The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ditching meat isn’t the answer for climate change. Better farming is.

High-end restaurants can help support sustainable practices

Cattle head to a processing plant in Kansas last summer. Rather than rejecting all meat, the food world could support more sustainably raised animals. (Christopher Smith/For The Washington Post)

Suddenly, meat is out in the high-end food world. Eleven Madison Park, a New York City restaurant with three Michelin stars, recently announced that when it reopens after a pandemic-forced hiatus, the menu will be vegan. The cooking site Epicurious is no longer publishing new beef recipes, and the San Francisco restaurants run by another three-Michelin-starred chef, Dominique Crenn, went meatless a little over a year ago. Meat-substitute brands like Impossible Foods (which raised $200 million its latest round of venture capital funding last year) and rival Beyond Meat (which recently struck high-profile deals with Subway and KFC) are booming.

At first glance, this seems like good news. Many of these restaurants cite boosting sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint as reasons for their decisions; forcing the food system to reckon with how commercial meat production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is a noble goal. But rejecting meat outright is unlikely to bring anywhere near enough consumers on board to solve the underlying environmental problems plaguing our food system. And the idea that going meat-free is a silver bullet distracts us from comprehensive climate solutions, with the risk of keeping us on a trajectory where our food system depletes our planet, rather than helping to revive it. Some of these shifts away from meat might help slow that depletion, but the change the world needs will take more than that. We should use sustainable, regenerative livestock production to help us get there.

I run a small, family-operated pig farm in Upstate New York. We believe in practicing agriculture in a way that regenerates the land: Our pigs live outdoors in the woods and eat a diverse diet of nuts, grasses and other forage, supplemented by non-genetically-modified grain grown on a nearby farm using regenerative practices, a system of farming involving reducing or eliminating tillage, cover-cropping fields to increase their fertility instead of spraying fertilizer, and integrating trees and animals into their management plans. Fifty years ago, the land that we now manage was part of a much larger dairy farm. As that industry left the area, the fertile land was neglected, and a forest grew up in the midst of hills, stone walls and a nearby stream. We don’t raise more than our land can sustain, and we’re preserving habitat for myriad plants, animals and fungi to thrive. Our pigs represent a new life for the farm.

Beef isn’t being banned. But it’s always a staple of the culture-war diet.

It’s painful to see the destruction that conventional farming causes when I know how beneficial and rewarding it can be to do this sustainably. The United States is the second-largest producer of pork in the world (behind China), and 97 percent of American hogs are raised in large commercial operations, with nearly half in confined feeding lots. These pigs live in crowded pens with concrete floors and no access to the outdoors where they can just be pigs. Duplin County, N.C., a key hog-producing county for Smithfield Foods, is home to roughly 2 million pigs that produce 15,700 tons of waste per day. Waste lagoons that border hog farms are so concentrated that when they spill or flood, they release immense amounts of pollution into surrounding bodies of water. Recent research demonstrates that breathing waste particulates, which can drift hundreds of miles from a farm, is connected with headaches, heart conditions and even death.

In contrast, when farms mimic a healthy natural environment, our food system can be a force for sustainability. And a healthy, natural environment doesn’t necessarily mean one without animals. Often, pea, soy and potato crops don’t resemble natural ecosystems — they are vast monocultures that rely on large machinery, intensive processing and global distribution, just like the industrial system that produces meat on a large scale. Farms that approximate natural ecosystems by definition must include animals. Think about when the Great Plains were at their healthiest — those incredibly productive grasslands were fed by herds of buffalo, eating plants and fertilizing in their wake. Many ranchers today take that lesson to heart and raise their cattle as a critical part of a healthy ecosystem, supporting a host of critical pollinators and actually sequestering carbon by by quickly rotating their animals through pasture, mimicking the way that wolves and other predators kept large herbivores moving through the plains years ago. The sad truth is that when these grasslands are converted to cultivated crops, up to 50 percent of their stored carbon is released into the environment (a whopping 25 to 40 metric tons per hectare, according to the Department of Agriculture), and pollinators lose their habitats.

Creative farmers are coming up with all kinds of ways to raise food while building a healthy ecosystem. One model is Veta la Palma in southern Spain. This 28,000-acre estate could be described as more of a wildlife sanctuary than a farm. In 1982, Veta La Palma reflooded a drained marshland and immediately became a successful fish farm and a large bird refuge, with more than 250 species of birds returning to the area. The operation even gives up about 20 percent of its fish to birds and other native predators each year. By working with nature, the farm can sustainably supply healthy food for consumers while keeping wild populations extant — and remaining profitable.

The meat industry is doing exactly what Big Oil does to fight climate action

Writing meat off completely is taking the easy way out. Commercial meat production got to be the monster it is because corporate interests monopolized the market and began seeing animal life as a commodity — something to be produced and traded at the lowest cost possible, at the expense of the environment, animal welfare and working conditions for farmhands. This same set of values dominates the non-meat elements of our food system as well, with monocropping operations deteriorating soil quality, chemicals flowing into our waterways and human rights being violated throughout the system.

There’s no getting around the fact that Americans eat a lot of meat — last year, about 225 pounds per person. Measuring the economics of meat production is complex, but U.S. consumers pay artificially low prices. If Americans eat less meat, but better meat, we can help keep smaller, local farms in business and weed out the mega-operations that are fraught with ethical and environmental concerns. It will cost more, but the elite restaurants that have opted to abandon meat and their customers could afford to purchase more sustainable meat rather than rejecting it outright. And as we buy more from producers we know and trust, we can feel confident that as they expand their operations, they will continue to provide a fair price to us while farming in a way that serves the planet.

The movement for alternative food supply chains needs inclusive strategies, rather than ones that alienate a huge share of Americans. When the dominant argument says the only way to eat sustainably is to give up meat, a small number of people can get on board, but most consumers will throw up their hands, thinking a reimagined food system isn’t for them.

None of that will change if high-end restaurants simply stop selling meat. A better solution is to support food systems that prioritize more than just the bottom line. Tools exist to make it easier for the average consumer to connect with farms and buy more of their groceries from nearby producers who support the environment. (Off the farm, I work as chief operating officer at one such service, a website called Harvie, which also carries my farm’s products.)

Many chefs also recognize the value of farm-to-table. Take a look at Dan Barber, chef at Manhattan’s Blue Hill and co-owner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Upstate New York, who is on a mission to normalize “ecological cuisine” by serving more food grown using sustainable farming practices and promoting it — and his menu very much includes meat. Farming and cooking are a beautiful partnership, and through it, we can keep heritage breeds alive — promoting biodiversity and providing a greater variety of culinary options. As my friend Shola Olunloyo, a chef who just completed a residency at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, put it: “The approach to dealing with bad farming can’t be to stop eating meat.”

These chefs know that local, sustainably raised meats are working double duty: Not only are they good for the environment, but they create the most inspiring culinary experience for diners. Restaurateurs who want to source the best sustainably produced ingredients can turn to tools like Transparent Food Co., which connects them with local food that matches their values — rather than eliminating an entire category from their menu.

A great meal, full of exploration, surprise, succulence and place, is not produced in a factory or shipped across the country. It comes from the land. Food can transport you from your plate to the farm, with the knowledge of the soil, the rain, the farmer and the animals that worked so very hard to create this experience for you. We don’t need to reject meat outright. We just need to make sure we’re eating the right kind.

Read more from Outlook:

We built a ‘better’ food system. The cost: It couldn’t handle a pandemic.

The pandemic is changing how we eat. But not for the better.

A secret weapon to fight climate change: dirt

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.