The Meat of the Matter

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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When I was a kid, the word grownups used most often to describe me was “sensible.” And back then it was a compliment. Today? Not so much. Extreme ideas dominate the national conversation on everything from contraception to corrections. And food is no exception.

The debate over meat—what kind and how much to eat—is particularly partisan. The vegans face off against the Paleos; the nose-to-tailers sniff at the no-holds-barred foodies who think that everything tastes better with bacon. It’s no wonder: In the 21st century, a juicy steak or burger off the backyard grill is probably more American than apple pie, and everyone has a point of view. It also makes sense. The meat on the center of our plates is central to the future of America’s health and that of the planet. Changing what we eat, even a little bit, can have a huge impact.

Whole books have been written on the impacts of raising and eating meat. So let’s just recap. High consumption of red meat increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes when compared to chicken, fish and eggs. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO), livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. It also contributes to air pollution, water pollution, high water consumption and deforestation. (In Central America, 40 percent of forest areas have disappeared over the past four decades, while pasture and the cattle population have increased). Finally, in a world expected to see a population of 9.6 billion by 2050, raising animals for food simply isn’t efficient enough: It takes 30 acres of farmland to produce a ton of beef. Compare that to three-quarters of an acre for a ton of potatoes and one-sixteenth of an acre for a ton of carrots.)

Globally, though, the demand for meat is growing. In China, India and Latin America, they want to eat more like us, which means eating more meat. Raising livestock more sustainably—ideally on pasture, but also in less-intensive conditions—can help to mitigate the environmental impacts. Case in point: 20 years ago, Will Harris’s White Oak Pastures was a conventional cattle farm where calves were weaned at six months, fed grass and grain for another five, then shipped off to a feedlot. (The practice, Harris once told me, was “like raising your daughter to be a princess and then sending her off to the whorehouse.”) Today, the 2,500-acre farm in a corner of southwest Georgia raises pasture-raised beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkeys. Harris uses no antibiotics, which helps preserve their medical effectiveness on humans , and slaughters his animals at an on-farm abattoir, which is a far more humane practice than shipping the animals hundreds of miles away. The organic matter in the farm’s soil—carbon that otherwise would have been released into the air—has increased 20 fold. By following best practices such as these, a UN-FAO study last year projected that livestock farms could slash their greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent.

The news is less optimistic when it comes to human health. Though several studies have suggested that grass-fed beef is more nutritious (with more vitamin E and beta-carotene) than conventional beef, it’s easy to overstate the benefits. A 2010 Nutrition Journal study found that grass-fed beef had more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef. But at just 20 to 30 milligrams per 100 grams, it’s only 2 percent of what you’d get if you ate the same amount of wild salmon.

The bottom line is that meat production of any kind takes a toll on the environment. The seemingly endless list of dire statistics leads many people to conclude that only an extreme solution will do. Give up meat! Eat insects! Eat meat only if you can afford the premium for a sustainably raised burger.

But none of those is a sensible solution (especially the insects). All the grim statistics in the world aren’t going to make Americans give up their beloved burgers and chili and tacos—or suddenly start to pay triple the price for them. Instead, we should encourage families to make small, painless changes: Skip meat—whatever kind they are eating--once a week, as Meatless Monday does. Reduce portions of meat by an ounce or two at each meal. (This is not as hard as it seems. At the recent Menus of Change conference in Boston, a chef from the Culinary Institute of America demoed a dish of soba noodles, vegetables, herbs, and just two ounces of grilled meat that could easily have sold at a chain restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory.) Higher-income Americans should cut their consumption, too, and buy only meat that is sustainably raised.

Over time—and it may take a long time—we may eventually create a food culture where Americans appreciate Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef Dan Barber’s smart vision for a sustainable meal: a vegetable steak with a little meat on the side. (In the conclusion to his excellent book, The Third Plate, he imagines a roasted parsnip steak in a sauce of poached marrow and braised beef shank.) Until then, the goal should be simply to persuade people that a great meal doesn’t have to include a hunk of meat. It just has to be delicious. A sensible point of view, indeed.