The High Price of Meat

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Pot Roast Earlier this week I threw out a pot roast. My roommate cooked it weeks ago. It was growing mold in the fridge. I dumped the whole thing in the trash. Carrots, potatoes, gelatinous broth, and meat—all in the trash. It was a big chunk of beef. Maybe six or seven dollars worth.

In Genesis 1:28 God blessed Adam and Eve and then charged them with the responsibility to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” A little further down scripture reminds us that God viewed his creation and that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We are the rulers of the earth—God’s very good creation—but are we responsible rulers?

This is not an article about vegetarianism. This is an article about the ethics of meat. My goal is not to convince you to stop eating meat. But I do want you to think about where it comes from.

Certainly I recognize that meat is a staple in the diets of many. There are still nomadic people groups in parts of the world that follow migrating herds of wildlife as their livelihood, such as the nomadic people of the Asian grasslands. Their existence depends on the procreation of wildlife. In ancient times they made talismans that illustrated wildlife copulating. The fertility of the animals guaranteed there would be food for the next season. Meat is an integral part of our diet as humans.

Fish Market But the society I live in is far removed from hunting for meat. It’s been almost twenty years since I killed and gutted fish. (Looking back, I’m surprised my dad let me do that so young.) In the past two decades, I’ve only seen the cuts of meat—never the living animal or even the carcass.

We live in a society that eats a lot of meat. Three meals a day. Seven days a week. But other than cash, what’s the cost of meat?

National Geographic’s April 2010 issue broke down how much water goes into meat:

  • For one pound of beef: 1,857 gallons
  • For one pound of pork: 756 gallons
  • For one pound of chicken: 469 gallons

And the USDA’s February 2008 Amber Waves explains how much corn goes into a pound of meat:

  • For one pound of beef: 7 pounds of corn
  • For one pound of pork: 6.5 pounds of corn
  • For one pound of chicken: 2.6 pounds of corn

These figures are important for us as meat eaters to know. The fact that chicken requires less than half as much grain as beef makes chicken the more sustainable choice.

There’s an old Regina Spektor song called “Pound of Flesh.” The song tells about a dialogue between the narrator and an emaciated man who is bed-bound. He asks the narrator to spare a pound of flesh to cover his bare bones. The narrator replies, “Take a pound, take two. What’s a pound of flesh between two friends like me and you?”

Have you ever thought of giving up a pound of flesh? It’s easy to think of meat as food, but remember that it’s from an animal that gave up pounds of flesh. A living creature died for that meat. Thinking about the muscle tissue that grows around my bones makes it hard for me to take meat for granted.

There’s an old prayer from the Choctaw Indians. “Deer, I am sorry to hurt you, but the people are hungry.”

I love this prayer, because it honors the animal. The hunters recognized that life is sacred and that the deer must make the ultimate sacrifice so that the people can live. Because American society is mostly removed from the actual killing of animals, it’s easy to take for granted their sacrifice. As humans we can take a life, but only the Divine can give the breath of life. Remember that you can never undo a death.

My mom used to tell me to clean my plate because there are hungry people all over the world. Wasting meat is manifold in its offense. Not only is it insulting to the hungry, it’s disrespectful to waste the flesh of a creature that died so we could eat.

I’m not against the practice of raising animals for meat, but I do think that there’s a tremendous responsibility that we overlook as consumers. So I’ve made changes in my life to show my respect for the creatures that die so I can eat. I reduced the amount of meat I eat. Going a day or two without meat is common for me now.

Fellowship I don’t eat meat when I’m eating a meal alone. I know this sounds silly, but I think meat should be eaten during times of fellowship. I eat it in the company of friends and family. When the prodigal son came home, the father killed the fattened calf for a celebration (Luke 15:29). I save meat for special times.

When I’ve bought meat lately, I’ve done my best to buy free-range meat. If a chicken has to die for me, I want to do my best to make sure it was treated like an animal—not like a factory product—during its life. Also, I feel better about eating the less desirable cuts of meat. Now the meat parts that go into hot dogs don’t seem so gross. I’ve even started eating cow tongue.

The documentary Food, Inc inspired me to be a more responsible food consumer. It was nominated for best documentary at the 2009 Academy Awards. The thing I really love about Food, Inc is the conclusion. After an exposé on controversy in the food industry, it empowers consumers by telling you that you vote on food industry practices at each meal. Want food producers to make more ethical decisions? Support responsible producers.

What can you do to be a responsible consumer of meat?

Credits: Pot Roast: Food & Spirits Magazine / Creative Commons, Fish: Lucas Jans / Creative Commons, Fellowship: ktylerkonk / Creative Commons

Daniel J. Lay installs museum exhibitions in Shawnee, Okla. He caught and gutted fish at age 4. He is not a vegetarian.
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