January 9, 2010

My Name Is Amy And I Want To Be An Ethical Omnivore

Mike and I are going to Trader Joe's today, and I'm pretty excited. I do love Trader Joe's and its inexpensive assortment of snacks and sweets. What I'm really excited to get there today is meat.

As you may know, one of my goals for 2010 is to buy only ethically-raised meat, something Trader Joe's has in stock more often than larger chain grocery stores. I wrote that goal thinking everyone would understand what it was and my motivations behind it. And then I realized that was a pretty big assumption, and I should probably explain myself. Let me start by introducing you to an intelligent man by the name of Michael Pollan.

His fame within the food world is such that you may have heard of him. If you haven't he's written the bestsellers "In Defense of Food," "The Botany of Desire" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a few years ago, and it changed the way I thought about food. Unfortunately, that is all it did. I didn't really change my habits. Then a few months ago, Mike and I watched Food, Inc. It's a brilliant documentary, and one I recommend everyone see. Pollan and Eric Schlosser (author of "Fast Food Nation") are featured prominently throughout the film, and their words reinforced what I already knew about food. However this time, I want to change my actions.

The message of Pollan and Schlosser is the same. Food in this country has become a product. It's more effectively produced than it ever has been in the history of the world and for cheaper than it ever has. Like anything though, these so-called improvements to the system have their unfortunate health and environmental side effects. It's amazing that we live in a society where we can afford to eat meat every single day. There is a reason however that it has become so cheap to eat meat, and we and the animals we eat suffer for it.

Let's talk cows and how we've changed them to adapt to our needs. Cows eat corn. However, cows are not meant to eat corn. It's not a food that given the choice they would naturally eat. Cows are meant to eat plants, mainly grass. Remember in elementary school learning that a cow has four stomachs? Well those stomachs are designed to process plant based food.

So then why do cows eat corn? The answer is twofold: one, it's cheap, and two, it fattens them up.

The price of corn has been subsidized by the government since a 1930's farm bill that has been renewed every five to six years since. Because of these subsidies its price is much lower than most agricultural products. This farm bill also is the reason you will find high fructose corn syrup in most everything you eat. Feeding cows corn also has such a terrible physical effect on their bodies. For starters, it makes them big and fat much sooner than they would by eating plants. They become these beefy super cows when they are mere toddlers, and as a result are living shorter lives than ever. So instead of grazing in pastures, cows are packed into massive feedlots without a single blade of grass in sight and fed a steady diet of fattening corn while often standing knee deep in a thick sludge of mud and feces.

The other physical effect of feeding a cow corn is that is makes them sick. Grass has a neutral ph balance whereas corn is acidic. According to Pollan, this acidic diet leads to among other things a weakening of the cow's immune system, leaving it vulnerable to all kinds of feedlot diseases. To counteract this their diets aren't changed. Instead they are injected with antibiotics. One of the main problems with this is their bodies grow immune to these antibiotics, and in turn cows are pumped with greater and greater doses which never really cure the problem.

We aren't immune from the effect of a cow's man made diet. By feeding cows fattening corn, we in turn eat meat that is higher in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories than a cow's grass fed counterpart.

Taking all of these things into consideration, it became clear to me that by choosing to eat meat that has been raised with its natural diet in mind, I am supporting the type of food industry I believe in. So what exactly does ethically raised meat mean? To me it means grass-fed, hormone and anti-biotic free beef, pasture raised pork and free range chicken and turkey. Pollan often says that every time you walk into a grocery you vote with your dollars. I want my vote to be for ethically-raised meat.

The main problem with choosing to eat this way is that isn't not the norm. It will be a challenge to get. It will be more expensive when I do. But I don't care. This is a topic I feel very passionately about. It's one that I plan to continue to talking about. This little blog post has just scratched the surface of the wealth of information regarding being an ethical omnivore. I hope I've peaked your interest. Or if your interest was peaked prior to my post, please let me know your thoughts and how you have or want to incorporate ethically raised meat in your diet.


kelsalynn said...

