Today’s eating culture vastly differs from what was commonly eaten a century ago. The industrialization of food proved to have many benefits in a time where dying of starvation or malnourishment was still widespread. It also caused many other pressing issues to come into the light, like how to feed an endlessly growing population, the ethics of confining billions of animals to short, often miserable lives for the instant gratification of a $5 store-bought steak, and most notably over the past decade, the effect these intense, industrialized farming methods have on our climate.
American diets over the centuries
Untouched America was blanketed from east to west in lush grasslands, huge forests, great lakes, seas, and ponds, and as a result, astonishing biodiversity. It’s safe to say that the new world (pre-urbanization) was never under the immediate threat of mass starvation, at least not without the interference of human error. In the beginning that error was on the part of the European colonists who tried to cultivate their European crops with little success. America’s success story, and ironically the demise of Native Americans can be attributed to a key moment in history when the natives taught colonists how to plant, grow, and nurture their sacred maize.
Hunger was unsurprisingly uncommon in the early days of settlement as it was in much of the rest of the world at the time. Trade between the US and Europe as well as the Natives and Europeans kept the early settlers alive. Leading up to the American Revolution, the earliest settlers relied much on local game, scavenging, the scraps they were able to farm in the new environment, and of course trade.
Once America (the country, the ideology, and the pride) began to take shape and flourish, you could say independence was inevitable. Many of the French, British, and Spanish traditions simply couldn’t be so heavily enforced in such a new, proud nation. So as tensions between the thirteen colonies and European superpowers started to tighten, trade between the new west and Europe became increasingly difficult. It set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the American Revolution, which greatly fueled American’s own industrial age.
Industrial revolutions, whether in Britain or the US and regardless of the damage it did cause, led to some of the most genius and life-changing innovations in our short 200,000-year stint on earth. Many of which 99.99% of us take full advantage of in our everyday lives (think medicine, technology, plumbing, electricity, refrigeration, cars, roads, air travel, and any other modern luxury you can think of). A big issue was how fast we all became adaptable and dependent on these luxuries without considering the consequences.
By the 1900s America had proven itself a worthy up and coming superpower. Having led the abolition of slavery, as well as being the leaders in many fields of science, and establishing its economy as the best in the world. The industrialization of agriculture made America’s meteoric rise possible.
What’s wrong with our current meat system?
The industrialization of agriculture was almost necessary for civilization to evolve past the point of the middle ages. Producing any kind of food was an incredibly labor-intensive process. Naturally, if you weren’t royalty you couldn’t pay anyone to do these things for you, you’d have to do it yourself which more times than not, meaning you have to provide the same service to a family of 4.
While other things like tyrannical rule kept the servant class below the belt, once it was easy to access something as basic as food (brought to you by the industrialized revolution) it freed us to concern ourselves with other issues like women’s rights, animal cruelty, politics, and more. Like many incredibly significant historical eras before and after the revolution, America led the rest of the world as an example of just how powerful this new agricultural system could be.
Now 200 odd years later, with the rapid development of science and technology, it’s become apparent the system that billions of people heavily rely on (many Americans lives depend on it), is greatly flawed, both in terms of scalability, sustainability, and on any moral or ethical field.
Institutionalized or Outdated Food Movements
Since the rise of social media (also before but particularly after), food movements have become a universal trend. They’re easy to take part in, they all seem like ‘the greater good’ at first glance, and they all promise to be part of the solution against the boogie-man that has become industrialized agriculture. While many of these movements surely started with good intentions, much of them end up becoming oversaturated and eventually, just a trend and a selling point with not much meaning except good intention behind it.
The biggest example of this is by far the organic movement. In the early 20th century Sir Albert Howard, F.H. King, Rudolf Steiner, and a few select others believed that manure, cover crops, crop rotation, and biologically based pest controls resulted in a better farming system. Of course in theory they were right, but the flaw in organic farming, as it is with most of these ethical food systems, is that they’re impossible to scale for a population growing by over 80 million each year. It’s not even scalable right now. There are many more flaws in the movement’s ideology but one of the most important questions for any food system is if it’s scalable.
The amount of meat the average American consumes
I wanted to make sure I saved this point for last because not only is it the one that seems to turn most heads, it’s also the most important, and it hardly applies to just the USA. The biggest problem with the western food system is the number of meat people eat. We consume more meat than anyone per capita. Most Americans eat almost double their daily recommended intake of meat every day.
