Weekend Diversion: Thinking about Food

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. -Luciano Pavarotti

I’m not going to lie to you; I think Pavarotti’s totally got it right. It’s not only a necessity for living, it’s one of the greatest pleasures that we get to indulge in, and we get to do it every single day.

But I’m not 18 anymore, and I not only care about the taste of the food I eat, but also its nutritional value and where it comes from. I’m not an expert on this by any means (although Sharon is), but I’ve started to become more aware of where the food that I eat comes from, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’m doing about it with you.

(And I think Bob Marley’s Redemption Song is a great listen in the meantime.)

There are plenty of good books and movies to learn where your food comes from. As I’ve started to learn, my (formerly) regular supermarket carries mostly chicken that comes from here:

beef and cow products that come from here:

and pork and other pig products that come from here.

Well, I have a problem with this. I have a problem with the cleanliness standards and the unsustainable environmental impacts that this type of farming has.

(There are plenty of people who have a problem with the ethics of treating animals like this, too, although I’m not one of them.)

So, I started to ask what the things were that I had the biggest problems with, and what I was going to do about it. I’ve started with where my animal products (meats, eggs, dairy, etc.) come from, and decided to make better choices.

A few months ago, I contacted a farm that was local to me, and bought 3/4 of a cow from them, had it butchered, and keep it in a freezer. For about $900, I got a little under 250 lbs. of beef, which includes about 80 lbs. of ground beef, all varieties of steaks from Ribeyes, N.Y. Strips and Tenderloins to Round Steaks and Sirloins, Chuck Roasts and Pot Roasts, as well as soup bones, hanger steak, oxtail, and other parts.

It isn’t any more expensive than buying meat at the discount supermarket, but instead of my ground beef containing tens of thousands of cows, it comes from Victor. (Yes, I named him.) And, I also get the best quality cuts of meat along with the regular stuff.

For all the other animal products? I’ve switched to buying eggs exclusively from free-range hens. I no longer buy chicken or turkey from Tyson, Perdue, Foster Farms, etc.; I seek out animals that come from local, independent farmers. This means going to a better supermarket than a Safeway or Albertson’s, but there are plenty of options.

The crazy thing in all of this? It’s barely more expensive and only a slight inconvenience compared to doing the lazy, ultimately destructive thing overall. The payoff? I get to live consistently with my principles, I get to put the quality of food into my body that’s up to my standards, and — at the end of the day — it isn’t even that hard or expensive.

So, now that I’ve started making these changes in my life, I’m curious. What small, easy changes have any of you made in your diets or shopping habits that you’re proud of? There are almost seven billion of us on this planet, so every little thing that each one of us does counts…

Comments

  1. #1 Greg
    December 20, 2009

    My wife and I have talked about buying a cow and taking it to the butcher. One question though, how do you find a local farm? Just drive around and knock on a door and ask if you can buy a cow?

    As far as the changes that my wife and I have made; we started a garden. I always get a certain satisfaction whenever I eat a pepper, tomato, etc. from the garden, knowing that we grew it ourselves. And since we live in FL we have a longer growing season then most, so we have fresh vegetables for most of the year.

  2. #2 Amanda
    December 20, 2009

    I love New Seasons and People’s. It takes the guesswork out of shopping and I know all my food comes from ethical farmers, with a large percentage of it grown locally. I can get my cleaning products, shampoo, soaps, etc. in bulk, which drastically reduces the amount of packaging coming into my home. I choose not to consume any type of meat, and very limited amounts of dairy, but my son will sometimes ask for steak. His body seems to be telling him he needs it, so New Seasons is the place to go. I also have my name on the list for a community garden plot, but the waiting list appears to be years long. In the meantime, I have little container gardens on my patio.

  3. #3 Nathan Myers
    December 20, 2009

    Victor is an ironic name for a cow raised to be neutered and then butchered.

    The way to find a local farm with cows raised eating grass and chickens pecking bugs is to ask at the local natural-food store. For me, that means a place to get healthy dairy and eggs.

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    December 20, 2009

    Ethan, thank you kindly for the link. This was a lovely post.

    If you are looking to source food locally, you certainly should check out local farmer’s markets in-season. You might also call your local cooperative extension agent. And http://www.localharvest.org is a wonderful online resource that will help you find local farmers!

    Thanks again,

    Sharon

  5. #5 fizzchick
    December 20, 2009

    Two comments: For meat, check out your local county/state fair. The 4-Hers often sell their pig/cow/sheep (often hand-raised) after it wins whatever ribbons, and there’s a butcher there to coordinate with. The red ribbon animals will be just as tasty, and possibly cheaper, than the blue ribbon ones. Also try your local farmers market and the state ag school, if you’re near one. You can often find meats/eggs/dairy products for sale, or at the very least someone who knows where to find them.

