The other red meat
What if you could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eating red meat? You can.
I’ve gotten a lot of messages over the past few weeks asking if I’m vegan. One friend fired up a group thread with me and her husband, and it felt like she was trying to stage a dietary intervention. I do eat mostly plant-based these days, but I am not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. Am I the world’s biggest hypocrite? Gah, I hope not. But I do have a red meat loophole, and it reduces animal-based greenhouse gas emissions with every bite. How? Click this big red button and find out:
Wow, I tried really hard to keep those last two sentences from sounding like an infomercial pitch. But in the spirit of Ronco, I’m packaging something that you’ve probably already heard of as a novel idea. Let’s take this conversation outside…
There are roughly 30 million white-tailed deer in the United States, and, though they emit about half as much methane [PDF] as cows for a given quantity of food, they are still ruminants. Their four-chambered stomachs ferment plant matter to make it more digestible, converting about 3 percent of what they eat into belched and farted-out greenhouse gasses that contribute to the warming of the planet. They are deadly traffic hazards and provide a potentially huge disease reservoir for COVID-19 and other zoonotic illnesses.
They are also DELICIOUS. Here is a backstrap I cooked a couple weeks ago:
Yes, I know I am a shitty food photographer, but those of you who eat meat still probably think that looks good. To answer a common question, no, it’s not gamey. If you steer clear of the fat (deer fat is gross), don’t go after big, old deer, and process your meat properly, venison tastes very similar to pasture-raised beef.
If you haven’t already considered taking up hunting, a weekly climate-focused email probably isn’t going to wake your inner Rinella. But also: why the hell not?
So much of environmentalism is about subtraction: don’t use tape, turn your thermostat down, drive slower, stop eating this or that. These are small, easy, and necessary concessions to preserve our planet—but environmentalism’s growing list of things you shouldn’t do anymore can bum out even the staunchest planet warrior. Meanwhile, hunting is fun. There is no experience quite like sitting quietly in the pre-dawn stillness and feeling the world wake up around you. You hear the first rustles in the underbrush and see all sorts of critters emerge. The birds start chirping all at once, like a timer went off. You catch epic sunrises.
But if you want to turn this communion with nature into sustainable meat, then yeah, you have to kill something. If your immediate reaction is hell no, you’re in the majority; according to the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, [PDF] there are around 15 million hunters in America, less than 5-percent of the population. If your objection to hunting is strictly out of concern for the animals, though, consider: Overpopulation causes many of them to die horrible deaths, way worse than a quick arrow or bullet through the heart.
“There are absolutely too many deer in America,” says Andrew McKean, Conservation and Hunting Editor of Outdoor Life. “And there are too many of them in places where they can be problems,” he says. “The Taconic State Parkway comes to mind.” Sure, McKean, a professional deer-hunting evangelist, is biased in favor of his sport; but if you’ve ever seen a dead deer on the side of the highway, you probably won’t challenge his point. Getting mowed down isn’t an end you’d wish on any living being, and there’s a person in a probably-smashed vehicle to match each of those poor animals. Nobody wins. According to State Farm, deer cause upwards of a million vehicle accidents every year. (That number is on the rise, by the way.)
Those are just the accidents that get reported. You know those giant cage-looking things bolted to the fronts of semi trucks? They aren’t in place to protect against parallel parking incidents. They’re known as deer guards, and, as one manufacturer puts it, they’re “built to withstand impact and keep you trucking!” If you’ve ever seen one do its job, I’m sorry you had to witness that.
If the roads don’t get them, disease might. “Chronic wasting disease is fingering out through our deer populations across America,” says McKean, whose 2019 feature on CWD is a deeply reported, gasp-inducing chronicle of the cervid encephalitis that turns deer into zombies. It literally eats their brains.
Maybe this all comes off as an overwrought justification for hunting, but it’s a fact that these issues stem from an unhealthily large deer population. “Any time you’ve got big densities of deer, you’ve got problems,” says McKean. In addition to disease transmission—CWD spreads in close quarters like dense herds and deer farms—you’ve also got too many deer jockeying to eat the same available forage. “Wherever you’ve got deer out-competing each other for food, you’ve got unhealthy deer,” he says. Let’s add another bad death to the list: starvation.
Putting venison on your menu not only takes a methane-belching ruminant out of circulation, it can also help protect land that other animals need to thrive. “Deer are a keystone species,” says Kip Adams, Chief Conservation Officer of the National Deer Association, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the U.S. deer population. Transparency: the NDA is a pro-hunting organization. It views managed harvesting of wild deer as central to keeping the overall population healthy. But Adams is a wildlife biologist and offers a broad view: “If there are too many of them, they end up degrading the habitat to the point that then they negatively impact not just themselves, but a whole host of other wildlife species,” he says. “Too many deer can remove low vegetation in our forests, which then negatively impacts, for example, songbirds that nest in the understory.”
