It’s one of my great joys in life when someone lets go of their vegetarianism to nourish themselves with meat from our farm. I’m not keeping score against the vegans – I just appreciate how good beef is to eat and what is does for your countenance.
More often than not these folks will use the term “ethical” when describing why they are choosing to do so. I appreciate this because they obviously see that we care about our animals and the land. But I also bristle at this term. I realize that what these lovely people are really trying to say is “humane” (and it is!), but I bristle because “capital e” Ethics has nothing to do with food or farming – it’s actually a very heady discipline of philosophy concerned with “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour“.
Now the problem with this is that unless we ALL share unified first principles, worldviews and value system (and we obviously don’t), applying Ethical judgement to how people eat and farm becomes a very slippery slope. Which is why I feel we need to look at our food and how it’s grown through the lens of Ethics’ polar opposite discipline, Aesthetics: the philosophy of beauty and taste.
Beauty is hard to ignore, hard to deny, and hard not to feel uplifted and edified by. We can all generally agree on what is beautiful. There is no reason, for instance, we should feel happy just standing there watching cows eat grass, but anyone who tries this cannot deny the satisfaction it derives. Even the aesthetic conclusion of how beautiful cows are, for example, is what drives the ethical conclusion of vegans that we should not eat them.
The problem with following the logical outcomes of such an ethical conclusion is that we end up no longer having Cows at all (they’re only here because we eat them!) and we end up eating processed food instead, which is no doubt as unhealthy as it is ugly.
So while we cannot come to any universal moral conclusions about beef, we can definitely share an aesthetic appreciation for healthy animals, robust soils, and productive landscapes – the unavoidable reality of this is that cattle are the secret ingredient: the fertility drivers of the sustainable human ecosystem. Cattle are held up as deities of fertility and providence in every traditional society that raised them. The lush subjects of 19th century romantic landscapes were these organic, cattle formed environments; the beauty speaks for itself.
There is a lot of negative press about cattle, and a push for us to eat “plant based meat alternatives”. This is the voice of huge agribusiness concerns twisting the language of environmentalism in order to guilt consumers about making wise dietary choices for their families – in an effort to sell more processed “food”.
You see the big problem that companies like Bayer/Monsanto and Syngenta have with cattle is that *they just reproduce on their own*. The same goes for grass. They don’t get a cut every time a calf is born. They don’t collect royalties on hay. They don’t own the genetics, they didn’t sell the inputs, and the farmer can do this indefinitely – without their help. A farmer just takes care of his cattle and the land they live on, burns a bit of diesel, takes care of his gear, and well, nature does the rest. THIS MAKES THEM CRAZY.
Crazy enough to tell you with a straight face that a you are a bad and selfish person for wanting to eat healthy food and support local farmers and abattoirs instead of eating reconstituted canola kibble in the shape of a hamburger. Because unlike a calf, the grain farmer is entirely dependant, every year on BigAg to supply him with the genetics (seed, often modified and copyrighted), fertility (because, well, no manure) and the various inputs, enhancers and crutches necessary to coax the impressively high enough yields to be profitable in a global marketplace (herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, growth regulators, etc.)
Of course, the Canadian government has gotten on board with this program. The new Canada Food Guide treats meat about the same as candy – a health hazard you should regard as a treat. As always: follow the money. Two months after pledging the *Totality of Canadian Agriculture* a $252 million COVID bailout (mainly loans), the federal government announced $100 million in funding for a Manitoba plant protein powder factory.
The “efficiency” of the so-called plant based (which are actually fossil fuel and technology based) food schemes is a technocrat’s wildest dream: centralized chemical agriculture, delivering industrially processed food to the masses. It involves minimal nature and humanity: Satellite controlled equipment sowing and reaping genetically modified crops to be reduced to their constituent shelf stable forms for eventual consumption by consumer unit. The production and consumption of food, reduced to its lowest mechanical and economic denominators.
Above and beyond its impersonal ugliness, this system is impossible to locally scale. There is no potential reality of a quilted landscape of small legume farmers, carting their peas and soybeans and lentil crops to the nearest protein extractors, from which it goes to the family run fake meat artisans…. The farming techniques, the processing, the marketing – they’re too large, too rigid, too technical – all non transferable to small, flexible systems. You cannot runs a soybean processing facility with a handful of people, knives, a bandsaw and a couple of coolers.
