Somewhere between grabbing a Big Mac and going vegan, Meredith Leigh posits there’s a reasonable middle ground for meat-eaters, an omnivorous ethos that provides quality of life for livestock, a reasonable income for farmers, and a healthy food source for consumers.
Speaking at the 30th annual CFSA Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham on November 7, Leigh told her audience everyone has a role to play in creating a humane, sustainable system for raising, slaughtering and serving meat.
The people who will make the biggest difference in the lives and deaths of animals right now are the people who are eating meat.
Leigh has worked for more than a decade as a farmer, butcher, chef and educator. In her book The Ethical Meat Handbook: A Complete Guide to Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore, she argues those who support small-scale farming should consider how livestock can fit into sustainable agriculture.
Conventional livestock farming, what Leigh terms “average meat” is, in her words,
Economically, politically, socially- it’s like this huge monster. It’s totally global, it’s totally external and it requires many, many resources.
We believe that the smaller, more synergistic, community-based systems are a more promising way to feed the world, feed the land, and make this stuff work.
According to Leigh, ethical meat requires that an animal must live a good life, be afforded a good death, be properly butchered, and correctly cooked. Farmers can ensure animals live in conditions that allow them to act out their natural tendencies, eating diets that don’t stress their bodies. Slaughterers can minimize stress before death and use humane methods such as rendering animals insensible before bleeding them. A good butcher will make thrifty and efficient use of the entire carcass and educate customers about how to properly prepare each cut.
But she says putting the entire burden of creating a sustainable food system on the producers is asking too much.
The customer needs to do more, and the customer right now has the most flexibility. It’s really a very encouraging thing. We have the revolution sitting very squarely in our court.
Consumers who value ethical meat must look beyond labeling and start asking where the animals were raised, what they ate, and how they were slaughtered. Most importantly, they need to expand their repertoire of culinary techniques and recipes to know what to do with the animal they’re eating.
We should be buying differently, cooking differently, eating different things.
Leigh urges meat-eaters to start buying larger, less processed cuts of meat, known as primals or subprimals, and learn the art of home butchery.
We’re spending a lot of time training farmers and processors how to cut out these really special higher-value cuts, but if the cut and wrap costs are already so high, that’s not making sense right now […] We need systems now that aren’t going to disenfranchise farmers, or eaters, or anybody, that will also set the stage for the systems we want later. It makes more sense right now for a customer to know how to pull out the higher-value cuts.
Home butchery also engages the consumer in the question of how to use less familiar cuts of meat. Leigh says it’s time cooks learn how to properly prepare muscle meat to make better use of the entire animal, and explore thrifty recipes to preserve meat such as head cheese, pâté, and scrapple.
We should do our own charcuterie and appreciate smaller, more flavorful shares of protein.
I am sick and tired of chefs and bloggers talking about charcuterie as fancy meat, because it absolutely isn’t. It is the meat of the poor. These were recipes developed as methods of preserving meat in the absence of technology, for people who needed to subsist for as long as they could off of high protein food sources.
Leigh also suggests consumers who want to eat local, ethical meat raised on organic, non-GMO feed should consider subsidizing farmers at the start of the process.
The cost of non-GMO, organic feed is four to six times higher than conventional options. This raises the price of the finished meat beyond the range many consumers are willing to pay, making it a risky investment for small farmers.
If we want to see these systems change, then we should take some initiative. It’s like a CSA, except basically I’m buying a live animal and I’m saying this is also my responsibility. I’m going to get together with five of my neighbors and we’re going to invest in agriculture. We could invest in groups and share the harvest.
For more on ethical meat, you can find Leigh’s book here.