Greener Pastures

Ecofriendly strategies for healthier meat-eating

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Meat eaters looking for healthier, more humane fare are used to scanning for "free range" and "grass fed" labels as their seal of approval. They might start considering where that range is and what kind of grass grows there.

Grazing livestock on pastures filled with diverse native grasses and plants not only gives the land a boost, but also makes meat that's tastier and more nutritious than meat from livestock fed monoculture grains, according to the British environmental magazine Green Futures (May/June 2007).

Preliminary data from a study led by Exeter professor Henry Buller and funded by the U.K.-based Rural Economy and Land Use Programme show that lambs fed on biodiverse pastures were loaded with vitamin E, a natural antioxidant and meat preserver, and omega-6s and omega-3s, the essential fatty acids that had health-conscious consumers rushing fish counters years ago.

The study is ongoing--similar data are being collected on sheep, beef cattle, and dairy herds--but in the meantime researchers hope that farmers will use evidence of lambs' enhanced flavor and nutrition profiles to fetch a higher price at market. That, in turn, would create a financial incentive for farmers to protect the biodiversity of their land.

Until "biodiverse fed" labels start showing up in meat coolers, though, ecoconscious omnivores might consider following the advice of some of the world's premier chefs: Adopt a whole-animal diet. "If we must do the dirty deed of raising an animal to kill it," writes Tom Philpott for the literary gourmand quarterly Gastronomica (Spring 2007), "then we owe it to the animal to wring as much gustatory joy as possible out of the process." That means looking past those ubiquitous, antiseptic chicken breasts and embracing all of an animal's strange, and, many gourmets would say, tastier, bits: the brains, bones, liver, stomach, and other offal typically spurned by American palates.

The trimmings from American meat-processing plants are often shipped to foreign markets, Philpott notes, where they hurt local farmers by depressing prices. And the environmental havoc wreaked by large-scale farming, including massive fossil-fuel consumption and toxic quantities of animal waste, seems even more unconscionable when one considers that only a portion of each slaughtered animal makes it to the dinner table.

Recipes that require tongue, blood, and tripe might be tough to swallow for even the most adventurous of meat lovers. So to inspire reluctant diners, Philpott recommends picking up copies of the famous London chef Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating (Ecco, 2004) and Jennifer McLagan's Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore (William Morrow, 2005), a lay chef's guide through the tasty realm of bone-in cuts. They'll open up a new world of haute cuisine, Philpott says, that will make your kitchen more colorful and the earth greener.