This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I remember when I was a vegetarian and I first encountered literature on veganism that described the dairy industry. When I learned about how older cows and unwanted calves were sent to slaughter, it made sense to become a vegan. To this day, beyond people who don't like meat or who come from a vegetarian cultural tradition, vegetarianism doesn't make much sense to me. Even for people who are religious vegetarians, the dairy produced in most of the US is a far cry from that traditionally consumed in India.
Even the beef cattle from the worst farm gets to spend part of their lives, usually most of their lives, on pasture. It's a far cry from factory egg and milk production, where animals are often in a state of continuous overcrowding in filthy low-quality conditions. This is true confinement agriculture.
In confinement dairies, after cows have reached the end of their "production cycle" they are normally sent to the slaughterhouse. This was in the news recently because some animal rights activists exposed the mistreatment of a dairy cow at a slaughterhouse. The video is worth watching if you can stomach it, but the cow was a "downer" cow, meaning she was sick and was lying down. The video shows workers torturing her with electric prods. It's sickening.
Beef from dairy cows is 6 percent of all beef production in the U.S. and about 18 percent of ground beef, but the amount varies. I'd imagine that because of the drought, more and more farmers will send their cows to slaughter as feed prices continue to soar.
Typically this isn't exactly premium beef, but it doesn't have to be this way. The NPR article notes:
Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.
If you are buying from a local dairy this might be a great opportunity to get some decent grass-fed beef for pretty cheap. I find that a lot of people, particularly people who eat grass-fed beef for health reasons, don't care all that much about getting the very best quality. For example, my family slaughtered an older cow and the beef was a little lean and chewy. At $3 a lb, it sold out immediately, mainly to the Crossfit types. I ate it too. It was fine, and even very good in certain dishes like Chili or Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" so it's quite fitting.
Another great option is pastured veal. Now this isn't the kind of veal you feel bad about buying. It's from young steers that grazed with their mothers on pasture, not from confined grain-pap fed calves. It's actually really really good and I think it is going to become a trend, because the cuts are so much smaller and so easier to fit in a small freezer.
Indeed, the method of chaining and crating veal calves is a new practice, established in the years following World War II when the agricultural communities of the United States began their dramatic move from the small, intimate and self-sustaining farms they were to feed-lots and monocropping. Dairy farmers moved male offspring, who otherwise held little value, indoors to save space and costs in an era when young farmers were encouraged to “modernize.” Tradition, as is often the case, was lost under the effort to modernize the agriculture of America’s heartland. Prior to this change, veal calves were raised alongside their mothers in open pasture, under the sun and with access to clean air and fresh water before their brought to harvest at about the same time lambs are traditionally slaughtered. Thanks to the renaissance of truly traditional and sustainable farming practices – and, in a way, to the raw milk movement – humanely raised veal is increasing in availability.
I don't know anyone who eats confinement veal and it amazes me that they still produce it. The dairy farm next to me has about 20 calves in teeny tiny pens. It's not as bad as a PETA video, but I do not think it is a production method that respects the animal. This dairy farm is also a small family farm, so once again proof that this is no guarantee that such an operation is a good one.
A commenter on my last post pointed out that craigslist is a good source for finding some affordable beef, if you don't mind the animal having had some grain in its life. One of the first results for Chicago was a pastured Jersey steer for $1.40 a lb. Surprisingly big though at 1000 lbs, but I wonder what the yield on this breed is. The yield is the actual weight of the meat since there are things you obviously aren't getting in your freezer order like skin/hooves/horns/etc. It's an on-farm pickup which is great too, since you can see what the farm is like, though obviously it would be awkward if you got there and it was not to your liking. Maybe this calls for a new post on interviewing your food suppliers...
Jersey cattle in the UK from Wikimedia
Today I got a spate of seemingly random animal rights trolls. Fly by night nonsense? Nope, apparently I was featured on the Freakonomics blog. Normally this would be an honor, since I was a fan of Freakonomics when I was an economics major in college, but nope, they let James McWilliams write another animal rights nonsense piece on their blog, one that references a post I made over a year ago. What does that have to do with economics? Hilariously enough, one of the major objections I have to magazines and blogs billing McWilliams as an agricultural writer is that he doesn't seem to know anything about agricultural economics. He is a historian who ruffles feathers because he condemns the locavore movement. Some troglo-free marketers only see the latter and are just happy to have someone pulling the hippies down to Earth, while forgetting that animals play an essential and irreplaceable role in our agricultural economy. When I saw McWilliams speak on a panel with real farmers, I saw him ignoring what they said, cherry picking quotes to rationalize his fantasy-future utopia of magic robot vegetable farms where they is no death (hilariously, growing mechanization of agriculture often leads to more deaths).
