Issue 2: Meat

 

Cooking is, among other things, a means of delaying the inevitable decay of plant and animal tissues.” 

— Harold McGee, The Curious Cook

This week I set out to celebrate animals and the various ways that we consume their flesh. I really wound up focusing on beef almost exclusively because there’s so much information out there, so we might think of this issue as “1A: Beef” with future versions to cover pork, chicken, game and other meats in more detail. 

Pork & Beans In the South of France

I started by opening Harold McGee’s The Curious Cook, which has a delightful exploration on the relationship between the size and thickness of a cut of meat and the temperature at which it should best be cooked, drawing in calculations from engineering, physics and his own cooking experimentation. 

Apparently the conversation started with a phone call from friend Edward Bear, who with his wife Kimberly publishes The Art of Eating, initially a black-and-white newsletter started in the late 80s, now an ad-free digital magazine. They describe AoE as a magazine that covers, “the best food and wine – what they are, how they are produced, where to find them . . . We focus on taste, especially the connection between the taste of food and wine and the place they come from, looking for the logic of geography, methods, and culture that give character and the finest flavor.” Incidentally when I went looking for it, the article de jour was Cassoulet: The Meats are Important, but Getting the Beans Right Really Matters by James MacGuire. 

Now really, who cares much for what amounts to a pot of pork and beans? Me, it turns out. 

During my Masters’ program, I spent a year studying evolutionary biology in the south of France, in Montpellier which is nestled along the southern coast just east of Carcassone and Toulouse, cities famous, as it turns out, for their cassoulet and their role in its history. (To be more accurate, one might better pluralize all those words – cassoulets, roles, histories – but I digress). So there was a definitive nostalgia with which I read MacGuire’s article, not only for the coolness of the coast feeling so similar to the cloudy coolness of southern California today, but for the flavours and remembrances it brought back of simple, local food that we sought out from hole-in-the-wall restaurants that our French friends could direct us to, or that we stumbled upon while avoiding the tourist throngs. 

But it also brought to mind much of what I’ve been doing the last few months as we try to make meat eating happen in our household in a cleaner, more planet-friendly way — using small cuts of meat interspersed in a larger dish, say in chilis, curries, and soups; or using ‘off cuts’, bones, and organ meats to flavour dishes and stocks that we then use to cook with, or drink straight up on, like this, a chilly day. We find increasingly that the idea of a “slab of meat” is decidedly off-putting and feels extravagant, unnecessary, and heavy, even as we enjoy on occasion the deliciousness of crisped pork fat or contrast between a perfectly grilled steak’s crispy exterior and it’s tender reddish interior. We also tend to successfully grow an awful lot of beans, mostly of the climbing varieties — lima beans wend their ways up the shower and make trellises of old, dead fruit tree skeletons; scarlet runners drape the terraces and climb the palms; and just last week we spent a few good hours’ of sunshine plugging in kidney, pinto, and local Lompoc pinquito beans into the ground in every space we could. Linden will no doubt uproot a lot of them; but the wealth of beans, and our sort of accidental dedication to eating different cuts of meat better raised, make plunging into a warm cassoulet, its history, and the ideas around eating meat as a delicacy rather than cheap staple especially timely.

All that said – nutritionally and experientially, I still enjoy eating meat and in all of the reading and learning I’ve done, I feel very confident in saying that it can be done and should be supported in a way that is ecologically, economically and socially regenerative. I am fully aware of the possibility that I may just be defending something I enjoy doing, so that I can keep on doing it; but will also say that as a family, we went vegan or vegetarian for awhile and while we’ve enjoyed the benefits of incorporating a lot more plant foods into our diet, we’re now re-introducing meats as they become available — either we grow them or buy them from friends that raise animals in ways we agree with, that restore soil health, build forage and ecological health, protect or foster wildlife (including predator) diversity, and are protective of water.

The following is a bit haphazard, but collects a good amount of the resources that I have or uncovered on the topic of eating meat.