Wow. As dumb as this sounds, I never really knew why it was called "grass fed". Now I understand. It makes so much more sense to me. I think it's commendable that you're choosing to stick w/ more ethical options. Keep us posted on where you find it at and what price differences you find. i'm really curious. We have a trader joe's a few miles away but only went there once. The whole getting out of debt thing meant we purchased groceries for as cheap as possible but now that we're in a better financial position, I'd like to start looking at this too.

kelsalynn said...

PS: Just to clarify, obviously, I could deduce what "grass fed" meant, I just didn't know WHY it was important. That's what I meant to say in my comment...not that I didn't know what "grass fed" meant. :) haha

Galen said...

Good on you, Amy! The easiest and most enjoyable way i have found in my endeavor to eat humanely raised meat and eggs is to buy local. In other words, shopping at farmers markets. Small family farms don't have the money or scale to do "industrialized farming" so they tend to do things the old fashioned way, i.e. grass fed, free range, semi-organic. Plus they know they know they have a market for this appproach at farmers markets, whereas farms that sell to big grocery chains don't (bc most people that shop at big grocery stored don't care). Sounds like you've found some good sources at Trader Joes though, so that's good. Farmer's markets have the added benefit of supporting small family farms, the local economy, and foster community interaction. Kristin and I miss the chicago green market; we don't have anything like it in sydney close enough to walk to.
Happy eating, Galen

Kristin said...

Michal Pollan, someone put this guy in a position with some real governmental power already! My Dad gave me "Botany of Desire" years ago as a MUST read, and it truly did, significantly changed the way I viewed the human/food evolution. I so appreciate your explanation of ethically raised meat and why you are on board (hard to imagine people not on board if they have access to all the information). Galen said he just posted about buying meat at the farmer's markets and the first thing I thought of for you was the photo opportunities!! :)

Megan said...

I'm a Michael Pollan fan myself. We saw Food Inc. at our local art house with our yoga teacher :) It was kind of funny to think about.

Fast Food Nation made me become a vegetarian. After that, I was just done with meat all together. I was living in Flagstaff at the time where it was a little tougher to find ethically raised meat. Travis used to have his parents ship local (KC local) ground beef out to us - but everything else we ate was industrial. So we just stopped.

We're lucky in Lawrence because April 1st - November 1st we have a thriving farmer's market about 5 blocks from our house. We also have a place called The Merc, which is a co-op specializing in local and ethically raised organic food. There's even signs on all the products telling you how far away from Lawrence this came.

I choose to be a remain a vegetarian because of how my own body processes animal products, but I often feel frustrated or guilty because some of my food is processed and comes from much farther away than the chicken and beef I have access to. One of the great things about eating ethically raised meat is that you're also reducing your carbon footprint and eating sustainably too, not just ethically.

Your body (and Karma) will love you for making this choice. Bravo to you.

A few site you might find full of interesting and helpful/fun articles: http://food.change.org/

Amy said...

Thanks for your comments and suggestions every one. I do need to find some local farmers markets. I agree they are the best because it's not only about eating ethically. I'd like to eat locally as much as possible. Farmers markets get scarce around this time of year, but I'll certainly be going in the summer.

And Kelsa, I totally got what you meant the first time. :)

Lacey said...

Thanks for the insight. It will definitely affect how I choose our meats.

I'm fortunate in that my parents buy livestock at our county fair every year. So, not only do we get all of our beef and pork for free but we know that they were ethically raised and cared for.

The only thing I have to buy at the grocery store is chicken. I've been buying what's cheap in order to stick to our budget but I might start looking into the free-range/cage-free chicken.

From what I've read, though, the only thing about free range chicken is that "free range" could mean free range of a large pen with a concrete floor - not necessarily an open field with grass. They don't have very stringent regulations on this just yet, at least I don't think.

Correct me if I'm wrong...