Humans can’t sit this one out. We’ve made the United States into a white-tail paradise by scaring off everything that used to prey on deer and keep their populations at healthy levels. “God we hate predators in this country,” says McKean. “There’s no coyote that’s safe anywhere, and we’ve done a really good job of moving large feline predators—from bobcats to mountain lions—out of our habitations. Same with black bears.”
This leaves people to help fill that ecological niche, and that’s where you come in. If you are successful, congrats: you are the proud owner of several dozen pounds of delicious, organic, climate-friendly protein. But even if you strike out, you’re still making a positive impact. “Most state wildlife agencies are funded by hunting,” says Adams. In addition to the fee you pay to get your permit, there’s an 11% tax on hunting gear that also goes straight to the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, who then distributes it to state bureaus. These agencies use that money to monitor animal populations, help mitigate pollution, create new policies that preserve wild areas, and acquire new property that can be turned into publicly accessible land.
Turning property into public land instead of another Buffalo Wild Wings is not just good for hunters, it’s a boon to people who like to hike and look at plants instead of backlit plastic. It’s also great for biodiversity, climate resilience, and carbon sequestration.
If you’re thinking of giving hunting a shot (sorry), “now is the time to get started,” says McKean. In most parts of the country, you’ve got the fat part of a year until the next deer season kicks off, and you have a lot to do.
It helps to begin by finding an experienced hunting buddy, because this is a hard sport to learn on your own. Fortunately, “there are hunters out there who would trip over each other to get a new person involved,” says McKean. I’ve found this to be true. So-called sportsman’s clubs and rod & gun clubs are good places to start, and there are more of them than you’d think. There’s even one in Brooklyn, and it’s close to like a half-dozen subway lines.
Speaking of bowhunting, you need to get and use a weapon. This is the big hurdle. Many people associate hunting with guns, and that’s about as divisive a subject as we can find. Yet McKean is pretty adamant that guns are the shortest path to hunting success. “If your intention is to kill a deer, you should find a way to use a firearm,” he says. Compared to other hunting options, guns are easier to use. That said, people have killed deer with bows and arrows for tens of thousands of years, and you can too.
It’s harder to hunt with a bow, but for people who live in cities, it can actually be easier get proficient at shooting one. Many metropolitan areas, like New York, make legally possessing a firearm nearly impossible. But I have carried a bow on the subway, and there are archery ranges in all five boroughs. I even know one hunter who practiced with her bow in her NYC apartment.
We are veering way out of my expertise zone now. I am not a lifelong hunter or hunter educator. I am not even particularly good at hunting. But since McKean has spent decades teaching people to do this and I took an hour of his time to grill him about it, here’s his list of how you can get started:
Figure out the legal landscape
Many states require a hunter education, and you’ll usually need to take a class and pass a test to get it. The information is pretty useful, and it’s a great way to connect with people: experts who could help you get started, and also n00bs like yourself who want to hit up a diner after you freeze you asses off together.
Find a mentor
We covered this.
Deer season is cold in many places. Yes, your ski outfit will work just fine for hunting, but if everything goes well, you’re going to get blood all over it. Maybe take advantage of an end-of-winter sale to pick up some hunting-specific outerwear.
Whether you use a bow or a gun, you need to be able to reliably kill a deer with it. You do not want to watch an animal you wounded disappear into the woods.
Find a place to hunt
Public land is a great option, and you’re already paying for it. Google is your friend here, as are apps like OnX. You can also ask a neighbor if you can hunt their property. They don’t need to live on the Ponderosa, either. “Deer love edges,” says McKean. “They love edges between water and woods, but they also love the edges between forests and suburbia.” Please make sure you’re not shooting at anyone’s house.
Figure out how you’re going to process the deer
If you’re successful, you will have a 100-plus-pound animal to turn into food. Do you have a place to hang it and cut it up? Are the other people in your home cool with having a carcass in the garage? Even if you plan to take it to a professional processor, you need to get it there. Can you fit a deer in the trunk of your car? Do you want to? Also, do you have freezer space for 50 pounds of meat?
Learn the animal
Every experienced hunter says the same thing: hunting season starts way before hunting season. Once you’ve found your spot, start going there at dawn and dusk to observe how the deer behave.
Here’s another idea: You don’t have to kill to go hunting. Find someone to go with, and offer to help them in exchange for meat. Maybe you’ll ferry gear or help haul the deer out. Maybe you’ll bring coffee and be good company. Maybe you’ll get elbow-deep in an animal’s body cavity and ensure you’re never going to wear that jacket on the slopes again. And maybe you’ll decide it’s not that intimidating and you want to shoot next time. You don’t have to start playing this game in expert mode.
So that’s my loophole, and it doesn’t really help me describe my eating habits to friends. Which is fine, because the labels we assign to dietary preferences are only useful on restaurant menus. As personal descriptors, they’re inadequate and divisive. If you call yourself a vegan, one set of people assumes you have a certain set of beliefs. If you identify as a hunter, another group does the same thing. It sucks that hunting and climate-conscious eating have largely become associated with competing worldviews; so many of the core beliefs are the same. And these days, everyone wears camo.
Take care of yourselves—and each other.