My friends Graham Lettner and Thulasy Lettner visited Josée, Felix and I early this spring. It was a great visit and with dynamic conversation. We spoke about why I raise beef. Our conversation sent Graham on a journey of ponder about vegetarianism and the relationship we as human beings have to other animals and our environment. The following article is an account of his journey…
Eating Purposefully – by Graham Lettner
Before becoming a vegetarian, I was eating more meat than ever before.
My wife, Thulasy, and I had just gotten substantial raises at work. Overnight our eating habits changed. Out with the rice and beans, in with the steak and potatoes. Not just steak, though, but roast chicken, pork roast, lamb chops, and second helpings of each.
I thought nothing of it; likely, I didn’t even notice. It was a return to normal for me, a return to my eating habits in the years before I moved to Africa. But for Thulasy, the changes to our eating habits were shockingly carnivorous. She didn’t notice this idly: she began reading vegetarian treatises on the problems of eating animals.
One dinner, sitting down to a spread of mashed potatoes, broccoli in cheese sauce, and a large, sumptuous roast chicken, she asked me, “Do you think we eat too much meat?”
“Um, hmmhn,” I mumbled. She may have caught me in the midst of chewing. Even so, it was quickly clear that I had not considered such a possibility to exist. But even less had I considered her next question:
“Why do we eat animals at all?”
Having been exposed to be a mindless meat-eater, I set out to discover my answer to her question.
Why did I eat animals? I knew all the downsides: factory farming, cattle crammed into massive feedlots, antibiotics and liquefied manure ponds, and killing at near unimaginable scale. I didn’t agree with how our food system commoditized animals or the way it harmed the environment.
Perhaps there were upsides to my eating meat, factors that would counter-balance this list of negatives. I tried to search them out, but with scant success.
Did I eat meat for dietary reasons? No. In fact I was sure I could be perfectly healthy eating nothing but vegetables. Did I eat meat for religious or cultural reasons? No again. Neither was meat cheaper, or any more local, or quicker to prepare than vegetables. In the end I found little reason for eating meat at all, apart from one: that animals taste good.
The truth was that I ate meat, despite all the downsides, simply out of allegiance to my taste buds.
It wasn’t a heartening revelation. It was offensive, actually. I had let the passing pleasure of excited taste buds trump a number of serious implications to animals and the environment, implications I knew and understood. Here I was, blithely eating animals, tacitly supporting a system with which I told myself I didn’t agree.
Embarrassed at my hypocrisy, I figured I had two choices: continue eating meat, by further suppressing what I knew to be true; or realign my actions with my beliefs by giving up meat.
Thulasy was making up her own mind around the same time. She decided to become vegetarian, an act that urged me to move past my own moral inertia. I joined her.
I should make it clear that from the outside my vegetarianism was contradictory and incoherent. For example, I never gave up eggs or dairy. With meticulous self-deception, I told myself that animals weren’t killed in the making of these products, a dubious and inaccurate claim. The truth was that I simply wasn’t willing to give them up.
It’s important to note that becoming a vegetarian was no small thing. It involved imposing the hard standard of logic onto my many habits of unconscious living. These habits rebelled, they squirmed, they stubbornly refused, and in doing so they revealed many inner inconsistencies.
Still, as inconsistent as it was, it was how I began vegetarianism: by brashly declaiming, “No meat!” and sticking to it.
Almost a year after becoming vegetarians, Thulasy and I were in Ottawa visiting family and friends, on our way home to Alberta after saying good-bye to Zambia.
We were invited to have dinner with our friend Paul Slomp, his wife, Josée, and their baby boy, Felix. Paul had been in Zambia for some years before us and was someone we both held in high esteem. He had also recently started raising cattle on a farm just south of Ottawa. I was keen to hear more about this, particularly as a vegetarian who had decided to give up eating meat.
During the meal—vegetarian stew and corn bread—I asked Paul about his cattle operation. Of all things to do, why this? Why was it important to him?