The amount of meat people eat is by far one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Even though there’s nothing wrong with going vegetarian or vegan, it’s thankfully not a necessity. The answer is to eat less meat and source it locally with farmers that are transparent about how they raise or grow their produce.
The high price of clean living
There’s a recurring argument that the high prices of local, ethically sourced food are unrealistic for the average American family. While yes, the price for good food is higher, the long term cost on the environment that billions of cattle have is far greater. And while most American families will tell you that this particular food is too expensive, over 80% of them have smartphones, wifi, subscriptions, cars, and other expensive luxuries that could easily pay the difference in those food prices. And the same rule as before applies to this argument: Just eat less meat.
What Are Meat Alternatives?
Normally I would call these protein alternatives, but these meat alternatives are actually meat that is not just good for you to eat, but good for the environment when you hunt/buy/eat them. It’s a great way to eat because not only can you steal the moral high ground, it’s not the same boring chicken, beef, and pork you likely grew up on.
Never have I ever come across a demographic that enjoys it’s meat quite as much as Texas does, and taking into account all the different meats I’ve seen consumed in the US south in general (snakes, raccoons, squirrels, opossum), I’d hope that considering some of these meats won’t be too formidable.
A Louisiana favorite if there ever was one. Alligator meat is strange in the sense that it’s flaky like fish, but the flakes have a very meaty texture. It has a little bit of a fishy taste (not as much as you’d think) and is actually very palatable when it’s prepared correctly. You can buy alligator meat from a farm or if you really want to connect to your food chain, you can go gator hunting in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, and of course, Florida.
Very similar to horse meat, zebra meat is red, very lean, and very gamey. Sappy feelings aside, zebra is very rich in protein, zinc, iron, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, so if you were to choose one of these meats as a health food, I’d go for this one.
Camel meat has been compared to beef in the past. If the meat comes from an old camel it can taste pretty gamey. Camel meat contains low levels of intramuscular fat and a relatively high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
There are a few states where you can hunt, buy, and/or eat buffalo at a given time of year, and it’s a delicious alternative to beef. Beefalo, a cross between buffalo and cattle, makes a delicious burger.
Wild boars are some of the most vexatious and bothersome pests in America. They breed year-round, destroy fences, and will eat absolutely anything from gardens to each other’s rotting corpses, they’re also pretty dangerous. Hunting and eating wild boar is one of the best ways to keep feral pigs from upturning and wrecking homesteads.
When venison is in season, I’d be happy to substitute it for practically any meat, particularly if you like game. Venison is high in protein yet low in fat, it’s lower in calories than beef and chicken, and is rich in omega-3 & 6 fatty acids.
Like venison, when elk are in season, it’s phenomenal. I remember living off mostly elk my friend shot during our first winter on an undeveloped piece of land in New Mexico. It’s even better than venison for jerky because you can essentially make pages of elk jerky.
Emus are birds native to Africa but can also be found on farms across the United States. Their meat is slightly more pale than beef. I’ve personally never had it, but I hear it tastes similar to beef. Emu is a low-fat, low-cholesterol, iron-rich red meat alternative and is also a great source of protein, vitamin B, and creatine.
Frogs like most reptiles need to be cooked right to avoid even the remote chance of sliminess (more so for thought than anything else). I’ve had frog legs on a few occasions and as much as I hate to say it, it tastes like chicken. Frog meat is rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, and potassium. It’s also considerably high in fat.
Goat meat is pretty similar to lamb, although lighter and slightly milder so the chances are if you like lamb, you’ll like goat meat. Goats meat is a better source of iron than beef or chicken and has a little less fat. If all odds fail you can always pack it into a jar, pickle it, and use it as dog food.
Organ meats have been underrated since the separation of producing and consuming food. Organ meats (the right ones) are the most nutritious part you could eat on an animal. In particular, the brain, liver, heart, and kidneys.
Other alternative cuts
If you feel iffy about straying that far from traditional beef/chicken/pork you can always go for some of the less conventional cuts. Although if you have a problem with eating frogs or zebras you’ll probably have an issue eating tongue, trotters, sweetbreads, or eyeballs. Regardless, I suggest you try them, as long as they’re prepared nicely, you’ll hardly think about what you’re actually eating.
If you love seafood that’s great because eating fish is easily more sustainable than eating any land animal. While yes, overfishing and trawling is a huge issue, there are many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans you can eat without any guilt. Here are a few of them:
Anchovies are salty little fish that are amazing for pureeing then adding to certain soups, sauces, sandwiches, and other recipes. They’re also phenomenal to cook up fresh from the sea, or straight from the can
Char is an amazing sustainable fish for people who aren’t big on straying into the unknown when it comes to seafood. Its flesh is flaky with medium firmness and has this beautiful deep red color when it’s in season.
