During a season in which the smells of barbecues continuously waft through our backyards, many people are looking for more responsible ways to consume meat. Whether or not to eat animal products is a question that can involve ethical, environmental and nutritional concerns as well as personal and life style choices, and there are often heated arguments between vegans and meat-eaters.
While only approximately 5% of Americans are on a vegetarian or vegan diet, a surprisingly high percentage of vegetarians go back to eating meat at some point of their lives, and a large part of the rest reports to “feel guilty” about eating animals.
The Problem With Modern Agricultural Practices
Animals have played an important part in agriculture throughout human history. But the modern, industrialized way in which we produce and consume meat and dairy has not come without side-effects.
- The average American consumes about 4 lbs of meat per week, a number that is four times the amount recommended by nutritionists for a balanced diet.- In order to meet this demand, many animals are being factory farmed under inhumane conditions, being viewed as units of production without much consideration for their health and welfare.
- Meat production is considered a major contributor to global warming by causing greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.
- Factory farming also frequently exploits human labor, can contribute to antibiotic resistance and other health issues.
Shopping for Meat in a More Responsible, Ethical Way
The good news is, that for those who do consume animal products or are looking to re-introduce them to their diet, there are some useful guidelines to help shop for meat in a more responsible, ethical way.
Many of us are not able to purchase their meat directly from a farm and rely on claims and labels on the meat packaging in the supermarkets. Elizabeth Galeucia of Woven Stars Farm in Ghent, NY, raises animals using biodynamic and regenerative practices. She warns consumers to be aware of “greenwashed” labels – those that seem wholesome, but have actually no specific regulations behind their terms, like “natural”, “humanely raised” and “sustainable”.
Buying “USDA Organic” certified meat is a good start, as it is available in most supermarkets. To qualify for an “organic” label, a farm has to provide outdoor access for large livestock and is prohibited from administering antibiotics and growth hormones to their animals. However, their animal welfare rules and regulations are not as strict as those of some other certifiers. For example, weaning, pain relief, transport and slaughter are not addressed, so “organic” does not necessarily mean “cruelty free”.
The Most Important Badges & Certifications
Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Virginia, shows off as many as nine different certifications on their homepage. Alexis Russell, the Farm’s compliance officer and in charge of observing and fulfilling all the different regulations and requirements, helped me understand some of the most important ones when it comes to animal welfare.
There are currently three major certifiers for humanely raised animals that provide a reliable reference for shoppers looking to consume meat more responsibly:
* “Animal Welfare Approved” by A Greener World requires continuous outdoor access for the animals and prohibits routine administration of hormones and antibiotics. Enrichment for the animals and higher standards for breeding, transport and slaughter ensure a significant improvement over conventional standards.
* “Certified Humane” (not be confused with “humanely handled” or “humanely raised”!) was developed by Humane Farm Animal Care together with animal scientists, veterinarians, farmers and producers. Clearly defined standards aim to improve the life of farm animals and provide another trust-worthy certificate to look out for.
* “Animal Welfare Certified” by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) is a 5-tiered system for animals raised for meat. Every level of certification indicates specific improvements for the animal’s lives over conventional standards. This is the most transparent one of the certifications because it offers such a detailed approach. The higher the level, the better quality of life for the animals.
What about the claims “no hormones added” or “no antibiotics, ever”?
Are hormones and antibiotics bad for the animals or the humans? The routine use of “sub-therapeutic” antibiotics, hormones and anthelmintics is usually applied by farms that raise their animals in the conventional way, which is often associated with feedlots or crowded indoor environments. Prophylactic administration of these medications on conventional farms is supposed to prevent diseases from spreading and to improve growth rates or milk production.
While there is still a debate on whether eating meat from these animals has an effect on human health, “antibiotic free” meats can be an indication that the animals were being raised in a more humane, lower stress environment.
Withholding antibiotics from animals that need them for medical reasons, however, is not acceptable. “Our animals come first on our farm”, says Elizabeth Galeucia. If an animal gets sick, and needs an antibiotic to save its life, of course we would provide one. We only treat animals selectively. That animal is marked and its meat will not be sold.”
A very comprehensive overview of label claims and certifications for animal products can be found on the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA with an in-depth comparison of the labels in individual categories, for example beef , eggs or dairy.
For those of us who buy their meat in the supermarkets, these labels are very important. However, a farm that sells meat but does not have any of those certifications does not necessarily do anything wrong. Sometimes it can be too complicated or too expensive for small farms or new businesses to follow through with the certification processes.
The Regenerative Farming Difference
If you are concerned about animal welfare, you might consider visiting a local farm or talking to someone on a farmer’s market about their farming practices. Some good questions to ask could be whether they use organic or regenerative practices, how the animals are raised, fed and “finished”, if they are given antibiotics, and how much time they get to spend outside.
“Our Highland cattle are living their best life," says Alexis Russell “they do whatever they feel like doing, relax, eat clover, or cool off in the stream.”
Animals are an integral part of regenerative farming. They are the key to recycling nutrients and building soil. A biodynamic approach views the entire farm as a connected ecosystem. Unfortunately, our farming system has gotten completely out of balance. Corporate, industrial agriculture has taken the place of small, independent family farms. Farms that concentrate on mass-producing livestock are purchasing feed for their animals, and farms that are growing food are purchasing fertilizer from global agrochemical companies.
