The true cost of our taste for meat

Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2019

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I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about what to do with a chicken when it stops laying. It was intended to be what it was: a lighthearted look at a changing world, in which we are vastly and, perhaps, permanently removed from some of the more uncomfortable realities of life.

After we published the column, I was looking through some old notes on this and that and ran across a some I had typed back in 2006 quoting historical interpreter Clay Jenkinson, who portrays numerous historic figures, most notably Thomas Jefferson.

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Jenkinson described helping a “back to nature” neighbor slaughter hogs. It was, he recalled, an unpleasant experience, but one he felt was a necessary part of his education.

“Everyone who eats meat,” Jenkinson said, “should at some point have to kill something they will eat.”

The comment goes to the heart of modern society. It’s not just butchering animals. We don’t fully appreciate where any food commodities come from. We don’t question the labor that went into growing or harvesting vegetables or other foodstuffs we enjoy. What we do understand and all we particularly care about is the price and safety of what we eat, and we might also vaguely understand that the cheaper the labor going into growing and harvesting, the less we have to pay for something.

As for the meat that we so greatly love, we also have rarely questioned the cost to society of producing it, though we’re now beginning to do so.

Beef is the best example. Americans love their beef, and I’m right there. A good steak is hard to beat, unless of course, it’s hamburgers, gravy, mashed potatoes and green peas. Oh, that’s good eating.

We even had advertisements some years ago questioning, “Where’s the beef?” implying we weren’t getting enough of it in some fast food products.

Our love of beef alone, however, is one of our primary contributions to global warming. Here’s how it works.

Of the three primary meats Americans eat, beef is the most costly to produce. On average, it takes about six pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef. The pork we eat requires less than half that and chickens even less.

A lot of the feed that goes in the front end of animals also comes out the back end. The higher the food conversion rate, the more waste that’s produced. That pretty much defines a cow. And the gas created by that waste is methane, which is a greenhouse gas roughly 23 times more potent than CO2. In one year, one cow will produce greenhouse gas equal to an automobile that’s driven more than 12,000 miles.

Americans are beginning to question whether eating less meat might not be a wise decision. First for our health, but also for the environment since we could be eating at least some of the grains that now go into livestock food.

That realization is occurring fairly rapidly and food companies are taking note. You may have read in this newspaper two weeks ago of Smithfield Foods plan to offer some “meatless” products.

And several months ago, Foods and Dominion Power announced a partnership in which Dominion will experiment with capturing methane from hog lagoons and burning it to create electricity.

Efforts are thus being made to respond to the environmental impact of America’s love of meat and the cost to society of that love.

We’ll keep enjoying a steak or bacon for the foreseeable future, I’m sure, but while we do, we should bear in mind what Jenkinson said. If you haven’t seen a hog or chicken slaughtered, or at least planted a garden, you can’t fully appreciate what’s on tonight’s menu.