The out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate. For a mere five thousand years we have grubbed in the soil and laid brick upon brick to build the cities; but for a million years before that we lived the leisurely, free and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers. How can we pluck that deep root of feeling from the racial consciousness? Impossible!

— Edward Abbey


On The Human Gut and Ancestry

I came across  this fascinating article by Rob Dunn in Scientific American (2012) on the gut microbiota, colon length, recent human evolution (e.g. in response to agriculture) and that of other primates, and an assessment of the [plausibility] and context of a “paleo diet”:

If you want my bet, the majority of the recent (last few million years) changes in our guts and digestion will prove to have had more to do with processing food and, later, agriculture rather than with meat-eating per se. As hominids and/or humans switched to eating more meat, their bodies might have evolved so to be able to better digest meat. I could be convinced. But, we know our human digestive systems DID evolve to deal with agriculture and the processing (fermenting and cooking) of food. With agriculture, some human populations evolved extra copies of amylase genes, arguably so as to better be able to deal with starchy foods. The case of agriculture is the most clear. With agriculture, several human populations independently evolved gene variants that coded for the persistence of lactase (which breaks down lactose) so as to be able to deal with milk, not just as babies but also as adults. Drinking milk of another species as an adult is weird, but some human populations have evolved the ability. . . . Interestingly, if our gut bacteria responded rapidly to shifts in diets toward more meat during the stone age, they might be expected to have shifted again when we began to farm, at least for those of us with ancestors who began to farm early. When our gut bacteria met up with our agricultural diets, beginning twelve thousand years ago or so, they would have begun to compete with new microbial species that kicked ass at living off wheat, barley, corn, rice or any of the other grasses that have come to dominate the world, sometimes at our expense. This may even mean that which diet is best for you depends not only on who your ancestors were, but also who the ancestors of your bacteria were. . . . With time, we will understand more about how [our evolutionary] histories influence how our bodies deal with the food we eat. But the bigger caveat is that what our histories and ancestral diets offer is not an answer as to what we should eat. It is, more simply, context. Our ancestors were not at one with nature. Nature tried to kill them and starve them out; they survived anyway, sometimes with more meat, sometimes with less, thanks in part to the ancient flexibility of our guts.

See also (Lambert, 1998).

From Mother Earth News, “Why I Eat Wild Meat, an article by naturalist and author David Peterson. I mostly just appreciated the take on the connection to our ancestral states, and captures why some of us choose to raise or hunt our own meat.

In the end, I eat wild meat because I believe it’s the healthy choice for a natural omnivore, spiritually as well as physically. And I am proud of procuring that wild meat myself, no middlemen needed or wanted, thank you — keeping alive ancient skills that were part of the evolution of our unique species through thousands of generations, relying on personal effort and knowledge (the good old-fashioned term here is “woodsmanship”) and our evolved predatory instincts rather than on the store-bought, space-age technology so popular with misguided hunters today.

Today, as it has been always, true hunting remains among the most physically and intellectually challenging, viscerally engaging adventures most of us will ever know. The clean, healthful flesh of wild, free-roaming animals is the product of a dietary diversity and physical regimen so exacting that not even the most conscientious organic farmers can approximate it for their animals. It contains no antibiotics, growth hormones or other poisons, and is among the most nutritionally perfect of all foods. Wild venison is lower in fat than the white meat of factory-raised turkey, much less beef and pork. Nobody has ever died of clogged arteries from eating too much venison, rabbit or walleye. There were no obese hunter-gatherers.

I also hunt because — whether it’s building my own cabin or raising a garden or determining a personal spirituality — I prefer doing for myself.

I eat wild meat because I find it philosophically, culinarily and morally agreeable.

And I eat wild meat because I want to assume personal responsibility for at least some of the lives that end to continue my own.”

The Guardian provides a 30,000-ft, UK-oriented Coles’ Notes guide to eating ethical meat, eggs and dairy in Life After Veganuary.