According to McWilliams, I am rationalizing unnecessary death. This is untrue. There is no way to rationalize any kind of death. The idea that some deaths are necessary and others are not is a quasi-religious way to look at the world. I was thrilled to see an animal rights philosopher, Joel Marks, admit that in the New York Times a few weeks ago:
In my case the plight of nonhuman animals at human hands became the great preoccupation. I could think of no greater atrocity than the confinement and slaughter of untold billions of innocent creatures for sustenance that can be provided through other, more humane diets.
In my most recent published book, I defended a particular moral theory – my own version of deontological ethics – and then “applied” that theory to defend a particular moral claim: that other animals have an inherent right not to be eaten or otherwise used by humans. Oddly enough, it was as I crossed the final “t” and dotted the final “i” of that monograph, that I underwent what I call my anti-epiphany.
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.
The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
Unfortunately, complete moral relativism is just as silly as believing that it's immoral to kill animals. Morality does come from somewhere, and the evidence is that it comes our ancient tribal past where we evolved a moral sense in order to be able to cooperate with other humans beings as a community. Morality is about making our lives together better.
James McWilliams totally misses the point I was making in that post and in later posts that animal husbandry is something we have a tough time with because it's not part of our evolutionary heritage. I've been watching Human Planet, the gorgeous documentary about diverse human lifeways around the globe, and one of the most striking scenes is of a South American Indian woman breastfeeding a baby monkey. They ate that monkey's mother for dinner, but this baby monkey is a treasured pet. They don't eat the animals they raise, those animals are part of their tribe. The idea that eating meat is wrong because eating babies (argument from marginal cases) and our pet dogs is wrong is the kind of idea that only someone totally detached from innate human morals would put forth. We don't ban eating/killing babies because babies are sentient!
I was also making a point in that post that I didn't agree with how that farm was raising their animals, since they were perpetuating a breed that doesn't even have a sense of life and would die young even if you brought them to some kind of farm sanctuary. That's an industrial system dressed up in free-range clothing.
I never considered myself part of the "compassionate carnivore" movement. There is nothing special about my engagement with my food. My desire to slaughter my own animals doesn't have to do with reducing harm, but achieving independence from a dying industrial food system. And yes, that means using and eating animals. Fertilizers based on mining un-renewable resources aren't going to last forever.
If you are a visitor interested in learning more why I gave up veganism and debating animal rights, I suggest you head over to let them eat meat, a truly excellent site on the subject.
I've written before about the animal rights-locavore cold war. In some people's eyes, they are two types of liberal food movements, but the truth is that the locavore movement has its true roots in conservatism, as exemplified by the agrarian pillars of the movement such as Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. Animal rights is just plain radical modernism, a pathology of alienation from nature. Being so different in core philosophy, it makes sense that animal rights would want to make life difficult for agrarians, who use integrated systems of plants and domesticated animals on their farms.
Believe it or not, there's a food issue lurking out there beyond food rights and food safety. Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer-author-activist is worried that that next issue is animal rights.
He's already seeing evidence of it at Polyface Farm, his own farm in the Shenandoah foothills. During a tour of his farm Saturday for 150 attendees as part of a fundraiser for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Salatin said he's been reported to his local animal control officials by area residents who have had concerns about the treatment of his cattle.
In one case, someone reported him because one of his steers was limping. In another case, he was reported because his cattle were "mobbing"--hanging out close to each other as a herd in a new pasture.
In each instance, "We had to spend two days with local vets explaining what we do"...and he was off the hook.
His view of animal rights as an emerging issue for owners of sustainable farms rates a chapter in his upcoming book, Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. It's due out in early October.
During the Saturday farm tour, Salatin wondered aloud what other problems the animal rights people might find at his farm. He pointed out how, during recent heavy rains, the chickens (who stay outside in mobile structures) got pretty wet, which isn't unusual. "We have days when our chickens are out here in the rain and cold and shivering. I know there are people who would like to go out and buy them L.L. Bean dog pillows."
Might the animal rights folks be better off focusing their attention more on CAFO's and other factory farm practices? They already have, of course, but Salatin speaks to a more ideological tendency.
The problem is a theme of his book: "We live in extremely abnormal times..." And one expression: "In our communities, we have more and more animal rightists."
Of course the animal rightists love regulation, the better to make it tough enough that the small farmers get out of business, just leaving the industrial CAFOs, which are easier to malign in the public's eye. Animal rights mouthpiece Jame McWililams consistently is on the side of big government. Sorry Philpott, they aren't on our side.