Note: This piece has been picked up by Civil Eats. For an edited (and more civil) version, check it out.
Given the concerns over resource-intensive industrial meat production, you'd think the resounding message would be, "don't buy cheap meat, buy good meat."
(I've written about this before; it's an issue I reckon with often and I will probably be gnawing on its sinews for ages to come.)
Instead, a rule of thumb in environmentalists circles is to say "eat less meat," which simply frames meat as an indulgence rather than 1) the end result of an essential and timeless ecological process (the biological breakdown of vegetation so that new vegetation can grow) and 2) a fulcrum in the way land across the world is managed or mismanaged.
The consequence of this message is felt very strongly by myself and others who have committed our lives to restoring the health of environments directly, thru the exquisitely sensitive grazing, and who depend on the support of our communities to do this work.
It goes like this: We memorize every nook and cranny of a piece of land like a lover's body. We study how water flows across it and what grasses grow where. We plant trees where we've seen that trees once were and should be again. We spend unpaid hours moving animals exactly where they need to go to knock down encroaching brush on long-neglected land. We fence out bird nests. We leave areas ungrazed for a season, and can calculate the cost to the tune of hundreds of dollars, because we know in our throats, our chests, our bellies, and our bones (that's where we feel it) that it needs another season before grazing would be helpful. We get knocked down, kicked, cut up and cut open; we don't just risk injury but accept it. We memorize the names of species that used to grow or live here but are now extinct. We love land and its inhabitants enough to be poor for it.
But martyrdom isn't very becoming, and you can't milk a dry cow; so like everyone else, graziers have to make money. Until environmentalists actually REALLY put their money where their mouth is and pay myself and others to graze land according to what will benefit it, meat be damned, we have to sell the surplus from our herds (the flesh of some of the animals) to people off the landbase in order to foot the expense of being a human on the planet.
Believe me, I wish I were a photosynthesizing autotroph.
"Eat less meat" is about mitigating damage, and wastes the opportunity to tell people that there is a way to actually benefit their planet. Perpetuating the myth that meat is necessarily bad for the environment means the meat that is good for the environment never gets sufficient foothold. By telling only half the story, we're perpetuating the problem because we never bother to mention the solution.
As an aside, until environmentalists who are opposed to grazing animals and eating their flesh have demonstrated to me the degree of embodied affection, personal risk, and deep practice as the graziers in my life, and shown the same degree of knowledge of grassland dynamics, plant succession, and wildlife movement, I will require more curiosity and humility towards active land managers and ranchers than I've so far seen in the broader movement of climate-conscious environmentalists. I've had the pleasure of meeting many vegetarians or concerned carnivores in the field and have invested time into their understanding. Unfortunately, many others are keen to believe that sitting at home reading articles or watching videos of cute animals is a sufficient education.
When we say "eat less meat" and end it there, we miss an opportunity to equip eaters with the means of sourcing protein that will not only nourish them but restore their home ecosystems. And behind few hundred acres of land that goes poorly managed due to consumer miseducation is a land steward who can't do their work.
"Eat less meat." What may be spoken as a well-intended caveat amongst woke environmentalists (a group who is, after all, my cohort) thus becomes a primary barrier to myself and others like me doing our work. And it's hard to not take that personally. Because what could be more personal than the health of my watershed and the kingdoms that inhabit it? If these things aren't personal to you, we have a bigger problem.
Don't "eat less meat." Eat meat from people whose hands you can shake and ranches you can visit. Eat as much of that as you can afford, because that stuff comes from extensive production systems that impact hundreds to thousands of acres. Sourcing your protein from places you can account for means you can verify that their pastures were also habitat for fox, badger, burrowing owl or bear. That you were keeping land wild and free. Beef raised in its environs beats a bean field any day as an ecologically just source of protein.
We have to pay for the world we want to live in. This means the consumption of the flesh of other sentient animals damn well be a line item on our budgets just like "eating out" and "entertainment" get their own slots. Maybe it's time we socialized ourselves and others to budget for environmental activism, and use that money to buy meat produced by the soil-building, grassland-loving graziers in our communities.