    For fruits and veggies, I can’t recommend CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) highly enough. Sharon probably has more to say on these, but I’ve had great experiences with them in NJ, NY, and MI. You pay several hundred dollars at the beginning of the season, and then get a box with whatever is in season once a week for several months (May/June-Oct/Nov, depending on the growing season). It’s a fabulous way to eat local and expand your palate – I’ve tried greens and veggies that I never would have otherwise. Many CSAs have share signups starting in January, so now is a good time to start looking around. The shares can include everything from raspberries and honey to eggs, potatoes, and spinach, depending on the farmer. Some will also take sweat equity, so don’t rule it out if you’re short on cash. The farmers like it because they have a guaranteed income, as well as customers who are still happy if, for instance, the tomatoes are wiped out but the cucumbers thrive.

  6. #6 davem
    December 21, 2009

    I’ve not gone out and bought a cow, but I am proud that I haven’t bought a single pre-prepared meal for the last three years now. There’s nothing quite as certain as that the pre-prepared stuff uses the very cheapest (and poorly treated) ingredients.

    As to not being concerned about the bringing up of animals, I think we all should be. Pigs especially, are intelligent animals, and bringing them up in pens like you picture is plainly cruel. In the US, especially, land is cheap, and food generally is much cheaper than in Europe. You can easily afford to treat animals better, and not notice the difference in price.

  7. #7 Mary in Vermont
    December 21, 2009

    Haven’t eaten meat in 30+ years. Used to garden but gave it up in favor of joining a CSA, which is GREAT!

  8. #8 BenHead
    December 21, 2009

    Yeah, we’ve started doing a large portion of our food shopping at the nearby Trader Joe’s, which sells lots of local stuff, as well as organic and the like. It’d been recommended to me a while back, but I figured it was like a Whole Foods where everything costs at least twice as much – turns out most of it is CHEAPER, and better quality.

    I also pay a little more to the power company to buy green power. I was amazed at just how little the incremental cost was. It works out to only a few percent more on the bill, which is well worth it to promote alternative energy. (Yeah, I know how the grid works, but it does still promote it by showing customer interest.)

  9. #9 Brett
    December 21, 2009

    My wife and I have a garden that takes care of some simple things from Spring through Fall, and most of the other times we go to our local vegetable stand. From a health perspective, we just try to stay away from too much processed stuff like meats and cheeses and buy fresh cuts from the deli and blocks of cheese to shred ourselves (which tastes 10 times better!).
    I’m trying to make friends with hunters in the office to get my meat fix. I don’t hunt, but I do like to fish, so that’s taken care of as well.
    Life is too short to eat bad food. Don’t go to places that chemically wash all of the flavor out of foods and then inject them with artificial flavors. Nothing beats fresh, and nothing beats local. Forget about the ethics…if you consistently strive to eat tastier food, there won’t be any ethical issues, because happy cows are tasty cows:)

  10. #10 Morgan
    December 21, 2009

    Hi,

    For a while now we have switched to free range eggs and meet. But (at least here in Europe) there is a significant cost – particularly with poultry where a freee range can be about three times the cost (which probably says more about the conditions in the mass produced market).

    I like the idea of buying a cow though – my problem would be the temptation to try all the cuts and eat it in about a week :-)

  11. #11 Jim Bob Cooter
    December 21, 2009

    Unfortunately, the price difference between Kroger and Whole Foods IS prohibitive for some (read: me). It’s a few cents more per item, sure, but when you’re living on a shoestring those few cents sure do add up.

  12. #12 Scott G.
    December 21, 2009

    I wonder if you have fully-researched the true benefits (and disadvantages) of free-range and locally-produced food products.

    There are other sources about (and Brian would be the first to tell you to check more authoritative sources), but you could certainly do worse than checking out three Skeptoid episodes in particular:

    Locally-grown Produce: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4162
    Free-Range Chicken: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4047
    Organic Food Myths: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019

    It’s not all bad and it’s not all against, but there is surprising data in there.

  13. #13 NancyNEW
    December 21, 2009

    My spouse hunts, and he butchers the venison and game birds he brings home. I buy roughly 80% of our vegetables and fruits at roadside farm stands, as well as our eggs–I can SEE the chickens running around in the coop-yard. NOTE: Careful of the “free-range” notation. That can mean the birds only “access” to free range is a door to a grass yard, which is only opened after the chicks are conditioned to the facility.

  14. #14 Notagod
    December 21, 2009

    The christians have several children, often times many children. The continued expansion of human population is at the root of the problem. As much as I would like to, I don’t have any children.

    Maybe you can get good quality when you buy a cow now but, how long will that situation last? If you aren’t growing your own cow you really don’t know where it is grazing or what is in the food that it is eating. If we all eat free ranging animals something is going to pay the price, that will probably be the few wild environments that we have left.

    Additionally, the oceans are being devastated by humans. I very rarely eat fish (which I love), sometimes two or three times a year, sometimes none at all.

