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The Green Life: Sustainable Meat: 6 Questions to Ask a Farmer

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November 05, 2012

Sustainable Meat: 6 Questions to Ask a Farmer

6 Questions to Ask a FarmerLet's face it, there's nothing eco-friendly about factory farms. When servings of eggs, dairy, and meat come packaged with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, groundwater contamination, animal cruelty, and hormones, we wouldn't blame you for losing your appetite. But there are still ways to eat meat without unduly burdening the earth. This week, we'll offer hints for finding a "greener" pork roast or Thanksgiving turkey.

6 Questions to Ask a Farmer

One big advantage of getting your meat, eggs, and dairy from a local farm as opposed to a giant, faceless corporation, is that you can actually talk to the farmer. Visit your local farmers' market or check out Eat Wild's farm directory to find free-range livestock farmers in your state, many of whom sell shares in meat CSAs. You can ask them questions to find a farm that matches your own standards for land and livestock stewardship.

Here are six good questions to get the conversation started:

     1.) Are your animals fed with organic feed?

     2.) Are your animals raised on pasture? 

All cows will eat grass, and not only are they healthier for it, but their meat and milk have been found to contain more omega-3s than animals that eat no grass. Pastured animals will also spread their manure out on fields, where it can decompose naturally.

     3.)  Are your cows and lambs "grass finished"?

"Finishing" is also known as "fattening up," and grain is a healthy part of the diet of poultry and pigs, but wreaks havoc on the digestive systems of cows and sheep. "Corn-finished" or "grain-finished" meat comes from livestock that ate little but grain and other processed supplements for the last six months of their lives, while "grass-finished" animals were fattened up on the pasture. Even pastured dairy cows usually eat some grain for extra nutrients, but should still eat mostly grass. 

     4.) How do you handle your animals' manure?

Manure is a huge pollutant in feedlots, where it seeps into groundwater and rivers. If your farmer tells you that the manure is left in "lagoons," then it means they're leaving it untreated, where it can pollute local water systems.

     5.) Do you give antibiotics to healthy animals?

Often, antibiotics are used to keep farm animals healthy when they're too overcrowded and stressed to fight off disease. This has caused a widespread rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If farmers only use antibiotics on animals that are actually sick, you know that they'll have been raised in a healthier environment.

     6.) Do you use heritage breeds?

Many "modern" livestock breeds can't even survive outside of climate-controlled cages, but 'heritage" livestock are bred to live outside, and are healthier, heartier animals overall. 

Feel free to ask about whatever other concerns you might have. The more we demand answers from our food providers, the better choices we'll be able to make.

--Image credit iStockphoto/jabiru.

--Rachael Monosson is an editorial intern for Sierra and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems. She lives in San Mateo.

Read More:

Benefits of Grassfed Beef

7 Eco-Friendly Options at Fast-Food Chains

Sustainable Cheese Brands

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