Closer to the Bone: Less Meat May Be Good Eating

A cock and a hen roosting together.Image via WikipediaI’ve been resisting, but push (that’d be the wife) is coming to shove (that’s me) and we may be keeping chickens again by springtime. Why bother? Because we can, and because we really should–the former is easier to explain.

Our neighbor down the road is making and selling hen houses that are well built, far more secure against chick-and-egg varmints than our barn, and more or less portable for free-range relocation around our pasture. So there’s the how of the poultry enterprise: the task is relatively easily do-able, accessible and affordable.

But the moral and ethical imperatives that lead us toward backyard poultry have to do with bigger issues: eating locally, eating lower on the food chain, and the matter of personal accountability.

We like the idea of eating locally grown meat. We’ve been willing to drive from the eastern to the western ends of the county to get it. But the time-energy-carbon costs are just too high to keep this up. So if we could convert our sunlight and pasture into protein without the drive to Willis, that makes sense.

That we (all of us carnivores) should eat less meat and more locally grown fruits and vegetables is not up for debate in today’s world. The cost in required water, land and energy to produce a pound of beef versus a pound of grain are easy enough to compare, and difficult to ignore in a crowded world. The health impact of too much animal fat in the diet of an obese nation is also an inconvenient truth in the discussion of shoulds and oughts.

Protein’s component amino acids are vital and we can get them from animal or vegetable sources. Globally, far too many humans have too little protein, and baby brains grown without enough in their diet don’t fare so well. To feed the world’s population of 6.7 billion (July 2008 figure), we will need to change both our dietary preferences towards less red meat per capita and our methods of obtaining animal protein overall. (The discussion of more humane husbandry and especially of how many humans is too many for sustainability certainly need to enter the global conversation very soon.)

Add to these thorny issues the fact that, as America (123 kg per person per year meat consumption) and Europe are recognizing the need to eat less meat, those who have never until now been able to afford much meat want much more if it in their diets (read: China, India–5 kg per person per year–and Indonesia). The Big Mac attack is going global–Amazonian rain forests are being converted to pastures to grow more Beijing Burgers.

The solutions to this serious environmental and vexing personal conundrum, present and future, range from the sublime and simple (the path that Push and Shove are looking for) to the more far-fetched high-tech options. Some are seriously advocating that insects and other invertebrates like earthworms might provide a certain portion of our diet. I’m thinking nightcrawlers might be tasty with those fresh eggs we’ll be gathering come spring.

Even more Star-Trekian, “meat without feet” can be grown in laboratory vats using the same tissue culture methods that makes new skin for burn victims. I’m not making this up (as Dave Berry used to be fond of saying.) And with so much meat with two feet treading the planet in our day, it makes me think the dystopian movie Solyent Green (1973, starring Charlton Heston) might be worth watching again.

Beef and pork cooperatives seem ripe to happen in communities like ours where one family has the fenced pasture; another can do the butchering. Several families share and the small, well treated, grass-fed, chemical free meat is enjoyed in small portions from time to time rather than being the central item in every meal. (How much? recommends 5.5 oz of meat and beans in a daily 2000 calorie diet.)

So I suppose my wife is right: having our own source for eggs and meat fits nicely with our efforts to grow more of our own vegetables. And working harder for our protein, we’ll settle for meat as a treat, not a habitual entitlement. And our hearts and blood vessels and the planet will be a little better off for the effort.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. We keep talking about getting chickens, too, although we would have to do some serious predator-proofing. We would just get a couple at a time, though, and strictly for egg purposes, since all our chickens will have names and will therefore be exempt from the food chain themselves. When they get too old to lay, then we’ll get a couple more, and the older ones will, I guess, be pets. Decorative chickens. That’s the plan, anyway.

    I think the “meat without feet” concept could be the final straw that makes me go totally vegetarian. Meat(ish) grown in a vat. Urgh.

  2. My husband grew up on a commercial egg farm, so he’d rather go vegetarian than raise chickens again. (And he’s from Montana, where the question isn’t, what to eat? it’s, what cut of beef will I have today?) I’m with dog-geek, though – I am too citified to eat animals that live with me, but to grow it from a culture? No thanks.
    I had a friend who did a co-op like that – two other couples bought a cow, she raised it, and they all split the meat equally.

  3. I think you will be really energized about this plan after you visit Joel Salatin’s place! But I also suspect that the reality of keeping poultry will take the edge off the warm, fuzzy idea ….

  4. Glad to read of your plans, Fred. It’s a wonderful way to get clean (without chemical enhancement) poultry.

    Hunky Husband exhorts our felines to go fetch white meat–the wild turkey that frequent our neighborhood (28-strong, today). They used to keep pretty much to the back of our lot–along the creek; but, they now amble down or across the street and throughout the neighborhood. I’ve been considering raising yellow leghorn pullets; but, there are three obstacles: Hunky Husband, the city (can do, within head-count limits), and my frequent absences.

  5. Well, I saw turkey on my family farm in Floyd this past week, and when the hunting season begins it may address some of the local, organic demand for free-range bird. Now that I have some deer in my freezer, I think go for variety by adding rabbit and turkey.

  6. I think if we are eating meat we should see firsthand what it takes to bring it to our table. I don’t feel good if I don’t start the day with eggs and I’m spoiled by the farm fresh ones. We’ve been talking about keeping chickens for many years now. So I’ll be following your notes on this.

    Vegetarianism didn’t work for me. I ended up eating too many carbs, (even beans and rice is high in carbs), which drag my energy to the ground. All things in moderation for me. I’m thankful for the venison in my freezer.

  7. Kids of this and several past generations don’t seem to be getting fat on meat. They appear to be getting fat on grain. They don’t sit down in front of their TVs with a mutton leg. They sit down and idle the hours away while shoving grain based Cheetos and Doritos into their face and washing it down with Cokes and Mountain Dews, both loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Nay, it would be more accurate to blame those fat American arses on zero physical activity coupled with an addiction to corn based by-products, and various grains. Fat arses; North America’s gift to the world.

  8. I plan on raising a few chickens myself and would be interested in a hen house. does your friend have a web site I could go to or could you give him my e-mail?