If humans ate less red meat, they and the planet would all be healthier, according to a new study in the medical journal The Lancet. To stay in line, we should eat no more than a burger’s worth of red meat per week, a roughly 90 percent reduction from current levels. Many food pundits applauded this report. “Fortunately, the diet that is best for health is the same diet as is best for the planet,” said NYU food policy professor Marion Nestle.
When the Lancet study dropped in mid-January, I was skiing in some mountains east of Helena, looking for a shoulder season elk. I returned home with a sore body, and more than a thousand weekly servings of delicious, climate-friendly red meat. When I read about the many evils of red meat, I felt exempt.
As a resident of Montana, I’m allowed an elk or two every year, plus my share of deer, and many other species of wild game, should I choose to pursue them. A full freezer is rarely a source of guilt for me. Humans have decimated the populations of these animals’ natural predators, while carving the landscape into farms filled with crops that the ungulates, in turn, also find tasty. The herds have no choice but to grow, leaving crop damage and broken fences in their wake. Meanwhile, about 2 percent of Montanans will crash their car into an ungulate this year. Without hunters, that number would surely be higher.
Wild game like ours has a much smaller carbon footprint than most domesticated red meat. These animals don’t burp as much methane as cattle do, and humans don’t (intentionally) feed them corn and soy — which add to beef’s carbon footprint.
We Montanans are just plain lucky to have the opportunities we do for guilt-free meat, free of charge. The conclusions of the Lancet study don’t apply to my meat, in terms of the carbon cost. But I have to agree that most red meat is produced in a way that is indeed overly taxing to the planet.
But it seems as though the Lancet study, and many others like it, are attempting to coerce people to eat less meat by arguing it’s bad for them, in order to pursue climate goals, or sometimes an animal rights agenda. These issues are all worth discussing, but to force them into the same box with the same remedy — that the amount of meat consumption best for health is the same as is best for the planet — sets up a grand coincidence that is too neat and convenient to believe.
While the climate case for reduced red meat (as in livestock) is strong, the human health case for a burger per week is flimsy.
Processed meats are linked to cardiac disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers — all scary stuff. But the correlations don’t hold for pure, unprocessed meat, which suggests it’s the processing of meat, rather than the meat itself, that’s the problem. Nutritionally, there is nothing close to consensus among experts on how much red meat is too much.
Hunters are exceptions to the rule that we all can’t all eat as much red meat as we want, but we bear a different cross, thanks to our front row seat to another cost of meat.
It may be true that my freezer full of steaks, roasts, burger and stew comes at no cost to the earth, and is a healthy part of my diet. But that doesn’t erase the crime I committed to get it. One way or another, every meat eater is party to a kill. For better or worse, a hunter knows the details.
My new elk was a mother, which I only realized after she went down. The herd ran away, but her calf lingered. As I approached, the calf walked off. It didn’t hurry, or look back. It just lumbered slowly, in the exact opposite direction that the herd had gone.
I've been thinking a lot about that calf, hoping it survived its time alone and found a herd to join. And thinking about how my own children would feel if they saw their dad or mom gunned down.
But what’s even worse, when you think about it, is that my sad elk-hunting story is probably happier than the stories behind any and every piece of meat that can be purchased at the store. Wild animals, at least, were free before they died.
Whether you are a hunter or a meat-eater who buys your meat, the more thought you can put into it the better. Don’t take for granted that an animal gave its life for your meal. Don’t forget to celebrate that life in every bite.
I have a technique that I employ when butchering a fresh kill, a recipe that puts the meat’s true flavor front and center. No marinades or spice combinations (save those for mule deer), just meat and precious few seasonings to bring out its meaty best: garlic, salt, pepper and most importantly, red wine.
Sipped while chewing, el vino is an essential part of eating red meat, and more of a condiment than a beverage. Wine also lubes the gratitude and other celebratory feelings, while the buzz dulls the heartache of what you did, and washes down that meat.
Flesh in the Pan
This recipe is for the highest quality meat you can find. In Montana there are numerous purveyors of delicious and tender grass-fed beef, which like wild game can have a lower carbon footprint than feedlot-finished beef — not to mention better lives.
The meat should be a tender cut, like ribeye or tenderloin. The cut should be thick, as close to a cube as possible so it can be fried on all six sides. The pan should be cast iron, otherwise you will have to remove the meat every time you cut it, which is often. A good cast iron pan costs about as much as a pound of good meat, and is one of the best kitchen investments you can make.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound of red meat
1 garlic clove, pressed, minced or mashed
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
Rub the meat with olive oil and then salt, pepper and garlic powder. Add it to the pan, with a tablespoon of olive oil, and set the heat to medium. When the first side browns (about 3 minutes), turn the meat onto a different side.
When all sides are browned, cut the meat in half and inspect. The middle should still be raw. Place the cut sides down on the hot pan (leaning against each other for balance, if necessary). Add the fresh garlic to the pan. After another two or so minutes, cut the halves in half and inspect again.
Continue cooking, cutting and inspecting until you have bite-sized chunks that are done perfectly to your liking, be that raw and red, medium pink or brown and done.
Wash down the meat with wine and gratitude. Rinse and repeat. And rinse again.