From Marion Nestle’s What To Eat

I found Nestle’s book this week was heavily focused on critiques of supermarket meat, which are largely going to be immaterial if you’re buying direct from a producer. However, the dietary points are worth noting in reference to protein needs — we can nutritionally certainly benefit from meat, but don’t need nearly as much as we might think. Protein needs are easily met: 55 grams (less than 2 oz) protein for a 120-lb person; 65 for 180 lb; 4 oz of any cooked meat or beans provides easily 20-30 grams of protein.

Other points:

    • Hormones are never used in poultry production, but are in beef; they are banned in the EU but supported for sheep & beef in the US. 
    • Fortunately “organic” supermarket meat options have substantially increased, although today the issues are ‘small farm labels’ that are housed under a much larger industrial company

New ideas (to me):

    • Meat industry “checkoff” programs incentivize generic marketing by the USDA for meat producers; fee paid per head or by weight, e.g. $1/head cattle, to “educate” nutritionists, lobbyists and politicians; refer also to MN’s Food Politics for more details.

Quotes from WTE

The meat industry would like you to believe that you are supposed to buy meat and put it at the center of the plate at every meal.

–p. 140

If the word ‘lean’ on hamburger is a signal that you better pay attention to the fat content, the word ‘natural’ on meat is a sure sign that you need to start asking questions.

–What To Eat, p. 16


From the Scientific Literature Database

I had really hoped to do much more in-depth work here. The nutritional literature is miles broad and deep, but there are patterns emerging that organic, grass-fed meat raised on healthy, biologically diverse soils is not only nutritionally superior but also climate- and ecologically friendly (wildlife, soils, native vegetation) and carbon-sequestering. Critical is getting out of dependency on feedlot, grain-fed systems particularly for ruminants.

Some nutritional points regarding grass-fed beef*… 

    • It contains more alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) than conventional feedlot (concentrate-fed) beef (McAfee et al., 2011)
      • alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) results in elongation of long-chain n-3 [omega-3] polyunsaturated fatty acids; the anti-thrombic, anti-inflammatory effects of 250 mg LC n-3 PUFAs per day are sufficient to to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease
      • While oily fish is best source, only a small proportion of the world’s population consumes them and they are associated increasingly with overfishing and heavy metal toxicity
      • Red meat, especially grass-fed, is also a source of DPA present only in small quantities in fish; converts to both EPA and DHA in rats
      • Australian data shows that consumption of grass-fed beef and lamb contributes 28% of total LC n-3 PUFA compared to 48% from oily fish.
    • “consistently shows a [sic] higher concentrations of n-3 FAs as compared to grain-fed contemporaries, creating a more favorable n-6:n-3 ratio” (Daley et al., 2010), e.g. 1.77 vs. 8.99, although no significant difference in overall n-6 FAs relative to grain-fed beef
      • Studies suggesting that chronic diseases start to appear at 6-3 ratios over 4:1

* Note that “Grass-fed” referred to animals offered a grass-finishing diet, not confirmed raised on a fully pasture-based diet.

Other researchers that actively research and provide information on ethical and regenerative meat production:

While doing this, I also discovered a new journal, Meat and Muscle Biology. I’ll be checking into that and updating this post as I read more. 


More on Labels (notes only)

    • Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certification for animal welfare
    • Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) has been a hotly contested topic that is in the news again, but I didn’t do as deep a look on it as I should/could have. Suffice to say: if you want to know where your meat comes from and you’re buying at the supermarket, it’s a necessity.
    • Regarding organic and “natural” labels — many are actually owned by mega corporations (you might be surprised who’s on these lists from LabelTech and Groundswell).
    • The Cornucopia Institute is an organics-industry watchdog and worth taking a look through their scorecards, but bear in mind — your super-local producer is almost definitely not going to be on there; and in general these are all producers of boxed or packaged products. When I searched “meat” on their website (here are the results), they have a number of useful articles, many which link to outside sources and scientific articles.

Rodale Institute gives a breakdown of factory farming  and the global impacts of meat production, and why organic meat by virtue of their stated policies is always going to be a better choice. They also highlight an additional certification, Real Organic Project, that was new to me. 

