A Brief History of Food: Where We are Going
Imagine yourself walking through a forest, soaking up all of the nature around you. You walk out into a meadow and over a hill to a small stream and meander along it down to a lake. What did you see? You may have noticed many plants from trees to grasses and perhaps some wildflowers or cattails. What did you hear? A breeze rustling through the leaves, the babbling of the stream? What did you smell? Maybe some flowers or fruit blossoms?
What else did you see, hear, and smell? Well, if in nature, it is likely you would have also come across some animals. In fact, it would be disconcerting and worrying if you did not see any animals on a walk in nature. Even more so if you didn’t hear any sounds. A healthy ecosystem is rarely quiet, with songs of birds, insects, and frogs filling the air. If you take a dip in a lake, even if it is crystal clear, you will likely come out smelling a little fishy, belying the aquatic life’s presence in the water.
Nature works in a complex web of microbes, fungi, plants, insects, and animals, and requires all of them to function optimally. Animals are nature’s movers. Legs and wings assist in the distribution of nature’s functions, such as assisting plants to spread seeds, whether it be by burs caught on fur or excretion of seeds eaten inside of fruits. Animals also move nutrients. Gravity naturally moves soil and nutrients downhill, creating lush growth in the low lands that grazing animals come to eat. But a low area is not the safest place to wait around if you are an animal worried about predators, so retreating to high areas with a good line of sight and a nice breeze is prudent and also takes nutrients back up the hill. Animals also cycle nutrients more effectively; bringing foods into their moist, warm guts speeds up decomposition and allows increased return of nutrients and microbes to the soil. Ruminants, or Mobile Composting Units as Joel Salatin calls them, are especially good at this, eating and fermenting coarse forages into energy and protein and then returning a rich microbially active manure to the ground to grow more forage. Ruminants are so tied into this cycle that they stimulate regrowth of plants as they graze through vitamins and microbes in their saliva. Mother nature has designed systems where animals play integral roles in maintaining balance and harmony and part of the role of farmers is to learn from these systems and integrate them into agricultural practices.
Unfortunately, rather than working alongside nature, a lot of modern agricultural practices have largely been based on fighting against natural processes through technology. Modern livestock systems have used this technology to minimize labor requirements in an attempt to increase labor efficiency and profitability, but in the process removed the animals from natural cycles, creating disconnects. The concentration of livestock in these systems has also drawn public ire with concerns of animal welfare, manure runoff, and greenhouse gas emissions. These concerns have led to increased calls for reducing meat consumption and the creation of imitation meats. Imitation meats use highly processed plant ingredients, largely from soy products, to try and mimic the flavor and texture of meat. There are a number of concerns with the healthiness of these highly processed food items, but the bigger problem is that they ignore the realities of the natural world. Imitation meats are primarily composed of substances from crops grown with practices that do not promote the health and biodiversity of nature. For imitation meats to have any claim to being beneficial, they will need to come from crops that enhance the environment. And for crops to enhance the environment, they must improve the function of ecosystems; so far, nature has not constructed vibrant systems without the strong inclusion of animals.
Like a walk in nature without animals, agricultural systems without livestock would be missing an integral piece of the puzzle. Modern agriculture has done a lot to separate crops and livestock, growing most plants in large monocultures supported by genetic engineering, fertilizers, and pesticides and concentrating livestock in facilities apart from the crops. These systems were created with a focus on scale and profitability without much thought into the overall health of the planet. However, there are a number of regenerative systems that utilize crops and livestock in integrated systems that work in tandem with nature’s cycles, promoting biodiversity and supporting niches for wildlife alongside livestock. A shift to consumption of food from these regenerative agricultural systems would go a long way to solving the problems that the creators of imitation meats are purporting to address, and in a way that works in concert with the natural world and with whole foods that have been part of the human diet for millennia.
Perhaps the most sensitive subject when dealing with concerns of eating meat revolves around the subject of death. Death in modern society is a subject filled with grief and fear. While there is a lot to unpack psychologically and emotionally on the subject of our own mortality, when looking at food systems, we must realize that death is a natural part of the cycle of life that allows sustenance of creatures up and down the food web. Food comes from living beings, whether they be plants or animals. We don’t tend to think much about chopping up a potato and cooking it to death or eating a carrot alive. The ability to anthropomorphize animals like cows, pigs, and chickens makes the thought of their death hit much closer to home. To make sense of the death of animals for meat, we must first understand the reasons for their lives.
For livestock such as cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens, these lives have been built on the co-adaptation with humans, providing us meat, milk, eggs, and wool. In return, humans have cared for and protected these animals, ensuring the continued survival of their species. If subjected purely to the processes of nature, the animals’ end would likely come from starvation, disease, and/or being chased down and killed by a predator. In place of this, humans have interjected management to keep the animals fed and healthy up to a point where a low-stress and humane end of life is reached.
If we are able to come to terms with the role of death in the cycle of life and the importance of livestock in agricultural systems, the question then turns to how we best honor and enrich the lives of the animals under our care. With a singular focus on scale and production efficiency, a lot of modern livestock systems have ignored this question, and consumers will continue to seek meat alternatives until this question is answered. From our perspective, success as stewards of life and land require all living beings to have the best life possible. And we believe the way those needs are met is a vital ingredient in the resulting quality of food and health of us and our planet.
Animals play a necessary role in nature’s cycles and if we are to have agricultural systems that work in harmony with the natural world, well-managed livestock is critical. And for these regenerative systems to proliferate, consumers will need to take notice, connect with food, and place priority on purchasing food from farmers that honor the life under their care.
We place great reverence in our roles as stewards of life and are excited to share our experiences with you. Sign-up for our weekly email newsletter here to stay connected.