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Can you be plant-based - and still eat pasture-raised food?

December 16, 2021

Thirteen years ago, over Christmas break, I became a vegetarian. It was a bit surprising, and maybe a little cliché. I had never expressed much interest in food production or justice. But I did have all the moral indignation of a nineteen-year-old, and a book on factory farming (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer) to convince me that eating animals was unethical. 

I was a committed vegetarian for seven years, up until the ninth month of my first pregnancy. I didn’t experience any strange food cravings, except for one: I kept feeling like I needed to eat meat. 

I now know the extent of the nutritional deficiencies that made my body react this way, but at the time I tried to ignore it, until one day I couldn’t. Out to dinner a week before I gave birth, I astonished Joe when I ordered the “sausage gravy and fried chicken dinner”. 

As a new mother, eating meat was a nutritional necessity for me. Yet my ethical convictions about eating animals didn’t disappear as easily. In the seven years since that moment, I’ve wrestled with this issue: not just eating animals, but raising animals that will be eaten, and taking the life of those animals. It’s a journey that’s required a large amount of humility alongside an incredible growth of knowledge. 

I’ve been reflecting on this often this year, as I watch the latest trend in vegetarianism or veganism emerge, this time branded as “plant-based”. I don’t have anything against vegetarianism or veganism, nor do I wish to write a “take-down” of those positions. I simply find them too narrow-minded. Moreover, I’m increasingly frustrated by the dichotomy our society creates between being “plant-based” and eating meat. 

Growing plants and eating meat are not fundamentally opposed practices. Rather, holistic land management prioritizes both. 

What does “plant-based” mean in popular society? Ideally, it conjures up images of colorful, nutrient-dense vegetables, grown without any harmful chemicals or the intentional death of living creatures. (More on that in a moment.) It assumes that eating plants is therefore more ethical, humane, and environmentally responsible than eating meat. 

However, this ideal image is often at odds with the reality of what much of “plant-based” foods encompass: packaged, processed foods that contain products from monoculture crops (soy, corn, peas, coconut oil, other vegetable oils), which are routinely sprayed, use an enormous amount of water and fossil fuels, and prioritize the consumption of materials rather than the regeneration of the earth. Not to mention, they intentionally participate in the destruction of habitats and wildlife. 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of the faults of plant-based commercial foods. But even the best-intentioned practices of growing plants often require animal death. 

Beyond pesticides and the destruction of wildlife habitat, how does growing plants in this country often rely upon the intentional killing of animals? Sometimes, it’s the elimination of “pests” from our garden, even when we’re simply using soap sprays. More often, however, it means specifically inputting ingredients into the soil - feathermeal, bone meal, blood meal - that come from industrially raised animals. In fact, it is incredibly difficult to grow plants without these animal inputs, because the life of plants depends on the nutrients that come from death - from decomposing materials, as well as manure. 

What this tells us, then, is that animals and plants are not opposed to one another. In fact, they’re designed to work with one another - and sustainable land management can only be achieved through this understanding. It means that we need to be more wise and discerning about how we create this partnership. 

A holistic view of management doesn’t focus only upon growing vegetables, or raising animals for meat. Instead, we start with the land - with the trees, plants, and wildlife already there. This leads us to implement practices that prioritize the health of the land - which also happens to coincide with humane animal treatment and sustainable fruit and vegetable production. Most notably, these systems consider all life - even our pests and wildlife. 

Over the next year, I’ll spend more time writing about specific ways we implement this holistic management system on the farm. But for now, I’d just like you to ponder this, and let me know your thoughts. How do you feel about the “plant-based movement”? How does it make you think about eating animals?

Michelle Sroka

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