Recently the New York Times was asking for essays defending the act of meat eating. Pop culture, health and news all have made vegetarianism their darling for many years, and the New York Times wanted to hear stories from the “other side”. This is a topic close to my heart and I was encouraged by many of my readers to submit an entry. Although my essay did not win, I still want to share it with you.

First a quick and very timely story: We recently faced the possibility of raising lambs for meat. Both of our sheep, Inga and Iona gave birth to their first lambs in the past few weeks and of course we didn’t know what the sex of the babies were going to be. But we had steeled ourselves for the possibility of males. We knew if we got any males we would be raising them for meat – on a small homestead like ours, we don’t have the infrastructure to raise rams for breeding.

We were blessed with two beautiful baby ewes and I admit we were relieved.

I don’t know how many years of farming it will take for us to not feel that sense of relief knowing that we won’t have to take any lambs to slaughter. I don’t know if that is because we weren’t raised on a farm, or if it just our nature. But what I do know is that if we ended up having to raise lambs for meat, it would have been and ethical solution. Here’s why: (Essay Submission)

Most people are out of touch with the reality of how food gets to their plate, whether animal or vegetable. For me, my meat consumption and how I source it has become a spiritual act – taking responsibility for what I consume and its consequences.

I was a vegetarian for over a decade because I love animals. In my naivety I thought by avoiding meat, I was saving animals. Opting out of the savage and merciless killing of animals that occurs every day on the large feedlots and slaughterhouses of industrial America is something we should all do. But abstaining from humanely raised meat, animal products even vegetables for that matter doesn’t keep you from the cycle of life and death. As a human on this planet, you can’t escape this simple truth.

“Sustainable” and “locavore” are buzzwords held in high esteem these days, a positive trend, yet these movements are riddled with half-truths. We know eating local and in season has the least impact on the environment. What about those of us in northern climates, with a three month growing season? Eating local humanely raised meat is a sustainable and ethical solution. Eating vegetables shipped from large organic agribusinesses out west whose farming practices destroy animal habitats even killing small burrowing animals as well as birds and insects is not. Using unsustainable resources to get those vegetables to us is not. Both systems result in animal deaths, but which is more ethical? The one in which you turn a blind eye or the one you take direct responsibility for? In that light, who are you to decide which lives are more precious?

I have heard arguments that dairy is not a “death food”. With dairy comes meat. In order for you to have dairy, animals must become pregnant and have babies. What happens to those babies? Let’s look at goat cheese as an example. There are many new goat dairies cropping up all over the place, to sustain our taste for this delicacy, farmers must have found a solution for the babies. Female offspring are easy to sell, or keep for breeding stock, males, not so much. With goats typically having twins, that is a lot of potential male babies. So what do most dairies do with males? Compost. Is that ethical? Isn’t raising an animal in love and respect to sustain another life more ethical than throwing it in the garbage? Sustainability means responsibility, finding a place in the system for all life involved in it. Animals, especially those providing nourishing food for us deserve respect, good care and the forethought necessary to make the most ethical decisions for their fate.

Livestock animals have been bred over thousands of years to have certain traits (to the detriment of others); this makes it impossible for them to survive on their own. We evolved together, we sustain each other, and the link between us cannot be severed. Even if we set them all free tomorrow, most would die from starvation. Is that ethical?

Those of us, caring for livestock humanely, live in a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship with our animals. We give them good and happy lives and in return they nourish us. There is nothing more ethical than honesty, even if it is something you don’t wish to face. But in order for us to live, things must die. All life is precious and plays a role in the nourishment of other creatures, from humans to bacteria, so we should meet it in the eye and say thank you.

To read more from me on this subject, see my series on my Homesteading blog Got Goats?(…and sheep too!) called For The Love of Horns and Hooves.