EHTV Episode 02: Local Food and Butchery

On the second episode of EHTV, a group of environmental history new scholars learns how to butcher a lamb in a effort to better understand historical changes in North American food systems. Andrew Watson, the Ph.D. candidate at York University who shot this video writes:

One of the amazing upsides to studying history is that our exploration of the past often leads directly to better informed decisions about the present and future. When this happens, it becomes abundantly clear that history is useful and practical, that society does benefit from the work done by historians. Environmental history seems especially suited to this task of connecting the past with the present.

In his classic Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon traces the processes by which much of North America’s food systems became industrialized, commodified and disconnected from natural material and energy flows. In chapter five, Cronon explores the ways humans rationalized the system of raising, slaughtering, butchering, packaging and transporting meat in order to overcome the constraints imposed by nature, which previously had limited meat consumption to local sources. Starting as early as the 1860s, cows and pigs were raised on corn in feed lots, killed en masse, disassembled and packaged in factories, and shipped hundreds of kilometers from the midwest to markets in the east. The end result, Cronon argues, was that the production of meat became disconnected from its consumption, both literally and imaginatively. People who consumed meat processed within this system had no idea where it came from, and the deaths of the animals went ‘unremembered’.

Over the course of the twentieth century, this system expanded to include inhumane treatment of animals, the use of steroids and antibiotics on animals, and the outbreak of crowd diseases among animals, including mad cow, H1N1 and H1N5. Authors, such as Brian Donahue, Michael Pollan, and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall, have been more explicit in addressing the ethical questions of industrialized food systems, and argue that one part of the solution is knowing more about the food we eat and making conscious choices based on that knowledge.

With these issues and approaches in the back of our minds, a group of friends (mostly PhD students in the history department at York University) decided to learn more about the food we were eating by purchasing four lambs from a organic farmer in central Ontario. The farmer is part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group called Kawartha Ecological Growers. Our curiosity went beyond knowing where our food came from, we also wanted to learn a little bit more about the process by which whole lambs are broken down into individual cuts by doing the butchering ourselves. A few of us had some experience butchering chicken or cleaning fish, but none of us had broken a lamb down before. After a little background reading, and with the help of a few online tutorials and instructional YouTube videos we felt confident we could manage.

The social, cultural, political, and economic rationale for the food system most Canadians engage with is not absolute or unavoidable. The routine of going to the grocery store and buying cuts of meat packaged in styrofoam and cellophane has prestige, convenience, food safety laws, economies of scale and subsidies working in its favour. And most Canadians are still content not knowing where their food comes from. But, this lifestyle and mindset of being disconnected from the material and energy flows that support us has a long history. Understanding the history of our food systems encourages us to use that knowledge to ask even more questions and to seek out alternatives that address the social and environmental consequences that are obscured by our disconnection.

Individuals can and will make more sustainable choices if they understand the past more fully. Our group’s decision to learn more about the food we ate is an example of this. Learn the history if you want to shape the future.

People in the video:

  • Will Baker
  • Dan Bullard
  • Jim Clifford
  • Ian Milligan
  • Jess Shepherd
  • Tom Shepherd-Baker
  • Andrew Watson
  • Jay Young

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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