  15. #15 Xanthippas
    December 22, 2009

    This is a good post. There are people who would hammer you over your comment about the the ethics of treating animals this way, but not me (even though I do have those ethical concerns.) Sustainable eating is better for us, the planet and the animals we eat, and I don’t really care what motivates people as long as we all get there in the end.

  16. #16 MadScientist
    December 22, 2009

    I don’t like animals being treated poorly; unfortunately with our enormous human population we do have to resort to intensive farming and animal raising practices, so our poor genetic cousins receive poorer treatment. If you keep your own livestock you can get a far better quality than the mass produced stuff – free range isn’t only humane for the chicken, but (if they’re well cared for) they have nicer eggs and they taste better. :) It’s also great to have a cow raised for good quality meat, not one raised to produce a lot of fat so it weighs more when brought to market. There are some varieties of pig that have a great taste – obviously not exploitable en masse or else we’d see them in the regular markets – and these pigs tend to be very lean as well; I’ve never thought of making bacon of them – hmm … lean bacon?

    Sustainable agriculture and livestock will remain a myth until we can reduce the human population enough to make it possible – I doubt that will happen in my lifetime – well, I hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, but economists and politicians need to realize that it is essential that we start a planned (and humane) decline in population.

  17. #17 History Punk
    December 23, 2009

    Personally, I stick to McDonald’s and BK because CSAs and other yuppie foodie groups simply lack the expertise to produce food as tasty as the big companies.

  18. #18 Chris
    December 26, 2009

    Although I appreciate your sentiment, what you are proposing is not a viable solution, both economically and environmentally. If everybody were to adopt your ideas, the demand for “lone cows” and free-range chickens would drive the price of this limited resource skyrocketing. Also, the amount of land required to raise animals this way is enormous, compared to the factory farms that you ethically object to. We simply don’t have the acreage to supply the beef, pork and chickens required (nor the organic vegetables) if we were to do away with factory farming.

    What that leaves is the “actually doing something” option (as opposed to the “feel good, but don’t have an impact” option) of going vegetarian.

    And then, in order to make most efficient use of the limited farmland, you’d have to avoid the low-yield organic farming that relies on grazing cows for fertilizer, and dedicate yourself to the genetically modified crops that use less pesticides and produce higher yields.

    It may not sound as “green” and politically progressive, but the reality is that in order to feed an increasingly growing population, we’ll have to give up meat altogether and make the best use of the limited farmland we have, making use of the best agricultural technology.

  19. #19 Rob
    December 29, 2009

    Ethan you’re clearly not worried about the ethics of intensive farming, your issue is environmental concerns. But have you really thought it through? As Chris mentioned above intensive farming is required to feed the population we have now and make the most efficient use of modern technologies for growing crops on farmland and providing meat. Can you tell us in what way does this harm the environment?

  20. #20 Ethan Siegel
    December 30, 2009

    Rob and Chris,

    Environmental concerns are tremendous. I’m not an expert, but this site has a ton of information, complete with links, about the negative environmental impacts of factory farming.

    As for the issue of whether this type of factory farming is necessary to feed the population we have now, I’ll grant you that I don’t have that information at my fingertips. But I can figure it out.

    The information I do have is that 2.5 acres of farmland — the maximal amount that one person can farm using sustainable farming practices only — can feed 100 people per year growing vegetables only. (As referenced in Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower. This is a 1995 book, so one person may be able to handle more these days.) The population density of the contiguous United States is 95 people per square mile, which leaves 6.7 acres of land per person. You want a cow? That’s half-an-acre to a full acre for a full cow. Chickens take up less, as do hogs.

    Currently, there are 1.8 acres of farmland available in the U.S. per person; we will soon pass into the realm — if population continues to grow according to current trends — where it won’t matter what we do with our land, we simply won’t have enough food. (See http://dieoff.org/page40.htm.)

  21. #21 Chris
    December 30, 2009

    Ethan,

    I apologize for posting prior to doing the analysis, but http://www.ers.usda.gov/StateFacts/US.htm provides data on us population and aerable farmland. It looks like about 3 acres per person. The acre or half acre for a cow doesn’t include the acreage necessary to produce the food for the cow. I think we’ll quickly find that the amount of land is quickly allocated.

    I’ll take a look at the feed requirements for cattle and the acreage necessary to produce that feed. I’m not anticipating a very optimistic outcome…

  22. #22 Ethan Siegel
    December 30, 2009

    Chris,

    That talks about arable land. We don’t currently use all of it for farmland — we use about 60% — which is where the 1.8 acres per person comes from.

    The acre or half-acre per cow assumes that this is grassland area, and that the cow will graze this land. It’s typically done on a larger scale, where they have many cows and many acres, and rotate the cattle herd around to different parts of the land. This is how farms like the one I linked to above graze their cattle. No additional feed is necessary.

    As far as I understand it, anyway. I’ve been a city-dweller my whole life…

  23. #23 kane
    sidmouth
    September 18, 2012

    what is a cow and a pig

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