Turns out, one of them absolutely tops the environmental charts. It’s unequivocally the single most ecologically friendly food you can eat. A food that actually makes the environment better rather than worse.
The food is venison.
The catch, of course, is that you have to kill a deer. But stay with me here.
Lots of us are unwilling to kill a deer; I was, for a very long time. And not because I’m categorically opposed to killing animals for food. Like the vast majority of people, I’m a meat-eater, but I’m nevertheless reluctant to take the life of an animal. A cute, furry animal.
But that cute, furry animal is wreaking havoc in vast swaths of the United States. Let me count the ways.
1. They’re destroying the habitat of other plants and animals.
Deer clear the land of every native plant they like to eat. One study done in Upstate New York in 2014 found that “the impacts of deer browsing on aboveground vegetation were severe and immediate, resulting in significantly more bare soil, reduced plant biomass, reduced recruitment of woody species, and relatively fewer native species.” With those species go the insects, birds and mammals that depend on them.
But those researchers were at least 65 years late to the party. Back in the 1940s, pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold watched as wolf populations declined and deer populations, delighted with the decrease in predators, skyrocketed. In his 1949 book “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold wrote, “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”
If you live in deer territory and have tried to grow almost any kind of plant, you’re familiar with deer’s voraciousness. In fact, the Virginia Native Plant Society points out that suburban habitat can be even better for deer than their “natural” habitat, because “human landscapes provide high concentrations of edible plants close to the ground where the deer can get to them.”
It’s not that I want to eat deer because deer eat my Asian pears, but it sure helps me get over my acute case of cutefurryitis.
2. They’re harming humans.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, around 200 people die in car crashes with animals every year and, although hard numbers are hard to come by, estimates I’ve seen indicate that the majority of those crashes involve deer. Okay, that’s not up there with the Black Death, but if it’s your mom or your kid in that car, you may find your attitude toward deer changing.
Besides, death isn’t the only damage deer do. Even if you survive a car crash with a deer, your car may not. There are something like 1.5 million insurance claims every year for those collisions, according to insurer State Farm.
Then there’s Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks, which are carried, of course, by deer. In 2000, one community in Connecticut, overrun with deer, reversed its no-hunting ordinance, and scientists stepped in to monitor the results. Over seven years, deer density dropped 87 percent, and cases of Lyme disease dropped commensurately (by 80 percent).
3. They produce greenhouse gases.
Deer are ruminants, like cattle, sheep and goats. They eat grass, leaves and Asian pears, and methane is a byproduct of their digestion. It’s not easy to measure methane emissions in a wild animal, but one estimate from 1986 is 15 kilograms of methane per deer per year.
If you look at it per animal, that’s only about one-quarter of what a beef steer emits, but a beef steer can weigh as much as 10 times what a deer weighs, so on a per-pound basis, deer are responsible for more methane than cattle.
Think about what that means. We have to grow the cattle to have beef, so you’re adding methane to the atmosphere with every steak. But the deer are wild, so you’re subtracting methane with every steak. Not only the methane that your deer will no longer be producing, but also, if it’s a doe, the methane her progeny will also not be producing.
4. Other animals are also deer.
There are obviously areas where deer aren’t overpopulated, and you don’t do the landscape a favor by hunting them. But, by “venison” I really mean “food from overpopulated species that cause damage.” If you live in Texas, you might be thinking about wild pigs. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that feral pigs do $1.5 billion worth of property damage each year, and also carry viruses, bacteria and parasites that can threaten livestock or even people. I have eaten wild pig, and it is just fine, if a bit lean.
If you live in Louisiana, you might be thinking about nutria, large invasive rodents that are devastating to wetlands. I have not eaten nutria, but I’ve heard it tastes like chicken.
If you live almost anywhere, you may be thinking about Canada geese, which can destroy crops by eating them and destroy lakes by pooping in them. They are also hell on golf courses. I have eaten Canada goose, but it was the kind that destroys crops in the Midwest, and it was very good. The kind from my coastal neck of the woods eats fishier things, and although I have never eaten one, I have eaten other seaside birds, and they can taste like low tide.
Ready to get your hunting license?
I thought not. Understanding that venison is the single most responsible food you can eat will take you only so far in the decision to pick up a weapon and shoot Bambi. And the distaste for shooting Bambi runs so deep that some communities prefer to spend significant money and resources capturing, sterilizing and rereleasing their deer — a strategy that doesn’t seem to work. People will try anything — anything! — other than killing and eating them.
But if you’re a meat-eater (vegans get a pass here), killing the animal you’re going to eat might make you think differently about meat.
Our food supply distances us from all the things that have to happen for beef — or pork or chicken — to be what’s for dinner. We would prefer not to know the animal, and how it lived and died. It’s much easier to buy the burger, or the pork chop, or the chicken nugget, once all that work has been done by someone else, and the little cubes, unrecognizable as animals, are lined up in the nice clean display case.
That distance can harden us. From not seeing, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to not caring. We eat a lot of meat, fish and poultry — and we waste a lot (according to the USDA, about 150 calories’ worth per person per day). Killing an animal closes the distance. I can no longer eat meat without thinking about its animal of origin and the life it led — and that makes me selective about the animals I eat and careful to waste as little as possible.
If you want venison, but you’re just not a hunter, you don’t have a lot of options because selling wild venison is nearly always illegal. There are some places where harvesters make special arrangements with government regulators to make it possible (like Maui Nui in Hawaii), but if you get your venison this way, you won’t win your gold star for climate-friendliness if it ships by air.
If you decide you do want to hunt, be aware of Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal, neurological disease that has been found in deer in many parts of the country. So far, there are no documented cases of CWD being passed from deer to people, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected.” It is nevertheless a concern, and if you decide to hunt, you should check with your local authorities for CWD-related guidelines.
Of course, everything changes if everyone hunts. Once the animal isn’t overpopulated, the calculus is different. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen just because I wrote about it. So think about getting your hunting license. Our world could be the better for it.
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