Clams, mussels, oysters, & other bivalve mollusks
Bivalve mollusks are shellfish with two symmetrically opening shells. The biggest issue when it comes to these guys is the way they’re harvested from the sea. Bottom trawling is incredibly damaging to the seafloor and can damage hundreds of miles of reefs in a single day. When you buy mollusks, buy them farmed, especially when they’re out of season.
Hake is a white meat fish that’s similar to cod. Sweet and rough but delicate flesh makes it a perfect alternative to unsustainable cod.
Most of the popular species of fish today are in some form of the critical state, which isn’t a coincidence. The best thing we can do is eat other, more sustainable species of fish and seafood, but old habits die hard.
You can get a more ethical and sustainable cut of fish even if it is something like cod or salmon as long as you buy it farmed. Of course, farmed salmon that eats corn will never be as delicious or even as good looking as salmon fresh from the arctic rivers, but if that’s the kind of freshness you crave, go for a less critically endangered species.
If you commit to only eating meat 2-3 times every week you’d need to take in protein through alternative non-meat vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and cheeses. These alternatives are also great because they’re a lot cheaper than meat, and while they may seem boring on their own, there are plenty of ways to spice up any dish.
Many meat alternatives (particularly containing corn or soy) are also damaging for the climate through the monocultures they’re grown in. Monocultures drain the soil of all its nutrients and turn up the soil which over time allows all the precious moisture to escape. This eventually leaves a dry, barren patch of sandy dirt incapable of sequestering any carbon.
The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. That’s around 56 for the average sedentary man and around 46 for the average sedentary woman.
Legumes and beans are by far the easiest way to get protein from non-meat sources. Most legumes are also high in dietary fiber and potassium.
Chickpeas – 19g protein per 100g (37% DV)
Edamame Pods – 18.2g protein per 100g (36% DV)
Lentils – 9g protein per 100g (18% DV)
Cannellini beans – 9.7g protein per 100g (19% DV)
Split Peas – 8.3g protein per 100g (17% DV)
Kidney Beans – 8.7g protein per 100g (17% DV)
Black Beans – 8.9g protein per 100g (18%% DV)
Pinto Beans – 9g protein per 100g (18% DV)
Lima Beans – 7.8g protein per 100g (16% DV)
Green peas – 5.4g protein per 100g (11% DV)
Spinach – 3g protein per 100g (6% DV)
Sweet corn – 3.3g protein per 100g (7% DV)
Asparagus – 2.4g protein per 100g (5% DV)
Artichokes – 3.3g protein per 100g (7% DV)
Brussel Sprouts – 2.6g protein per 100g (5% DV)
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are easy to snack on throughout the day and they have a surprising amount of protein. You can also blend them in a smoothie or toast and pulse them into hummus or pesto and enjoy it over pasta.
Squash & Pumpkin Seeds – 29.8g protein per 100g (60% DV)
Peanuts – 24.4g protein per 100g (49% DV)
Almonds – 21.2g protein per 100g (42% DV)
Pistachios – 21.2g protein per 100g (42% DV)
Sunflower Seeds – 19.3g protein per 100g (39% DV)
Flax seeds – 18.3g protein per 100g (37% DV)
Sesame seeds – 17g protein per 100g (34% DV)
Chia seeds – 16.5g protein per 100g (33% DV)
Cashews – 15.3g protein per 100g (31% DV)
Walnuts – 15.2g protein per 100g (30% DV)
When it comes to eggs, size isn’t everything. The humble quail egg has more protein than both a chicken and a duck egg.
Quail egg – 13g
Chicken egg – 7
Duck egg – 9g
Goose egg – 14g
Cheese is one of my favorite ways to add layers and texture to a dish. They work just as well over salads as they do over pizza or pasta.
Parmesan – 35.1g protein per 100g (% DV)
Swiss – 28.4g protein per 100g (% DV)
Pecorino – 28g protein per 100g (% DV)
Edam – 27.5g protein per 100g (% DV)
Gouda – 26.2g protein per 100g (% DV)
Mozzarella – 26g protein per 100g (% DV)
Gloucester – 25g protein per 100g (% DV)
Colby – 24g protein per 100g (% DV)
Eating exotic and unconventional meats does as much for you as it does for the environment. We think and talk about food so often in our daily interactions, and knowing that you’re both trying new things and doing your part to impact the environment is a good feeling.