Dear Umbra,

While I’m not a vegetarian, I try to choose my foods based on their environmental impact. For me, most non-organic meat doesn’t make the cut: It uses too much water, land, and other resources, and it pollutes our land and water. I know this because I know about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which are the sources of the bulk of the chicken, pork, and beef that Americans eat. But what about lamb? I’ve never seen a picture of lambs crowded together in a feedlot the way hogs, chickens, turkeys, and just about everything else seems to be. Am I just not looking hard enough?

Cat
Silver Spring, Md.

Dearest Cat,

I may recommend imported lunch pails, but when it comes to what to eat for lunch (etc.), I’m a huge proponent of buying local. This applies not only to lamb (we’ll get there in a minute), but to all meat and produce.

Grazed and confused.

Why? Well, local farms cut down on the environmental toll of transport. Also, concerned eaters, you can visit local farms or talk with the growers to learn firsthand how your food is grown or raised. Smaller, environmentally minded farmers and ranchers are looking for a way to get better money for their meat; for the little guy, selling to a giant processing conglomerate doesn’t pay. If ranchers can get access to local consumers and cut out some of the middlepeople they can make a better profit. That profit is further enhanced by labeling and marketing their product in a way that emphasizes their conservation practices and all the effort and care they put into raising their animals.

For these reasons and many more, increasing numbers of ranchers are selling their products through farmers’ markets, online mail-order sites, small natural food stores, and farm stands, where they can build relationships with curious consumers such as yourself. Most of you carnivorous readers out there will be able to find a (relatively) nearby meat farmer or meat cooperative that can provide you with humanely and ecologically raised animals for your supper. The only question is how hard you will need to look. Start by checking out FoodRoutes.org.

That said, you’re right that lamb do not face quite the same appalling conditions in CAFOs as poultry, swine, and veal. Most sheep live outdoors for much of their lives (except perhaps in the wintertime), then are penned for the last few months to be fattened up on grain. The corralling and grain leave the meat in the type of condition to which modern diners have become accustomed. Some lambs are raised on one farm and sold to a separate feedlot for “finishing.” Others are “pasture-finished,” meaning they shuffle off the mortal coil without the grain finale. So the story of a sheep’s life ranges widely, depending on ranchers’ techniques.

What of your environmental concerns? With pasture animals of all sorts, soil erosion and overgrazing are major environmental concerns. Disease can spread rapidly through crowded conditions, leading to cycles of illness and medication. Feedlot conditions can exacerbate these problems, just as dense human settlements tend to face severe environmental and health problems, but any decent farmer will be offended by suggestions that he or she isn’t taking care of the long-term needs of pasture and herd. Good animal husbandry certainly uses plenty of land and water, but it doesn’t have to pollute them.

So what if you can’t find that decent farmer? If you have no other way of learning about how the meat you relish was raised, organic certification is your only general guarantee of basic sustainability on the farm. It won’t guarantee feedlot-free meat, but buying organic is better than buying blind. My general feeling, though, given your concerns about confinement and overuse of land and water, is that you are a great candidate for vegetarianism.

Sheepishly,
Umbra