maybe we should eat less chicken? Or as much as I hate to think about, pigs are at least better equipped biologically to eat such "food."
So if you are having a hard time affording good beef, considering buying from a local farmer that is not 100% grass-fed, but who doesn't finish on a conventional feedlot. It can be hard to find such farmers though since a lot of them tend to be older and not think of promoting their product in the many online directories that exist like Local Harvest or Local Dirt. Often such cattle are sold word of mouth to family friends and through old-fashioned social networks like churches.
But if you have a freezer, you should stock up ASAP because cattle prices are on the rise thanks to the aforementioned droughts.
It's interesting to compare Meat : A Benign Extravagance to the Vegetarian Myth. On the surface both challange animal rights dogma, but Meat is primarily a book about economics and is far more rigorous than the Vegetarian Myth. Unfortunately one thing they have in common is that both authors adhere to philosophies that I would deem somewhat noxious to put it lightly, though Fairlie's in a bit benign.
Behind both of their philosophies is the idea that somehow humans are bad for the planet (some even call us an "invasive species"). Our pleasures are irrelevant, we are a scourge upon the goodness of nature. I first heard about Keith from a lecture given by her good friend Derrick Jensen, a misguided character who would welcome a new Black Death and advocates violence as a way to solve environmental injustice. Her association with that movement is unfortunate. Luckily Fairlie is more an acolyte of a secular form of neo-puritanism advocating the idea that we should live very simply, perhaps similar to 15th century European peasants, spurning "luxuries" and only having a few "extravagances."
But what are luxuries and what is extravagant? One lesson I've learned from studying paleolithic cultures is that humans don't really need very much. Bushmen get along quite well without houses or possessions of any kind. This family in Chad gets by with a tent, a few animals, and meager rations of gruel. Most vegans spurning meat as an arrogant luxury go home to well-lit artificially heated apartments. Why are those OK? I don't know. The whole thing seems arbitrary.
Even a ecoconscious vegan's life in the US seems extravagant compared to this family in Chad. This is their food for an entire WEEK. Their housing and clothing are very simple too.The OED says one of the meanings of extravagant is " 7. Exceeding the bounds of economy or necessity in expenditure, mode of living, etc.; profuse, prodigal, wasteful." The word comes from "medieval Latin extrāvagāt- participial stem of extrāvagārī (or extrā vagārī) to wander, stray outside limits, < extrā outside + vagārī to wander. "
So from the outset, by calling meat extravagant, we establish Fairlie as a complex character. We won't find him at either an animal rights ralley or the local Argentine steakhouse. He's kind of like an old school hippie.
It's funny because in the end people calling things luxuries are often the most arrogant. Last week I had a conversation with a vegan on a blog about The Heifer Project, which provides families in developing countries with livestock. Vegan dude was angry because Heifer sponsored a study that seemed to show that children fed animal products in developing countries did better. According to him "let them eat tofu!" Well, if folks want to chose a bicycle tofu press over a goat, that's find by me. But I suspect they won't. But that's not the point of vegan dude's views. Vegan dude thinks he knows what's best for everyone. I don't know what's best for everyone, though I suspect that goat milk is better for children than tofu. So in the end I think it should be up to people in Sudan to make that choice for themselves. Too bad the world is full of people who want to make choices for other people.
When I was a child my little sister and I sometimes fought bitterly. One day we were fighting over some candy and my mother was so frustrated that she said "Well, if you children can't share it equally, none of you can have it at all!" Besides the obvious lesson here that children who are given candy are liable to behave badly, this reminds me of some common positions in environmental debates. Namely that (insert food or agricultural practice) is bad because it can't feed the world. Sure, feeding the world is an admirable goal, but isn't it a little silly to assume that there is one system that will feed the world perfectly?
And yet,this is taken very seriously in environmental debates. I hear again and again how terrible organic is because it can't feed the world. Or how terrible meat is because of the same. It almost becomes nauseating. Hasn't macroeconmic reductivism caused enough problems in our world?
Meat tries to answer some questions about whether or not meat is inefficient, but in the end you end up with what most of us localists already knew: different production systems are appropriate for different places. There is no one magical system that's going to work everywhere. People should be free to chose the system that works for their own land.
With that, it's still interesting to inject some numbers into the debate. Agricultural production is more complex than people would give it credit for being.
Some animal rights environmentalists would have us think that when you raise livestock you are taking food that humans could eat and wasting it on animals, who convert feed to meat/dairy/eggs inefficiently.
If you've ever had pets, you might notice that animals will eat things that we won't. In the old days of small farms animals served primarily as a way to inedible things into food. Cows can eat fibrous waste products and forage on land impossible to till. Pigs can eat well…pretty much anything (haven't you seen Snatch? *spoiler you can feed humans to pigs!*, wild boars are omnivores). Chickens can eat kitchen scraps.
Some of the waste resources animals can turn into food include
1. spoiled food
2. byproducts from milling, oil pressing, slaughterhouses
3. foods that humans spurn (bruised apples)
Animals turn these things into meat, milk, eggs, and manure. Fairlie calls this level of animal production, that which is a byproduct of plant production rather than as a primary product, "default livestock." I would personally quibble with that, as it reflects an agrocentric view of things that ignores nomadic pastoralism as a potentially ecological livelihood in certain situations.
