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The ethical carnivore

As the mantra of ethical vegetarianism spreads in the wake of Jonathan Safran Foer's bestseller Eating Animals, what's a Fleisch-lover to do? But is eating meat, when done right, really that bad?

Hannes Ravic, hunter and self-confessed animal lover.
Photo by Craig Hull

A staggering 30 million metric tonnes of meat land on European plates every year. On average, each German buys 88kg of meat annually, most coming from industrial farms. Figures like these make it hard to believe that conscientious meat eating is possible. And yet scrupulous carnivores joined by once-vegetarians are reclaiming their steak knives.

Simply listening to the quasi-religious language used to describe dietary choices – “abstaining from meat”, “lapsed vegetarian” or “born-again carnivore” – drives home the message that in matters of meat, morality has outweighed reason, beliefs, even facts.

No doubt, ethics have always been an important component in going veggie. Of course, mass meat production is damaging to the environment (responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – greater than that caused by transport).

And torturing animals is wrong. But as author Lierre Keith writes in her 2009 book, The Vegetarian Myth: “What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment. It’s information.” The American feminist and environmental activist was a vegan for 20 years before she got badly sick. A severe case of dietary induced iron deficiency anemia led her to challenge her past beliefs and the possibility of an ethical life that would include meat in its daily menu.

Her conclusion is that eating vegetarian or vegan does not mean you are protecting the environment. Conversely, being a carnivore doesn’t mean sacrificing your conscience – as long as you consume food produced in a way that maintains ecological cycles and environmental balance, i.e. local and organic meat from small-scale producers.

Trusting your meat

Friedrich Platz is an organic pig-and-sheep farmer who’s personally sold several vegetarians their first piece of meat after a many-year hiatus. Most were clients who had regularly bought dairy from the lean, broad-shouldered man’s stall at the farmers markets on Lausitzerplatz and Chamissoplatz beforehand, thus establishing a relationship of trust with Platz over time.

“The majority of my customers are interested in how the animals are kept and whether everything is organic,” he says, “so they appreciate my being here personally to provide them with answers.”

This trust is what kept Platz’ sales from plummeting when organic chain stores began popping up around the markets. It’s also why these vegetarians came to him rather than buying from the ‘bio-lines’ at Lidl or Aldi. (Aldi has been criticised for getting its organic meat from B. & C. Tönnies Fleischwerk GmbH, the third biggest meat provider in Europe.).

Whether being an omnivore is environmentally friendly does not have a yes or no answer, according to Platz, “It depends on how you use your land. Organic farmers are encouraged to think in terms of cycles to find an optimally sustainable use of their land – to find the best thing you can do for the environment.”

Platz and his wife have a small plot in Ogrosen, 100km south of Berlin, where they raise sheep and pigs. The terrain is only suitable for grass, which the sheep eat, and the pigs’ diet includes the whey from the sheep’s milk cheese, leaving the two species living in a type of symbiosis.

Low-carbon game

Dicker Bruno, a seasonal game-meat corner shop in Kreuzberg, sells wild boar and venison, among other organic delicacies. Owner Gregor Unkhoff sees “the sensationally low carbon footprint of this meat” as one of the main reasons his clients keep coming back. “And the first-class nutritional value and taste, of course,” Unkhoff adds as he flits around behind his counter.

It was 10 years ago that this father of four introduced game to his children’s diets. “When you have children, you just start thinking about what they should put into their mouth. And for my kids I decided it should only be toothbrushes, boyfriends and good food!”

Game meat not only contains precious Omega 3 fatty acids but is in many ways a perfect fit for Brandenburg’s natural resources. “The area surrounding Berlin has a wildlife density rivaled by few in Europe,” says Unkhoff, “and by German law a hunter can only sell his harvest in a 100km radius.” Conclusion: game meat is seasonal, local and organic (when hunted correctly).

These positive attributes have fuelled a surge of hype around game, with many restaurants introducing it to their menus. Kreuzberg burger joint Hamburger Heaven served its first venison patties in November. For 37-year-old owner Leon Schnell, the animal welfare factor was the deciding factor.

When Schnell first opened in 2010, he wanted to prompt Germans to appreciate hamburgers as quality food. The idea behind his concept of offering normal, Freiland (freerange), and organic meat, was to push customers to think about what type of industry they are supporting through their purchase.

Schnell hopes someday to offer solely organic meat, but presently he feels people in Berlin are still too reluctant to invest in the extra 50 cents to €1. In Germany, people spend a measly 11 percent of their income on food (around 30 percent less than in Italy). Whether it’s for lack of food appreciation or not, people are just not prepared to go that extra mile.

Killing your own

Hannes Ravic (photo) is a hobby hunter who goes many an extra mile to get the best quality meat. Ravic’s passion can be traced back to when he first tasted game in the early 1990s.

A group of hunters had contacted Ravic, then a photography student, after seeing his documentation of agriculture after the Wall came down. Ravic had initially wanted to expose the brutality he expected to find. Instead, he was won over by a world light years away from the food industry that supplies our supermarkets.

“There might be hundreds of cows in a slaughterhouse on any given day, and in the end every single one of them will be dead. That’s not how it is hunting in the wilderness, where the animals have a real chance to survive.”

Ravic spent a year preparing for his hunting license. In Germany, this is neither a walk in the park nor a shallow dip into your pocketbook. It costs €1500 on average, and involves learning about trees, bushes, and songbirds – as well as shooting, of course.

But Ravic remains ambivalent. “When I’m out hunting there are adrenalin-charged moments, where the primal urge to kill the prey takes over. In that instant I enjoy pulling the trigger. But then when I’m standing next to this beautiful creature that died for me to eat it, I really mourn that death.”

A self-professed animal-lover, Ravic teaches his two children that it is wrong to kill any living creature – except when you intend to eat it. He adds, “You don’t mourn when you buy a piece of meat in the supermarket.”

The hunter does not expect everyone to go out themselves to bag their dinner, but he does criticise those who eat meat without facing up to the fact that animals have to die for their dinner.