There’s no shortage of talk about meat alternatives, from plant-based and cultured proteins to those derived from kelp or mycelium. But in an effort to rethink protein, we’ve ignored the most elegant solution — committing ourselves to better ways of raising animals for meat.
We’ve forgotten that “care” — for people, land, or anything other than profit — is something large companies have yet to figure out how to do. And so we’ve ended up with an exceptionally efficient system that produces cheap food on the backs of sick and abused animals, polluted waterways, and repeated and escalating public health crises. The fact that the same multinational companies responsible for factory farming atrocities are investing in alternative meat technologies should not be interpreted as a sign of changing tides; it is more of the same. These companies have long degraded the value of life, as evidenced by the conditions in which animals are kept, the environmental violations committed daily, and the poor nutritional quality of the food they sell. Meat alternatives remove the “problem” of respectfully caring for living creatures and the planet in favor of a cheap substitute with unknown consequences for human health.
I’ve come to this conclusion through both logic and soul-searching, sparked by a personal crisis of meat-eating, kindled by conversations at Cambridge farmers markets, and fanned by Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.” In an effort to opt out of the industrial system, I tried eliminating meat from my diet entirely, but it didn’t feel right for my body, and I missed the sense of connection that comes from sharing meals with friends and family. So, I cut myself a deal — I could eat meat, as long as I knew where and how it was raised.
This decision led me down a rabbit hole that ultimately involved quitting my job as a software product manager and apprenticing myself at a whole animal butcher shop. In the early days, the thing that struck me the most — after I learned to withstand 12 hours on my feet, frigid walk-in temperatures, and sharp objects literally everywhere — was how real it was compared to software. Meat doesn’t wait. If you don’t cook it, dry it, salt it, or freeze it quickly enough, it rots. And there’s no amount of money, brains, or good intentions that can fix it.
Farming is a similar endeavor. As I transitioned from the daily tasks of breaking carcasses, filling cases, and helping customers to butcher shop management, my interactions with farmers — and my understanding of the true nature of their work — increased. Our sourcing was exclusively pasture-raised, meaning that the animals spent 100 percent of their lives outdoors, where they were able to express natural behaviors. Many people who raise pastured animals don’t even consider themselves to be animal farmers as much as soil farmers. The cultivation of a vibrant ecosystem of grasses, forage, insects, and microorganisms is the primary focus, and healthy, happy animals are a natural consequence of that focus. It just so happens that one of the best ways to achieve such an ecosystem is through animals’ natural interactions with the land: grazing, rooting, scratching, trampling, and — most importantly — defecating.
Pasture-based farming is a subset of what is now referred to as regenerative farming: the practice of getting food and energy from the earth in a way that actively improves it with time, rather than degrading it. But regenerative farms cannot be built with the flip of a switch. Each is particular in its climate and microclimate, the needs of the species of animals and plants being raised, and the soil and aquatic systems upon which the farm depends. Regenerative farmers must know their acreage intimately and make changes slowly and continuously over time. It is not a quick fix to our environmental or nutritional problems, but we know that it works.
As Americans, we hate problems of this sort. We much prefer shiny, new technologies made of silicon and metal, that scale rapidly and offer investors a return. But some of the best technologies are not things, but processes. The word technology itself means “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique” — it is something we do, not something we own, and certainly not something guaranteed to make a profit.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that small family farms — the same ones who had been mindfully caring for the land so that it remained productive from generation to generation — had no business feeding America, and handed off the responsibility to factory farms.
With factory farms sequestered far away from growing urban centers, eaters no longer had to concern themselves with the particulars of how animals were raised. The use of the word “protein” rather than “meat” started 30 years earlier, coinciding with poultry becoming the first large-scale farmed animal, a linguistic maneuver that conveniently helped people forget they were eating animals.
In 2019, the motion is not just linguistic: We’re being encouraged to eliminate meat from our diets entirely, as if the problem were animals themselves and not the shortsighted decisions we have made as eaters, investors, and policymakers for the last 70 years in abdicating the responsibility of caring for animals and the land to large corporations. In our world of automation and endless growth, we have failed to consider that perhaps the responsibility of raising animals for food is not well-suited to the industrial mindset. Perhaps, instead, it is a craft to be applied only with sound judgment, care, and aesthetics, in such a way that respects the animal, regenerates soil and water systems, and enhances the dignity of people who serve as caretakers.
In software, an elegant solution is one that is compact, pleasingly ingenious in its simplicity. We can continue to bang our heads on the industrial food complex, or we can look to regenerative farmers who are harnessing the most powerful forces on earth — sunlight, water, air, and soil — and empirically proving there is a better way to work with what we have. We can choose to support them with all the fervor and funding they deserve, as keepers of a tradition of stewardship that also shows the way forward. Now that would be a genuine rethinking.
Sam Garwin believes better food is the solution to almost everything. She currently works as a consultant to expand market opportunities for regenerative food products and business models, and previously worked as a whole-animal butcher and CEO of Fleishers Craft Butchery. Sam lives, gardens, and eats primarily in Cambridge, MA.