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Earlier this year, greensward.us (the research and consulting arm of New Amsterdam Market) conducted a survey of whole animal butchers in the United States. By “whole animal” we specifically mean butcher shops that source and sell ethically, sustainably raised livestock from regional farms, and who purchase the entire animal (rather than boxed cuts). By endorsing these practices, they are not only forging new businesses but creating an entirely new web of relationships as the informed, transparent intermediaries between producers and consumers.

This emerging business sector has begun to codify its identity, for example via the recently formed Butcher’s Manifesto whose “five sentences” call for:

1) maintaining continuity of tradition favoring craft over industrial efficiency;

2) providing full transparency of the supply chain, with animal welfare a key concern;

3) supporting the free exchange of knowledge, expertise, and skill;

4) enhancing quality of life through meaningful and sustaining work; and

5) leading the conversation for healthful and sustainable meat consumption.

To our knowledge, the first whole animal butcher shop in the United States was established in Kingston, New York in 2004. Since then, similar businesses have opened in 23 states, generally in larger cities but also in less populated areas. Our survey was distributed to 65 separate small business owners (some having more than one location) and we received a total 26 responses. Both the list of businesses contacted and a summary of responses is available.

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One important finding was that while 96% of the butchers surveyed view sustainable agriculture as an important criterion for selecting meat, only 71% felt their customers were purchasing meat for environmental reasons. These is sense to this discrepancy; if anything, what consumers are learning (though not necessarily practicing) is that we should all be eating less meat to benefit the planet, but not that we could also be consuming better meat. After a “meatless” Monday, what about Tuesday? Can “slow” and humane husbandry, practiced along with regenerative agriculture, actually help mitigate climate change? As stated by Michael Pollan in his introduction to Grass, Soil, and Hope

This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up… 

On the other hand, this recent article (in a pro-grazing newsletter) states that despite its numerous benefits, 30 years of research have shown that grazing practices donot sequester carbon to any significant extent. But what of the mounting evidence that healthy soils can absorb far more carbon than previously thought, and that grazing can contribute to building such soils? Such contrasting viewpoints, coming from like-minded advocates and organizations, only create more confusion for mindful consumers.

In his excellent post, Jacopo Ghione calls for us to look beyond greenhouse gas emissions as the one and only parameter to evaluate a product’s sustainability. Regarding meat, he cites animal welfare, the nutritional value of feed, and long-term impacts as additional criteria of concern, to which we would add: the treatment of farmers and workers along every step in the production and distribution chain; the use (and type) of agricultural inputs; the local and regional economic, environmental, and cultural impacts; and perhaps as well the net carbon emissions, after also considering the potential carbon sequestration from well-managed fields and grazing lands.

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The need for such holistic thinking is predicated by climate change itself. If a reductivist, externalities-dismissing, “bottom line” world view brought us to this precipice, we cannot turn back from it using the same reductivist, single-variable mindset. For these same reasons, the dietary and food systems transition we require will not be dictated from above, but catalyzed by multiple, overlapping, creative forces. Industry and government will be influenced by chefs, home cooks, regenerative farmers, grain-to-loaf bread bakers, responsible fishmongers, vegan innovators, and – when it comes to meat – a next generation of butchers committed to humane and sustainable principles.

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Robert LaValva worked at the Slow Food USA headquarters from 2002 to 2004, and is the founder of New Amsterdam Market and its consulting arm,greensward.us. He leads varied projects relating to food systems, sustainable development, placemaking, and public space.

Photos © Sean Dooley