Perhaps you get an earful from a friend in PETA how terrible meat is for the environment. Maybe you’ve been reading yourself about who much methane cows contribute to the atmosphere, or how the world’s food supply is inefficiently used to supply Americans with their hamburgers. And maybe this isn’t exactly getting you to put down your steak knife; it’s just adding the sour taste of guilt to your meal. But rejoice, carnivores! You don’t have to feel bad about your dietary delights, you just have to enjoy them consciously.
“The meat industry, and people’s understanding of it, has suffered from the media’s tendency to portray things as black and white,” Sam Garwin, butcher and CEO of Fleishers Craft Butchery, told Taste Talks. The farms where her business and others like hers get their meat don’t deserve to get lumped in with the mass-market factory farm villains, she says.
To recap some of the known environmental evils of those factory farms: the animals themselves emit an estimated 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, feeding them grain requires a lot more water than it would to grow produce, they pollute the water supply with manure, and if trees were planted instead of pastures we’d have fewer CO2 in the atmosphere. Facts like that have inspired many a person to go vegetarian, including Garwin at one point. Brent Young, butcher and co-owner of The Meat Hook, also said he and almost everyone who works at his stores was a vegetarian at one point in time.
But there are some small farms trying to reverse the damage, by feeding cows all grass and using their manure as fertilizer, for instance.
“Regenerative agriculture, where there are animals outdoors eating perennial plants rotating across the land, has actually been shown to dramatically improve the soil’s nutrient and water retention qualities, and can increase the plants’ ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere — not to mention that the animals are healthy and the people who work with the animals are healthy,” Garwin explained. “Cows fart. That’s a fact. But the question is, what’s the net? Your net is way better than not having the animals on the land.”
Not that the system is perfect yet.
“The big thing for me is, you’re not wrong,” Young said of the downside of raising meat. “We should eat less meat, and good farming takes up more land, so it therefore becomes more expensive, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing.”
The Meat Hook’s model is to pay its farmers 32 cents on every dollar, as opposed to the 11 cents supermarket purveyors pay, which is a pretty decent incentive to keep up those sustainable practices.
Higher prices make meat more of a luxury than a commodity, as it’s become in the U.S. But it’s also more delicious, which is how these craft butcheries stay in business.
Because there’s money to be had in selling organic products to high-end customers, Young said big agribusinesses are doing everything they can to raise animals that can earn “organic” and “grassfed” labels while still cutting lots of corners for maximum profit.
“There can be organic farms that are indoors on cement, which is pretty nasty,” he said. Right now, the key to eating meat that’s as environmentally sustainable and cruelty-free as possible is knowing exactly where it comes from, which is a lot easier when you buy from a butcher instead of from a giant supermarket.
“We’re going to get you in with bacon and you’re going to say, ‘Wow, this is great, why is it so great?’ ” Young said. “We want to be completely transparent, let you know that all of our products came from super high quality amazing farms, but we also don’t want to do it from a soap box because that’s not a good way of convincing anyone of anything.”
It’s great that some wealthy New Yorkers can eat this way, but is this a model that can work for the broader public? Young pointed to the fact that one beef farm he used at his Pittsburgh restaurant Whitfield at the Ace Hotel became so popular for its taste that food giant Sysco decided to distribute their product.
The biggest challenge is a matter of scale, Garwin explained. If enough people demand meat from better farms, the cost for those small farmers to do things like take cows to the slaughterhouse will go down. If prices go down, then more people can eat this good meat, lessening the negative impact on the Earth.
“This is a case in which voting with your dollar really matters,” she said.