The Importance of Having Animals of the Farm
When you are growing crops the conventional way, you are constantly taking nutrients out of the soil, explains Russell. You can use fertilizer or chemicals to mitigate this, but eventually this resource of farmland would be depleted and sold to developers. When animals are out on the land, they are recycling and transforming the nutrients. Animals are a simple and effective land management tool.
“I think every farm should have animals, no matter at what capacity”, says Galeucia. Ruminants are also amazing indicators for your farm’s ecosystem health. By what plants they source out to eat, you can tell what your farm is lacking.
Renee Peters, a permaculture student and regenerative activist, explains that the careful, thoughtful use of animals is needed in agriculture for it to be regenerative. “Ecosystems like savannas and the American Great Plains co-evolved with enormous herds of large grazing herbivores kept moving by predators, and the process of birth, growth, death and decay was facilitated naturally. With permaculture principles, farms can mimic the ecosystems we have long destroyed. Pigs, sheep and chickens are rotated for grazing, trampling plants to protect the soil, retain water, distributing manure and feeding soil microbes, they sequester carbon AND feed us.”
A More Sustainable Approach
They sequester carbon??? What about the environmental concerns about meat production being such a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions? Many consumers are aware that carbon emissions from industrialized beef production contribute a significant amount to man-made climate change.
In a sustainability study, Will Harris from White Oak Pastures analyzed the life cycle of their beef, including transport, slaughter and other farm activities and found that they sequestered more carbon than they produced, making the beef officially carbon negative. Livestock, if managed in a regenerative way, has been proven to sequester carbon through the practice of proper rotational grazing, which builds soil and increases the microbial and fungal populations.
“Our farm is creating more in terms of organic matter in the soil and microbial biodiversity than it is depleting,” says Will Harris. “This shows that it is possible for humans to positively contribute to the environment through our food production system- using holistic management and planned grazing of livestock.”
It's Time To Treat Meat Eating "Like A Luxury"
Last year, Americans consumed an average of 224.3 pound of meat per person, an amount that is four times as high as is considered healthy for your body and sustainable for the planet. This demand cannot be met by regenerative farms exclusively. In a time where it is so easy and convenient to grab your pre-cut and pre-packaged steaks from the meat aisle in any supermarket, we have become so far removed from knowing and understanding where out meat comes from. This along with the cheap prices of conventionally produced meat has undoubtedly contributed to our excessive meat consumption.
Alexis Russell of Ayrshire Farms believes that with a reduction in our overall meat consumption, factory farms might one day be a thing of the past. She urges customers to treat meat like a luxury, which also includes eating it less frequently, being willing to pay a little bit more for it, and supporting smaller, regional farms as well as independent butchers.
Tools to Reverse Climate Change
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has estimated that livestock is responsible for at least 14.5% of greenhouse gases being released worldwide. Wouldn’t this imply that a diet containing meat isn't compatible with climate change activism? While there is no certification for this yet, it is showing that grassfed beef and holistic land and animal management can be tools to help reverse climate change. Although we know that producing carbon negative or carbon neutral meat is possible, the problem here is, once again, the excessive scale of our meat production and consumption.
What's Up With the Price Difference?
Looking at the price tags in the supermarket, the cost difference is often quite significant. In factory farms the animals are confined into small spaces, making conveyor-belt style feeding and cleaning possible for the fastest form of “processing”. Besides the space, a farm like Ayrshire’s biggest expense is always labor. The workers have to take a lot of time to walk out into the fields and visit the individual groups of animals out in nature, where they are meant to be.
Farms that apply organic, biodynamic or humane practices are also more likely to pay better wages to their employees. Food chain workers are amongst the lowest-paid laborers in the United States, and are often exploited in factory farm work environments, where they are not covered by federal labor laws or guaranteed basic protection such as overtime pay.
By treating meat like a luxury and mindfully choosing the meat products you buy, you are actively helping to shape the future of animal welfare in farming. If you do not have the chance to visit local farms or farmer’s markets to buy your meat from, don’t be afraid to ask for certified products in your local supermarket. If they do not offer any animal products with the labels recommended above, speak with the manager and ask if they could order some.
Don’t get discouraged if they do not do it right away. Instead, ask your friends and neighbors to do the same. Supermarkets often respond to customer demand, so if enough people ask for ethical animal products - and buy them, when they are in stock! – the stores might shift their focus towards more of these kinds of products.
With special thanks to
Alexis Russel of Ayrshire Farms in Upperville, VA
Ayrshire Farms is a certified organic and certified humane farm, specializing in rare and endangered breeds, livestock and heirloom fruits and vegetables using regenerative farming practices as well as participating in education and outreach events.Follow them on instagram @ayrshirefarm // Ayrshirefarm.com
Elizabeth Galeucia of Woven Stars Farm in Ghent, NY
Woven Stars Farm is managed and farmed by partners Elizabeth Galeucia and Emerson Martin. “At Woven Stars Farm, we raise a variety of grass- fed meats and pasture-raised eggs. All our livestock are raised using regenerative and biodynamic practices.” Woven Stars farm welcomes visitors to their farm and offers the opportunity to join their local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Follow them on instagram @wovenstarsfarm