With the Conscious Carnivore Project, The New Food Economy recently investigated those ethical eaters (dubbed conscious carnivores) who choose to consume meat only under certain standards such as locally sourced and humanely raised without antibiotics. It’s one of the most contentious discussions on the food system today: is it possible to eat sustainably while still eating meat?
Lynne Curry’s investigation surveyed 24 “civilian eaters,” — meat eaters who aren’t hunters or people who butcher or raise their own meats — including about a dozen in-depth phone interviews and expert interviews of conscious carnivores working in animal welfare or food justice jobs.
Curry found that the American consumer’s overall anxiety towards meat has heightened and that more consumers are willing to make sacrifices to eat better meat, but for different reasons. In the end, individual choices still hold great power in pushing for a more sustainable food system.
What progress has been made so far?
While the reasons for becoming a conscious carnivore vary, according to Curry’s investigation, many choose the path of “least harm.” This means eating meat when livestock is able to live free from confinement and illness and given a quick and stress-free death.
“What’s abhorrent to [one study participant] is not killing farm animals per se, but industrialized agriculture that treats animals as inputs in a system devoted to efficiency and profit. It’s a system [he] calls cruel and unsustainable,” Curry writes. “Still, the question remains: Do abstemious diets like [his] actually make a difference?”
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In 2010, the Oscar-nominated film Food, Inc. made a historic splash by lifting the veil on unethical industrialized food practices. But, it seems, while the film spread a great amount of awareness, not a whole ton has changed since its release. The industrial meat industry still “results in unspeakable animal suffering while taking a toll on workers, waterways, lands, public health, and the planet,” Curry continues.
What is certain, though, is that the American consumer’s overall anxiety towards meat has heightened. Is consumer demand enough to push the dial and spark change?
What are the alternatives to big ag meat production?
For conscious carnivores, there are certainly options: Heritage Foods USA, White Oak Pastures, and Crowd Cow all offer humanely-raised meat for delivery, and the USDA’s farmers’ market directory has 8,733 listings to choose from. But these options come with a price tag.
Because of this, many of the conscious carnivores surveyed consider eating meat a luxury, not eating it at every meal. Curry said every one of them said they made sacrifices to fit these choices into their budget.
But for those making ethically conscious choices—and handling the financial burden of them—deciphering numerous labels brings us into some murky waters. Even the USDA organic certification does not require genuine outdoor access for animals, and “grass-fed” is still not a regulated and consistent standard.
On the other hand, Curry writes, the increasing number and types of labels means it’s on more consumers’ minds—and that can be considered a win. Consumers want transparency in their food production.
The Path to Reduction
A 2017 report titled “Reducing Meat Consumption in the USA: A Nationally Representative Survey of Attitudes and Behaviors,” found that despite meat’s cultural prominence in the US, more and more Americans are striving to cut back on their consumption. Strategies to reduce meat consumption include buying less meat, eating smaller portion sizes, and having meatless meals or meatless days.
Curry interviewed Brian Kateman, who founded the Reducetarian Foundation, an organization aiming to “improve human health, protect the environment, and spare farm animals from cruelty by reducing the societal consumption of animal products,” according to the website.
Notably, the Reducetarian Movement is open to other options for raising meat—enter cultured meat, or manufacturing meat in a lab setting. Seventy-five percent of the conscious carnivores surveyed do not currently buy meat substitutes, making it a potentially untapped market for reducing industrial agriculture production.
Does voting with the fork help farming or the environment—or neither?
“It’s a mouthwatering idea that economic and environmental revitalization could go hand-in-hand,” Curry says.
Buying directly from farms and farmers’ markets is the foundation of the food movement. The multiplier effect of buying local products has been proven: according to Amanda Oborne, vice president of Food & Farms at Ecotrust, “When dollars are spent directly, the money doubles in the region.” And supporting regional food systems can help fight rural depletion, a growing problem.
Often, small or medium-sized producers also practice regenerative agriculture. Their livestock plays a key role in revitalizing land. And meat raised well can build good soil, benefiting not only the food system as a whole, but the environment.
According to survey participant Anastasia Christman, though—who identified as a conscious carnivore until five months ago—buying any meat at all is supporting the “underlying system that leads to workers wearing diapers on the line at Tyson because they have to process so many chickens.”
“I’m one person who is sleeping better at night,” she says, “and honestly that’s better than bacon.”
Becoming Food Citizens
The growing tension over the subject of meat consumption has become a powerful tool for sparking change within the industry.
“When voting with our fork, we should remember that the freedom to buy food according to our values does not in and of itself change the power of commodities in our food system,” Eric Holt-Giménez, director of the think tank Food First, tells Curry. However, it is an important entry point to becoming a stand-up food citizen, instead of just a consumer of food, Curry concludes.
In the end, the small, personal actions Curry encountered throughout her investigation serve as the foundation of this movement. For conscious carnivores, the social, economic, and environmental impact of everyday choices cannot be overlooked.