While we’re talking labels, defining rotational versus holistic versus intensively managed grazing is useful in better understanding why some researchers conclude grazing is unilaterally destructive while others have determined the opposite. Allan Savory’s article What Does Properly Managed Livestock Mean gives a reasonable overview of the background behind some of the confusion; however, the article starts off quite general so if you’re interested in the nuances, I’d skip ahead by searching “Cause of public confusion about grazing management”.

In The Public Space

Inspiring examples, some I have personal experience with and others recommended within the Regrarians farm planning and regenerative agriculture group of which I’m a member:

    •  Niman Ranch, cited as best pastured pig operation over 100 sows in the USA within the Regrarians community
    • White Oak Pastures, Georgia: recently released carbon-friendly beef paper with Jason Rowntree
    • Pasturebird, largest pastured poultry operation in the US, by founders and owners of  Primal Pastures, Murrietta, California. Owner Paul Grieve and his family are “the real deal” and I’ve visited their PP farm in Murrietta, where they regularly hold farm tours and dinner events to ‘meet your meat’ and learn about their operations.
    • Birdwell & Clark Ranch, which manages holistically for both cattle grazing and wildlife, based on Savory’s holistic management program. 
    • Atkins Ranch, a New Zealand grass-fed lamb ranch that manages using the GAP certification noted above
    • JX Ranch, Tom and Mary Sidwell in Texas. Featured in Grass Soil Hope by Courtney White (see Books below). 
    •  GrassNomads LLC, an operation run by ranchers Ariel Greenwood and Sam Ryerson who move between ranches in Montana and New Mexico, using holistic management to plan and orchestrate their operations. Ariel is also an eloquent writer and thinker; you can read more of her work at  www.arielgreenwood.com.
    •  Fresh Valley Farms in Armstrong, BC offers pasture-raised pork, beef and chicken. Started in 2013, they have since grown to be a local leader in the industry as well as being politically active and long-time (multi-generational), highly involved members of the community. 

I was very sad to not be able to add the Okanagan’s Vale Farms to this list, as it turns out they shuttered their beef operation in January 2020 to focus on dairy production. Their farm was (and remains) an iconic example of regenerative agriculture in the region. Their closing letter, however, is worth a read in that it highlights the critical importance of buying from and supporting farmers in our local area.

Your Requests

In general this week I’m focused on the reality that to get meat-eating right… you need to know who you’re buying from. That means you need to at least be able to go and see their farm operation if you wanted to; a good producer will open their doors or at least provide farm tours so that the public can learn more about their operations. Few commercially available meats, e.g. supermarket sources, can or will do that. Many are “cottage labels” actually owned by bigger industrial producers. I’ve had numerous conversations with people involved in setting up community-supported or indigenous producers, only to see their labels get bought up and then folded into larger feedlot productions. That means that, for instance, calves or young hogs might spend the first few months of their lives on pasture… and then ultimately, be finished on a grain- and soy-based diet, in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). 

If you’re interested in a very nuanced and detailed discussion of some of the issues around agricultural intensification and regulation (specifically in an Australian context but with wider applicability to all farming operations, particularly for pigs and poultry) give farm planner Darren Doherty’s article Extensivising Intensive (2015) a read. In fact, many of his Off The Contour articles are worth a read for those farming, interested in learning more about the intricacies of farming, or generally wanting a critical, practical and informed breakdown of issues germane to regenerative agricultural operations.

Otherwise, I highlighted plenty of podcast episodes this week that touch on the climate and environmental impacts of eating meat, and why going vegan or vegetarian isn’t the right choice if you’re choosing your meat wisely. In particular, for health and climate-related reasons, I highly recommend dietician Diana Rogers’ articles in Sustainable Dish ; each podcast episode has a wealth of great information and scientific article links to explore.

