Happy Meat, Happy Ecosystems, Happy People
About a 10 minute read
21st Feb, 2022
What is "happy meat?"
Is meat-eating inherently destructive, or can we have “happy ecosystems” along with happy meat?
What does meat-eating mean for human health on a more-than physical level? And what about avoiding eating animal products because you care about animals' welfare?
Happy animal products
"Happy meat," by my definition, comes from animals that live (or lived) contented, satisfied lives engaging in their natural behaviors without stress caused by confinement, loneliness, boredom, crowding, rushing, or inappropriate feeds or medications. (I include dairy products and eggs as well in this “happy meat” description.)
This post explores the environmental and social considerations relevant to raising truly happy, contented animals in food production.1
Besides caring for the animals’ needs during their life, raising happy meat also, obviously, includes providing a humane death, with an attitude of respect, reverence, and gratitude.
In this post I’ll touch on why we find this so challenging, and share some perspectives on how we might expand our capacity to be more present with how we handle this difficult aspect of the whole “happy meat” picture.
In the introduction to my Beyond Eggs Series, I said that healthy ecosystems should be our model when we consider how to grow food.
When I wrote that, I was thinking that making an effort to build a farm or garden into an interconnected, diverse ecosystem is just better for all concerned than an industrial approach. But thinking about it a bit more now, I realize that a big reason why it’s better, and how to know that you’re continually moving in the right direction toward it being better, has a lot to do with simple happiness. Robust good health and happiness are just joined at the hip; the absence of either one is a good indicator that the other is probably also absent.
If happiness comes in part from being able to engage in natural behaviors then it helps a lot if you raise animals in a "happy" (or at least “getting happier”) ecosystem because, by definition, engaging in natural behaviors comes about as a consequence of living in a healthy, richly diverse, natural environment.
Raising happy animals calls for attention to social considerations too.
Pigs, for example, are not solitary in nature and neither were they meant to be crowded into pens by the dozen. They’re intelligent, social, playful animals who keep track of each other by grunting while foraging, sleep in contact with each other, and spend significant amounts of time “massaging” each other, apparently just for fun.
Chickens also have rich, nuanced social lives – as anyone knows who has spent time sitting quietly observing the subtleties of chicken-hood.
And with the blessing of living on hilly country where you can see a long way from the right vantage point, I've watched cattle follow each other across amazing distances by following scent trails on the ground. They also keep track of each other by calling — all the mooing you hear when cattle are disturbed or moved is not just random noise. Cattle remember their relationships with one another after long periods apart, months certainly and maybe years.
The more natural the environment and the closer the social structure to what you would see in a wild group of the same kind of animal, the more of an animal’s true nature will emerge. It invariably turns out to be much more interesting and multi-faceted than the impression you get from farm-yard pigs in a muddy, barren moon-scape, or farm-yard chickens with a pile of wilted greens on the floor of a bare brown pen.
When animals and all other life-forms (including humans) are interconnected in right relationship with one another and within a healthy, full-faceted environment, happiness or contentment will just naturally flourish as a by-product of that.
Without the interconnections and richness inherent in a healthy ecosystem and social structure, animals have to be provided with artificial comforts and entertainments to replace what would have been a given in their natural environment.
Or more commonly, animals’ needs for things like play, social interaction, foraging, and grooming are disregarded altogether, perhaps because of assumptions that they just are not intelligent or aware enough for these things to matter to them.
How happy meat brings us back to nature
Its not just our animals who benefit when we begin to insist on happy meat and other animal products. We benefit too, partly because insisting on happy meat requires us to get back to nature in two big ways.
What would nature do?
Firstly, if we want happy meat then we have to be able to recognize and understand what is a natural environment, a natural social structure, and natural behaviors for the type of animal in question. If we accept that “unnatural” will usually equate to “unhappy,” then we have to be able to recognize when something isn’t natural.
That’s no small thing for humans who’ve grown up the way most of us have.
We’ve been raised on a diet of cute farmyard animals in children’s books, beyond-stupidly-unnatural Disney-world characters, and industrial farming practices that normalize violence and degradation until we become so desensitized that we no longer recognize cruelty when we see it.
Desensitization is a thing. I grew up an animal lover and in my late teens and twenties I worked on a factory style pork farm and then in the beef and dairy industries on large free-range breeding operations and in feedlots and dairies ranging from small to very large. For most of my time working in these settings I was just happy to be with animals, and so were most of the people I worked with. It was only after I became a serious student of what is natural for animals and what is not, that animal husbandry practices that had seemed normal to me began to reveal themselves as degrading and inhumane.
We’ve grown up accepting all kinds of aberrations as normal. Most of us have no clue what we don’t know about “natural” vs “normal.”
When in doubt now, I ask something like “What would Nature do, if Nature were in charge here?” What would this kind of animal do now in its natural environment? What would it be concerning itself with? How would it feed itself, defend itself, satisfy its needs for social interaction? Is the behavior we’re seeing, something that this kind of animal would do in nature if all its needs were deeply satisfied?
(For that matter, are our behaviors natural? Would we be scrolling on Facebook or overeating if all our needs were met?)
Looking death in the eye
The second way that we must get back to nature if we are to raise and eat happy meat, is more challenging. We must be willing to engage fully with the whole life-cycle of that animal – including the death part.
Very often when we feel uncomfortable about raising their own animals it’s because we’re squeamish about the whole topic of death. We’ve lost sight of the fact that without death there can be no life.
Our intentions are good. Most vegans and vegetarians, for example, are motivated by a desire to avoid causing suffering and death. But our avoidance, if it's carried too far in one direction, backfires.
