The Meat Problem The problem for me is not whether one should eat meat, but how to eat meat without supporting factory farming. Here in Montana, several of my neighbors accomplish this by only eating wild meat, which aside from raising your own animals, does seem to like one of the least hypocritical paths out there. When it’s a deer, or elk, or antelope one has killed and butchered oneself, there’s no denying that death is an integral part of the cycle, nor that we can eat meat and retain our innocence of this fact. It’s been years since I’ve eaten a factory farmed chicken, but it’s taken longer to wean myself from supermarket meat. Call it denial, call it convenience, I fudged that issue for a long time by claiming to myself that I don’t really eat that much meat anyway. Somehow though, I’ve hit the point of no return. I can’t buy meat in the supermarket any more (don’t even get me started about those terrifying five-pound tubes of ground beef that seem popular up here). It all looks sad to me now, and when I see those Hormel stickers slathered all over the pork case, I can’t help but feel implicated in the terrible lives not only of those factory pigs, but of those farmers who have been convinced to build factory pig sheds that they must know, deep in their souls, are just wrong (but the kids need clothes and the mortgage has to be paid, and it’s hard just to stay on the land), and for the workers in the abbatoirs and packing houses, all those Mexican immigrants who have migrated to central Iowa where they’re, as usual, doing the work none of us want to do. It just looks ugly to me, and I can’t buy it any more.
However, not only am I not a vegetarian, I believe in farming and ranching, and believe that one indicator of a healthy society is a heathly agricultural sector. Family farming in America is under attack on so many fronts: from land developers, from agribusiness, and most painfully from the cultural denigration of rural peoples by environmentalists and urban dwellers, a denigration which serves only to divide people who have common enemies. (For example, had some environmentalists not been so contemptuous of ranchers and ranching, perhaps it might not have taken so long for the ranchers of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin who are watching their wells run dry and their streams destroyed by coal bed methane drilling to unite with environmentalists to fight this practice.) My concerns fall along the Small/Big divide — not ony are our food crops being endangered by the consolidation of seed stock and farmland by multinational agribusiness corporations, but farm animal species diversity has also been dangerously depleted over the past century.
Which brings us back to the problems of buying meat. I live in the middle of ranch country, and I can buy local meat, although it’s kind of a hassle. Buying local meat here means a trip to the Co-op in Bozeman, or to one of the local butchers who may or may not have what I’m looking for. It also means buying frozen meat, which I’m not so keen on, especially since some of the local ranches pack in butcher paper. I like to see what I’m buying before I buy it, especially considering how much more expensive organic, local meat is, and I must admit, I waffle and backslide. So this week I picked up a Hutterite chicken (brining reccommended, these are chickens with actual muscles — yummy, but different than what you might be used to), some lamb shanks on sale, and some bison short ribs (more on the beef/bison issue shortly). I realize that buying local meat is really difficult in most parts of the country, and that it’s expensive, and often has to be mail ordered. But I also can’t help feeling that this is like the early days of organic vegetables, when people complained that they were too expensive, that the quality wasn’t good, that the organic vegetable movement was impractical, and it would never work. And fifteen years later you can now find at least some organic produce in nearly all supermarkets (and like bison, I’ll get to the agribusiness-ification of organic produce in the future). I can’t help but feel that if consumers begin to demand healthier, cleaner, leaner grass fed organic meats, they will become more available. So maybe we should all start by just asking, asking our supermarkets and food co-ops to order some, and then supporting those businesses with our dollars.