Podcasts

Ariel Greenwood was interviewed on March 31st for  episode 133 of the Working Cows podcast with host Clay Conry. I really enjoyed listening to her take on gratitude and management in ranching, and learning more about her path into regenerative ranching from growing vegetables in North Carolina. The  Working Cows resources page is also well-developed for those looking for more ranch-related resources. 

 The Ruminant is a podcast from a farmer in Peachland BC, co-hosted by my friend Tristan Banwell of  Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooett, BC. Their  most recent episode with Sarah Flack covers rotational grazing tips from Sarah’s considerable experience using holistic management with a wide range of livestock species. Her website is here with a list of her books, scientific publications and consulting work. Other good “meat” episodes:

Nutritionist and dietician Diana Roger’s podcast Sustainable Dish has a plethora of episodes strongly in support of eating and producing meat. I first met Diana at a Slow Food Ventura County meal last year, and she’s the real deal: both a farmer and scientist, she’s an avid spokesperson for small-scale, regeneratively raised meat. Search results are here, and a couple of episodes I highlighted include:

Books

I ordered this week:

      1. a kind of weird book, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat by Howard Lyman, author of the forward in The China Study. Curious to see what it has to say, but my suspicions are that it’s largely based on Lyman’s response to the big-farm cattle industry and beef lobbyists. 
      2. Stephen Le’s 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why, used copy for about $6 USD, based on The Ruminant podcast episode of the same name. 

Otherwise, I’m recommending books on the Working Cows podcast resource page. Authors Greg Judy, Johann Zietzman, Jim Gerrish and Alan Nation are all well-known in the regenerative agriculture and ranching community. On my bookshelf but not on that list are also Courtney White’s Grass Soil Hope : A Journey Through Carbon Country (forward by Michael Pollan), which I’m hoping to read. Soon. Like, this year.

Bibliography

Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-10

Lambert, J. E. (1998). Primate digestion: Interactions among anatomy, physiology, and feeding ecology. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 7(1), 8–20. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)7:1<8::AID-EVAN3>3.0.CO;2-C

McAfee, A. J., McSorley, E. M., Cuskelly, G. J., Fearon, A. M., Moss, B. W., Beattie, J. A. M., Wallace, J. M. W., Bonham, M. P., & Strain, J. J. (2011). Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n -3 PUFA in healthy consumers. British Journal of Nutrition, 105(1), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114510003090

Rowntree, J. E., Ryals, R., DeLonge, M. S., Teague, W. R., Chiavegato, M. B., Byck, P., Wang, T., & Xu, S. (2016). Potential mitigation of midwest grass-finished beef production emissions with soil carbon sequestration in the United States of America. 8.

Teague, R., & Barnes, M. (2017). Grazing management that regenerates ecosystem function and grazingland livelihoods. African Journal of Range & Forage Science, 34(2), 77–86. https://doi.org/10.2989/10220119.2017.1334706

Teague, W. R., Apfelbaum, S., Lal, R., Kreuter, U. P., Rowntree, J., Davies, C. A., Conser, R., Rasmussen, M., Hatfield, J., Wang, T., Wang, F., & Byck, P. (2016). The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 71(2), 156–164. https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.71.2.156

Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S., Garnett, T., Tilman, D., DeClerck, F., Wood, A., Jonell, M., Clark, M., Gordon, L. J., Fanzo, J., Hawkes, C., Zurayk, R., Rivera, J. A., De Vries, W., Majele Sibanda, L., … Murray, C. J. L. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447–492. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4

Xu, S., Rowntree, J., Borrelli, P., Hodbod, J., & Raven, M. R. (2019). Ecological Health Index: A Short Term Monitoring Method for Land Managers to Assess Grazing Lands Ecological Health. Environments, 6(6), 67. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments6060067

Closing Remarks

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See you next week to talk about water  — because it’s raining in southern California, and it’s APRIL. 

Author: Susan Cousineau

I’m an evolutionary ecologist who grows a little food and cultivates close friendships with farmers. My mission in life is to engage, inspire and educate on the integral relationships between food, ecology, health, and climate.

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