On the other hand, a quilted landscape of crops, perennial forages, and woodlots, supplying meat to local abattoirs, sold to local butchers and grocers is entirely feasible. How do I know that? Well, it was the de facto order of things until a generation or two ago… The main problem with that system was that it kept wealth in communities, instead of centralizing it into fewer and fewer hands. The next time you come to visit our farm, swing through the village of Delta, and look at the size and quality of the pre-WW1 housing. The amount of embodied wealth in a community of that size is almost impossible to consider in hindsight… but it might be because they made almost everything they needed within their community?
Anyhow, back to Ethics and Aesthetics. Is it possible to raise beef un-aesthetically??? Yes, and this would not be the first time our anceint relationship with cattle has been subject to disorder…
Like any issue in agriculture today, most of this comes down to scale. The nature of the beef sector, as a centralized and export driven commodity (Canada exports over 40% of the beef it produces) means that we handle production and slaughter on an industrial scale. How centralized is it? Well, COVID brought the weaknesses of this system to light this past spring when outbreaks caused plant shutdowns, leading to cattle backlogs, high prices, and bare shelves. Many Canadians were startled to learn that 85% of our beef goes through only three plants (of course, none of which are owned by Canadian companies!)
Now the aesthetic variables here I can only speculate on, because although I have spent a fair bit of time poking around small local abattoirs like Quinns, I have not experienced the full meal deal of a plant that processes 4,500 head a day, like Cargill’s operation in High River, Alberta. Quinn’s is a homey, cozy place, full of familiar faces, going about their work in a safe and humane manner; I have no idea how you can reconcile individual humans to a plant that can kill and cut three beeves per minute (the answer is, you don’t!).
So, how do you supply the grist for this mill? The solution to providing a consistent year round supply of fat cattle here in North America has been the feedlot system. The cattle that eventually end up your plate are born and raised on pasture. After weaning they eventually find their way to a feedlot. Here they spend three or four months eating really really rich feed (mainly grain – barley in the west, corn in the east), and gaining a lot weight very quickly to produce a tender, marbled carcass. It’s worth noting as well, that they generally don’t move around a whole lot, especially in the roofed lots of Ontario, which are stocked quite highly to economize on floorspace; after all, they don’t need them running that grain off, or toughening the “muscles of locomotion”. It’s also worth noting that if they stay there too long they are also subject to the same fate as inactive humans who overeat… (premature death).
The feedlot is the aspect of beef production I assume most people see as “unethical”, “factory farming”, etc… but are the cattle suffering? My guess would be “no”, because cattle generally want three things: to be surrounded by other cattle, to be fed and watered, and to be reasonably comfortable (sounds familiar?) and the feedlot provides for these. Now, what got me thinking about this whole matter of “Ethical vs. Aesthetic Beef” was a cold, rainy, windy night in November a day or two before we were sending a handful of animals to Quinn’s. I thought to myself, “Self, which animals are ‘happier’: those under a roof with a big pile of corn in front of them, or mine, laying down in wet field of grass with 60km winds coming out of the north?”
Now, outside of the question of “are feedlots good for the environment” or “to what extent can cattle experience happiness?” I’m sure on that evening my animals would have joined their bros under cover to cozy up for some corn. Does that make the system better? I’m not about to say that feedlots are “unethical” – I see no moral fault in them, and have no problem with anyone operating one. But… aesthetically…. are they making the world a more beautiful place? No. Does the model of centralized production and processing spread wealth and enrich our communities? No. Are the animals as vibrantly healthy as those on good pasture? No.
We are what we eat. Outside of being literally, molecularly true – this also applies energetically, vitally, spiritually. Unfortunately, it’s undeniable that we have, to a large extent, turned into a society of people who prefer to hang out inside, eating processed corn and soy products. Now, I don’t care if this sounds silly, but… this might be because we eat animals that hang out inside and eat processed corn and soy products.
I, speaking for my family and myself (and I hope for you), want to be a strong person; grounded in his environment; eating food that is healthy for me; tied to the people and businesses in my community. So, to do so, I need to eat strong creatures, grounded in their environment, eating food that is healthy for them, and handled in a way that is tied to the people and businesses in my community.