In this sensitive, thoughtful discussion, former vegan Rob Greenfield describes how he came to realize that most vegan diets are tied into the industrialized and globalized food system and thus, ironically, are far more irresponsible and damaging than a carefully considered locally-based diet that includes meat.
Our refusal to look death in the eye, to be directly and personally responsible for the deaths that are necessary in order for us to eat, means that death gets shoved into a dark, unseen corner where too few people are taking proper responsibility for it.
Death should be kept in the open, which helps keep it in its right and proper place and proportions to the rest of Life. Like any other “bad,” or “negative” experience or feeling, the energy of death can get out of balance and take on distorted, unhealthy, dangerous forms when we try to push it out of sight and keep it hidden away where we won’t have to deal with it.
Choosing to eat meat that’s been raised or hunted ethically and butchered with respect and reverence brings death out into the light, to the kitchen table, to the here and now.
This is where it belongs, along with all other aspects of our stewardship as caring, responsible members of the community of Life.
Choosing to eat happy meat is a vote for balance and sanity, and it indicates a willingness to strengthen those aspects of ourselves that are built to handle the difficult stuff, the uncomfortable stuff, that makes up an essential part of the fabric of Life.
There’s a part of all of us that wishes nothing ever had to die, that just wants life to go on and on for ever. This part of us is beautifully described as “she-who-walks-in-the-woods” by Susun Weed in this interview on holistic goat-keeping (scroll down well past the half-way mark to the question, “can you describe how you slaughter your goats?”).
She-who-walks-in-the-woods is the person who chooses not to be present when it’s time for an animal to die so that people can eat. Very often, at our place, that’s me. I’m still working through my own squeamishness about death. I hope that my being willing to own up and be present with my own avoidance, uncomfortable as that practice is, might widen the path a little for others.
Because we humans are multi-faceted. Along with she-who-walks-in-the-woods there is also “she-who-holds-the-knife” (also described in the above interview). This is another part of ourselves that cares just as much, in a different way, and that can be (or can grow toward being) capable of taking responsibility for engaging more fully in the entire cycle of life-death-life, and in working consciously to keep balance in how we steward the life-forms entrusted to our care.
Here is a quote about the essential nature of death from David Fleming, in this resource that a reader pointed me toward recently:
Death [is] the means by which an ecosystem keeps itself alive, selects its fittest, controls its scale, gives peace to the tormented, enables ... life, and accumulates a grammar of inherited meaning as generations change places.
A natural system lies in tension between life and death: death is as important to it as life. …
The [effort to preserve life at all costs] disconnects the mind from the ecosystem to which it belongs.
…Beneath the exaggerated regard for life lies an impatience with, a disdain for, the actual processes that sustain the ecology that sustains us."
Quote from LeanLogic.online - "death" (the bold emphasis is mine).
And another, from the same resource:
The death and renewal built into the life-cycles within an ecological system sustain the system and contribute to its resilience. In this context, death is benign participation, the key enabling condition of resilient, living community."
Paraphrased from LeanLogic.online – "sacrifice-and-succession.”
Our responsibility as meat eaters
I consider being a meat-eater to be part of an ancient life-way for humans2. And I believe that to be a meat-eater who sources and eats their meat with respect, gratitude, reverence, and diligence is a responsibility that comes along with being human.
Our family has the luxury and the responsibility of raising our own meat, milk, and eggs, and we take our responsibility very seriously.
We don't always get every aspect of it right. We make mistakes, we experience regrets, we're always learning. We keep getting a little wiser, a little more experienced, a little more worthy of the very privileged position we find ourselves in, with each round of life and death.
Your part in the whole picture
What if you do want to eat meat or dairy products, but you can't, or don't want, to raise and butcher your own animals?
That’s OK. Be the one who walks in the woods. That aspect of being human is valid, real, and important too.
Committing to be a responsible meat-eater doesn't have to mean that you can’t eat meat unless you kill it yourself. It does mean that you have a realistic overview of the whole picture and you take responsibility for your part in it, the best you can according to your own unique self and circumstances.
If you eat meat and don’t raise it yourself, choose to support someone (preferably someone local, and best of all someone you get to know personally) who raises meat ethically, someone who willingly shows you around their farm without prior notice, someone whose practices you feel good about supporting.
By-passing the cheap stuff at the supermarket and buying directly from a local producer enables you to:
- help that producer stay out of the supermarket supply chain – so they can earn more than they’d be paid by the volume buyer and sleep more soundly at night because they have control over how their animals live and how they die.
- help that producer stay in business, which helps keep the animals they raise out of the industrial food system – so they are better cared for, respected, and appreciated than they otherwise would be.
- hold that producer accountable for continual transparency and responsibility by making it clear that you will only buy happy meat, and that you know the difference.
Please leave a comment below the Endnotes - thank you!
Do you eat meat or other animal products? Do you ever feel tangled up in the question of how to do so as ethically and humanely as possible? How has this article landed with you?
- Back in 2018 I wrote a related post on eating meat which included mention of "happy meat," why I don't think going vegan is the answer to animal welfare issues, and a list of 6 small space animal possibilities for if you want to raise your own meat but are short on space.
- The evidence is very clear. From before we were human, we’ve eaten varying combinations of both plant and animal foods. Depending on our circumstances, we’ve sometimes eaten very little meat in our overall diet and sometimes a lot. See "The Diet We're Meant to Eat, Part 1: Evolution and Hunter-Gatherers," Part 2: "Physiological and Biological Evidence," and Part 3: "How Much Meat vs Veggies?"