Americans eat a lot of meat. In many households, meat is on the table almost every day and for good reason: it is a good source of protein and nutrients, and can be healthy and delicious. However, with increased demand, industrial farming has turned food production into a machine that puts profit and efficiency ahead of health and sustainability. It is a shortsighted approach that comes at a cost to our health, our environment, animal welfare, the nutritional value of the meat we consume and even its taste.
Last month, Slow Food USA and Slow Food Denver hosted the inaugural Slow Meat symposium in Denver. Understandably, the overarching event theme “Better Meat, Less Meat” raised a few eyebrows. We held a national event in the heart of our country’s animal agricultural hub, and asked farmers, ranchers and marketers to produce less meat?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complicated. Americans have a large appetite for meat, and the industrial system is good at producing it at high volume and low cost. But you don’t have to dig deep to uncover the hidden costs of that model: health risks, childhood obesity, environmental degradation and animal abuse, to name but a few.
We as eaters are limited by a narrow scope of food choices — with just one or two breeds dominating our diets. Animals are confined in spaces that prevent them from enjoying the five freedoms that guide sustainable animal husbandry (often referred to as Brambell’s freedoms for professor Roger Brambell, who formulated them in 1965 for the British government). The Farm Animal Welfare Council in the U.K. lists them as follows: 1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst — by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor; 2. Freedom from Discomfort — by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area; 3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease — by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment; 4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind; 5. Freedom from Fear and Distress — by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
At the same time, the flow of capital that goes into animal agriculture is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, resulting in wealth being extracted from rural communities rather than being created.
As a vegetarian since age 15, I have long negotiated my relationship to meat. I don’t eat it. I believe that each of us should stake out our personal stand on meat and its consequences. I have come to recognize that a growing contingent of animal farmers care deeply about the health and quality of life of their animals, and acknowledge the connection between factory meat-production and the damage it is doing to our health and that of the environment.
These smaller-scale farmers are coming up with innovative and creative ways to mitigate the negative environmental effects by returning to traditional methods of animal husbandry, and using methods of farming and grazing that mimic nature and contribute to the health of our land. These methods not only help to combat climate change, but also create better and more flavorful meat. These farmers are leading the way forward in meat production.
So how do we begin to “turn the herd” toward an animal agricultural system that supports small farms and ranches, respects the environment and cares for the animals, without slapping the hands of meat-eating Americans?
The Slow Meat symposium asked this question, and many others, of over 100 delegates from across the U.S. and around the world. Participants came from a wide range of backgrounds: farmers, ranchers, butchers, policymakers, chefs, Slow Food leaders, environmentalists and marketers. We asked them to consider the question of good, clean and fair meat production throughout the five stages of field to fork: land and water use; animal husbandry; processing and distribution; marketing and retail; consumption and child nutrition.
Our keynote speaker was Zimbabwean biologist and environmentalist Allan Savory of the Savory Institute. Savory has studied the degradation of the world’s grasslands since the 1960s, and is the originator of holistic land management. His provocative methods for increasing the numbers of animals on the land while decreasing the numbers of animals in industrial confinement are at the heart of his “Holistic Planned Grazing” strategy, successfully used around the world. His experience, research and passion for the cause are inspiring and encouraging.
After a weekend of workshops, facilitated discussions and sharing of best practices and ideas among delegates, we have identified five action items to field-test with our 150 Slow Food communities across the U.S. over the next year. Our intention is to measure change, then gather again next year to discuss what is working, what isn’t and how we can bring this knowledge to a wider audience.
Slow Meat invites you to:
Join Meatless Monday. Acknowledging that better meat may cost more, we need to provide tools to help eaters shift to consuming less meat — and doing so joyously rather than as a punishment. Meatless Monday, a global movement that simply asks people to cut out meat just one day a week, remains a powerful tool in cutting meat consumption on a national and global level. We plan on encouraging Slow Food chapters to embrace and support Meatless Monday as a way to resist “cheap” meat, and to eat the better meat in less quantity. We’ll work with our chapters to offer alternative suggestions to meat, including incorporating meat as a flavor as opposed to the main event on a dinner plate.
Broil for biodiversity. We will continue to encourage people to discover their “taste of place,” emphasizing consumption of different species and unusual breeds that support our ecosystem and local food communities. For example, our Thanksgiving campaign will promote purchasing a heritage breed of turkey versus the typical broad-breasted white breed from a factory farm that has come to exemplify the typical Thanksgiving feast. If what you’re eating “tastes like chicken,” then you’re eating the wrong chicken.
Biodiversity can be tasted at the dinner table. Of course, this doesn’t just include meats. Consider the vast array of fruits, vegetables and 17 different varieties of beans and peas — a great alternative to meats! — currently on our Ark of Taste. This catalog of foods that are in danger of becoming extinct can help you discover a world of new flavors. Bear in mind that if we do not embrace them, we may lose them.
Bring better meats into sports stadiums. We share the Green Sports Alliance’s assertion that public sporting events provide a valuable opportunity to introduce fans to sustainable food options. This is especially timely with many newly built and existing stadiums — such as the Barclay Center in Brooklyn and the San Francisco 49ers' Levi’s Stadium — that are interested in bringing in local purveyors and foods.
Leading with taste and following with health, we will spread the word that there is a growing demand for quality meats to be served in arenas and stadiums. We look forward to local Slow Food communities staging nose-to-tailgating events outside of stadiums and forging ties with stadium chefs and management on the inside.
Start eating nose-to-tail. Perhaps the most Slow-Foodie of strategies, we look forward to partnering with many who were present at Slow Meat — Butchers’ Guild, Chefs Collaborative and more — to stage whole-animal butchery events with local Slow Food chapters. These may provide marvelous opportunities to highlight different species, breeds and little-known cuts, as well as platforms for promoting alternative purchasing models (think meat collectives) and other concrete steps that meat lovers can take to eat more responsibly and waste less. And that’s just for starters. Just wait until Slow Food Youth gets wound up with their signature Offal Soup Discos! The expressed intent will be to draw attention to food waste by using offal and other organs that rarely make it to the dinner table.
Learn how to use labels. Eaters are crying out for tools that help them make informed decisions about how to source their meat. We recommend purchasing directly from farmers who raise and market meats wherever possible. We will also assemble and share useful and existing label navigation devices. Some well-known labels have no third-party evaluation; as a result, they mean very little. We will support efforts to identify and marginalize these labels from the marketplace. One example is the ongoing Kill “Natural” campaign.
These five action steps will be our initial focus in the year ahead, as we try to navigate our complex relationship with the American meat industry. We will return to Denver during the first week of June 2015 for a larger Slow Meat gathering that will include seminars, workshops, ranch tours and tastings with many of our new partners. We will then expand our ongoing campaign for better meat. We will stage Slow Meat as a biennial event with a view to move meat from the center of the plate and into a more sustainable place — both for our health and that of the planet.
Top image by Scott Bauer via Softpedia.com.