The best way to help animals may be to eat them

Why compassionate carnivorism just might work better than going vegetarian

Friend notes that the personal nature of food choices may be why the concept of responsible meat consumption has lagged behind other environmental choices now ingrained in public consciousness, such as recycling and reducing fossil fuel usage. But in the last few years, beginning with Eric Schlosser's 2001 publication of Fast Food Nation, awareness has spread quickly. "We're getting closer to some sort of tipping point," Friend says.

While Friend's book asks readers to change their meat-eating habits—to waste less meat and replace factory meat choices with meat from animals raised humanely—it does so without being a chirpy, unrealistic self-help tome, or a gruesome factory-farm exposé. Friend straightforwardly outlines the benefits of pasture raising in terms of animal and environmental health, and she connects the dots from an animal's life to its meat to the lives of those who eat it. She cites nutritional studies showing that meat from grass-fed animals contains less fat than meat from corn-fed animals, as well as more health-promoting substances.

When Friend details the differences between concentrated animal-feeding operations, so-called CAFOs, and sustainable pasture-raised farming, she does so without villainizing commercial farmers. "It's important to separate any judgment about farms from a judgment about farmers," she writes. She notes that farmers made choices "based on what university researchers were telling them, based on what seed and chemical agribusiness companies were selling them, and—here's where we come in—based on what you and I, the consumers, were willing to pay for meat."

While Friend can be critical, she can also be funny. The carpeting in her house, she writes, "has lost that 'just laid' look. (Hmmm, haven't we all....)" When describing a woman who collected boar sperm for a living, she writes: "Once the semen was deposited into the little plastic cup, she had to smell it to make sure it smelled right, whatever that meant. And you thought your job sucked." But Friend's tone can also be tender, as in the chapter, "Letter to My Lambs." "When you were born," she writes, "your ears were much too large for your face, so you looked as if you were wearing windmills." I could hardly read it without tearing up.

This empathy, of course, raises the question: Why not become vegetarian? Friend defends raising livestock by explaining that not all land, including her hilly acreage, is suited for growing crops, because planting grain on steep slopes will cause erosion. Planting grass can keep the soil in place, and animals can convert grass—something people don't eat—into edible animal flesh. But her biggest argument against asking compassionate carnivores to become vegetarian is that boycotting meat won't help sustain factory meat's alternative. "If everybody who is concerned about inhumane conditions stops eating meat," she writes, "the farmers who are trying to be humane can't succeed."

From our perch on the hay wagon, Friend says she's confident that individual choices can spur change in spite of overwhelming odds. I'm about to express skepticism when the sheep suddenly take off running, the entire flock forming a long white trail into the barn. Friend explains this is what happens when one sheep decides to get a drink of water—all the others follow. "If we lead the world in meat consumption," she says, looking toward the barn, "we can lead in changing how we consume it."

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