Paul answered my question by first detouring to explain to us the concept of holistic resource management. Though the concept constitutes a sophisticated set of ideas, one tangible way it guides Paul’s cattle operation is as follows:
Grasslands co-evolved with ruminants over thousands of years. Moving in large groups, these ruminants would trample down grass, defecate and urinate, and compact and chip the soil surface with their hooves. For a grassland to be healthy, for it to thrive, it must be subjected this type of ruminant activity. Essentially, ruminants and grasslands are made for each other.
Paul manages his grass and his cattle together by mimicking nature through planned grazing across his pasture. By doing so, he maximizes the quality and quantity of grass his cattle consume, and provides the kind of ruminant interaction needed by for a healthy grassland ecosystem.
This is why his farm is important to him. It’s a means to increase biodiversity, build up soils and provide year-round habitat for birds, insects, and other wild animals, while creating the profit Paul needs to take care of his family.
The dinner conversation moved on, but I was still considering what this meant to me as a vegetarian. For all the good benefits of Paul’s farm, there was still an unmistakable downside. Eating animals meant killing animals. There was no getting around it.
Sitting there at Paul’s dinner table, I tried to see it from a more holistic point of view. Killing is a part of nature. Birds eat crickets. Dragonflies swallow up mosquitoes. Foxes hunt prairie gophers. And—perhaps?—humans slaughter cattle.
Regardless of my own struggle to come to grips with killing animals, what Paul taught me that evening was this: human beings need cattle, and indeed all animals. We’re not separate from them, we’re dependent on them. It was a very different idea of how we might relate to nature and to animals.
In the weeks and months that followed, I realized that my relationship to animals and to nature was evolving.
Starting out, my relationship had simply been, “You taste good, so I’m going to eat you. Sorry.” It had been a relationship based on unabashed pleasure seeking.
Once I had stopped eating meat, the relationship had become a kind of separation, even estrangement. “Look, I won’t eat you anymore. So let’s just stay out of each other’s way, OK?”
But Paul had got me to consider the possibility of something more holistic. “Animals are essential to everything in nature, including humans. There is no separation. So, how can we exist connected and together?”
This holistic relationship leads to a different conclusion than vegetarianism. Instead of vegetarianism it prescribes eating meat, not willy-nilly, but eating meat from animals raised and husbanded to support a healthy ecosystem.
I had previously reasoned that I wouldn’t eat meat because I don’t have to eat meat – that it wasn’t critical for my survival. I had believed that eating any meat at all simply condoned the unnecessary killing of animals. But now, I felt that even if I could live without meat, we as human beings certainly couldn’t live without animals.
This spring, a good friend, Ben Campbell, started up a small grass-fed beef operation at his parents’ farm south of Calgary, similar to what Paul is doing outside of Ottawa. Though I say small, I should say very small: there’s only four head of cattle.
I’ve gone out to help him on the occasional weekend, moving cattle, trying out some electric fencing, even wrestling calves during the annual branding and vaccinating. Ben, living in nearby Black Diamond, has had to do all the serious work. Though I helped find him a few buyers for the beef, he’s done well to find customers for all of his beef in advance of the cattle’s slaughter date at the end of October.
When I told friends and family about this foray into cattle ranching they each asked me “Aren’t you a vegetarian?” I still was. Even though I had been considering eating meat again for some time, I hadn’t gone through with it. But in the same way that Thulasy’s question had started me on the path to giving up meat, this repeated question was prodding me to consider eating meat once again.
Having a holistic relationship to animals and even nature can be difficult living in the city. Helping Ben out with his grass-fed cattle ranch has been one means for me to do this. But most of time and for most people it comes down to eating responsibly, eating food from those farmers who do have such a relationship.
One such farmer, to whom Localize introduced me, is Darrel Winter. Visiting his turkey farm this summer and seeing his operation at work, I realized this was a farm, like Paul’s, that I could support. Perhaps should support.
So this Thanksgiving, before driving out to Jasper to spend it with my parents, Thulasy and I bought a turkey from Darrel’s farm. Mom and Dad prepared it with all the fixings: stuffing, brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, yams, corn bread, and pumpkin pie.
Did I eat the turkey? I tucked into it. Why?
Because I’m no longer a vegetarian. I understand now that eating is an agricultural act, and that, if done right, it can support and help create a relationship with animals and with nature that is based not on taste buds, or separation, but on dependence, restoration and respect.