Vegans sometimes call milk "liquid veal" since veal production is an inevitable part of milk production (though through science this might be eliminated in a future through cheap sex selection). Turns out that with that logic, most vegetable oil is liquid meat! The meal left over from vegetable oil processing is a highly profitable part of that industry because of its value as feed.
One of the things livestock provide is fertilizer from manure. Of course veganic (livestock completely without domestic animals) proponents could argue that some of the waste we are talking about could be composted and turned into fertilizer that way. Fairlie examines some current veganic farms and it turns out some of them do quite well, but others don't. As always, it seems that the ideal system varies from land to land.
The idea that land taken out of production by switching to more efficient food systems would be used as habitat never made sense to me. What are the odds that a farmer who needs less land will let the excess go feral? Odds are that it will be sold and turned into a mall or subdivision, which is what has happened with increased agricultural efficiency in most of the US.
Of course Fairlie and most animal rights folks aren't too concerned with that because they are usually advocates of governmental inventions. Which is ironic since Fairlie discusses quite extensively the havoc created by regulatory capture (when industries lobby for laws that benefit mainly them) and misguided policies. One of the most hilarious is the USDA law that hamburger can't be cut with pork fat. Pigs produce tons of excess fat, whereas grassfed cows don't. Why not make some appetizing burgers using both? The fact it's illegal has created demand for fattier feedlot cattle.
Other more insidious laws are those in response to animal and human diseases. Mismanagement of animal waste has led to several food poisoning outbreaks, such as the spinach e. coli debacle. Laws created in response have discouraged manure as fertilizer and the presence of animals on vegetable farms, which is a shame since properly managed animal manure is an asset.
Without this, one much purchase synthetic fertilizer or set aside large amounts of land to grow green fertilizer.
Some other problematic regulations were created in response to mad cow disease, which banned the feeding of slaughterhouse wastes to livestock. This is unfortunate because slaughterhouse wastes are perfectly appropriate for pigs, who are natural omnivores. Fairlie says this is a result of the "nanny state" but seems to call for regulations when they fit his ideology, which is a shame.
Because of such regulations manure and inedible animal parts have become a liability rather than an asset, though the livestock industry is still remarkably efficient.
The best parts of this section are those in which he dissects numbers thrown around by various animal rights ideologues. In my opinion those numbers are nothing but veils on a philosophy that's at its core about reworking our system of morals to turn them against humans, but either way most of them are wrong. The most amusing one is the idea that one kg of beef requires 100,000 liters of water to produce. Turns out that number is a bit of accounting gymnastics that would make any product seem inefficient, because it takes into account ever scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land a cow might occupy. Hmmm. Guess someone didn't learn about opportunity cost. The rain that falls on grassland isn't going to be collected and sent to people suffering from droughts in Africa in the absence of cattle.
This book is enormously dense and I feel like I haven't done this section enough justice despite having written quite a bit. I'd love to take questions from other readers. Please post in the comments or at our facebook group.
Wil asks "Fairlie talks about default/sustainable production and calculates an individual's "fair share" of total world meat production. Is it unethical to eat more than this "fair share"? Can you justify eating more than your "fair share"? How does population growth play into the equation? Are we obligated to help feed the world? Are we obligated to slow/halt population growth?"
In my opinion population growth is another localized issue. The book The Coming Population Crash is one of the few that treats it rationally and not as if humans are a terrible scourge upon the Earth. The truth is that some countries have more people than is optimal and others have less at this point in our history. Barring total immigration reform, this makes population issues fairly local.
As for the areas that may have optimally high populations, we have a well-accepted model called the demographic transition that posits that during development populations growth increases, but then decreases as having lots of children is increasing dis-incentivized. Women reading this from the comfort of first world countries will understand this quite well. How many of us can afford to have five children?
It also seems odd for an advocate of local food to calculate a fair share based on global factors. Unless you are a radical communist that believes everything should be equally distributed, it makes more sense to focus on valuing externalities properly to make the price of meat reflect its true toll on the environment and then allow people to make purchasing decisions based on their own desires. Let's say Fairlie is in charge of policy and decides to give me a meat quota for the month. I still have the same income. I might make even more unsustainable purchasing decisions in that case, like using the money I used to use to purchase grassfed meat on pretty dresses.
A major problem I just mentioned is improper pricing of meat because of subsidies and other distortions caused by the fact that we assign no value to many natural systems. It shouldn't be free to dump waste in an ocean you don't own.
Discussion questions from me:
1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie's definition of default?
3. At what point are regulations part of a "nanny state?"
More blog posts:
Livestock...ahem *certain* environmental pundits have painted them as greenhouse gas emitting monsters responsible for the destruction of the Amazon (I reply...my beef didn't come from Brazil, did your soy beans?). The winner of the Buckminister Fuller Challenge discusses a more holistic approach to livestock.