Monday, February 28, 2011

Toward a Sustainable Meaning of Sustainable

This morning one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a blog post at the AtlanticMonthly that had been written by a butcher who owns a shop in Brooklyn, NY. The topic of the post (how to sell offal) was interesting and the post was well written and informative. However, it was the author's bio that grabbed my attention and got me thinking about how strange so much of the language around food and cooking has become. Specifically, it read

[Name] "is the executive butcher and co-owner of the local, sustainable butcher shop"  (Source)
Trying to forget  that "executive butcher" sounded more like the subtitle for a white-collar serial killer flick than the title of a craft-businessman, I came away very unsure about what he meant by the term "sustainable butcher shop." If I narrowly define a butcher shop as a business, then the answer might be "a sustainable butcher shop is one that earns enough to pay it's bills and stay in business."  However, after digging around through some of the author's other posts -as well as posts about the author- I realized that he was probably using the word "sustainable" to refer to something other than his hopes for the longevity of his business.

Unfortunately, I couldn't discover any sort of explanation of what makes a butcher shop sustainable in any of the author's posts. But  the following reference to the shop where he trained provided a clue about where I should next look
"During my apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meats—the first local, sustainable butcher shop on the East Coast—" (Emphasis mine)
So off I surfed to the website of Fleischer's Meats where I could find nothing  to suggest that the owners consider their butcher shop sustainable. However I did find language that indicated that they desire to sell meat that is produced via sustainable farming practices 

[We sell] ONLY pastured meats from animals raised on small, local, sustainable farms

  • Our farms are local.  They are located within 100 miles of our Kingston shop.
  • Our farms maintain closed herds. Healthy, free-roaming steer are raised on the farm and NEVER bought at market.
  • Our farmers NEVER feed their animals antibiotics, growth hormones or animal-by-products; animals are raised on a strictly vegetarian diet.
  • Our steer and lamb are 100% grass-fed in season and grain-finished throughout the rest of the year.
  • Our farmers feed their animals grain grown on the farm or purchased from a local farm co-op.
  • Our animals graze on grass that is NEVER treated with pesticides or herbicides.

 I'm not at all sure if all of these characteristics add up to "sustainable meat" (or sustainable anything for that matter). But it does sound like a great model for a business that takes into account a lot of the concerns about the negative health and environmental effects of conventional agricultural foodways.

This post in Serious Eats by another Fleisher's acolyte is a little more helpful as it attempts to explain why the shop is a sustainable butcher shop

What does it mean for a butcher shop [like Fleischer's] to be sustainable? Sustainable meat carries with it the economic concerns of sourcing from local farmers, as well the environmental advantages of raising grass-fed animals on well-maintained pastures without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Even pausing to contemplate the word itself—sustain —reminds us that these policies and practices are done for the sake of long-term well being and functionality. 
Implicit in this definition are a lot of assumptions about what sort of farming and animal husbandry practices promise the fewest negative impacts on humans and natural systems. And it's by no means clear to me that finishing cattle on grass is intrinsically healthier or more sustainable (as in the least likely to collapse)  than the status quo. However, now it seems possible to venture a definition of a "sustainable butcher shop" as a shop that only sells meat that comes from animals that have been raised in a manner that minimizes negative impacts on environmental and human health. Such a definition does not make the butcher shop sustainable per se, but it does make it a place where one might buy meat that has been raised according to allegedly sustainable farming practices.

My own definition of sustainability is probably too esoteric to be of much use in the pop-cultural dialectic around how food (or anything) should be produced because it is based on some of  the implications of the Laws of Thermodynamics: No system can be sustained forever, however length of operation can be maximized by minimizing energy inputs and energy loss relative to energy outputs.


Peter Hertzmann said...

Maybe a better term than "sustainable" would be "responsible," although one could argue about the meaning of that term also.

I get the feeling with these shops that they are using the term "sustainable" as a marketing term that will attract a certain type of customer, rather than expecting the customer to know what it means.

Up in Toronto, The Healthy Butcher does all the organic/grass-fed/local stuff and is able to resist referring to itself as a sustainable butcher.

Fwis said...

Great post Bob. I've always cringed at the wanton use of the term sustainable. For instance, if we were to carry these rigorous standards across all forms of food production today, we would wake up tomorrow with massive food shortages for billions of people. Surely, that is not sustainable. In order to convert the worlds food supply to conform to these standards we would need the surface area of 10 planet Earths and we would have to be okay with the waste and inefficiency of yields associated with organic farming.

I think the terms has become a panacea for many without regard for it's economic trade offs and political implications.

Tags said...

I'd settle for "unbruised" meat.

It keeps getting harder and harder to find.

Judith Klinger said...

Sustainable has gone the way of local and organic. Just another marketing quiver.

Natalie Sztern said...

It's a bit like the new Charlie Sheen cooking show, yes Charlie Cooking show, for those not in the know i will give the link...

Peter, in Toronto, I think the term sustainable is soon going to be exactly what Bob suspects it to be: a business still in business...:))