Enough With the Protein Already!

Want to get under my skin? Call me a protein farmer.

Wrong Direction Farm is not a protein farm.

Classifying Wrong Direction Farm as a protein farm involves some understandable oversimplifications. In a broad sense, we can agree that this farm’s commercial sales are built around selling cuts of meat from cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and sheep. And meat is full of protein. All that is true.

Something can be true while also being hollow. Focusing on protein ignores some other important properties of meat. It misses out on understanding the way we produce that meat. And it does an even worse job of understanding what the farm itself is all about. Maybe I’m too thin-skinned, but using a phrase like “protein farming” feels like a symptom of the problem that has caused agriculture to be simultaneously productive and destructive.

Protein Is Just Alright

Viewing meat as protein is problematic because it starts to go down into the weeds, but then it gives up and doesn’t explore the weeds far enough. I’d like to chalk out the outlines of some of the ways these characterizations of meat as protein don’t go far enough. There’s definitely room for further expansion on each subject, so I suppose this might lead to branching-off points for future articles, each complete with more citations for the points I’m making.

We should start by stating that meat isn’t just protein. As far as macronutrients go, it also contains fat. And despite the misguided low-fat, low-cholesterol dead end of the 1970s through the early 2000s, fat will always remain an essential part of human nutrition. Fat took the rap for the obesity and cardiology problems created by sugars and other carbohydrates. Animal fats were blamed for the gastrointestinal problems created by oil-seed products and solvent-extracted fats. Good old saturated fat has been accused of every health crime imaginable. And yet, analysis continues to show that the consumption of animal fats is not deleterious. In fact, people eating animal fats have better health than those who avoid them. I’m not saying this to cudgel anyone into eating the high saturated fat diet that I eat. I am just emphasizing that meat isn’t only rich in protein; it is also rich in fat. That’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t fat shame fat.

Next, let’s observe that proteins are not interchangeable. In fact, proteins are built from twenty amino acids (or twenty-one or twenty-two, depending on how pedantic you wish to be). Each type of protein is comprised of a unique blend of amino acids. It makes sense that meat, coming directly from the bodies of other animals, provides a very close match to the amino acid composition of our bodies. Plants are not balanced nearly so compatibly with our amino acid needs. Nutritional labels on food products list the amount of protein in grams, but the usefulness of this labeling is questionable, as it doesn’t give us information about some of the most important amino acids, like lysine, methionine, threonine, and tryptophan. Further, we know that plant proteins are less bioavailable to our digestives system, so we cannot make the same use of them as we would with an equivalent serving of animal protein. So if we are going to compare foods by measuring protein, we shouldn’t stop there; we need to talk about available amino acids if we are trying to optimize our protein intake.

Finally, we should look beyond protein to all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes, cofactors, amines, peptides, etc. found in meat, sometimes found exclusively in meat. Carnitine, carnosine, choline, creatine, oh my! B12, D3, and K2 are critical vitamins that come to mind. The EPA and DHA families are important fatty acids. Taurine only exists in animal tissue. The list goes on and includes many compounds of which I remain ignorant. Indeed, I’m sure there are many compounds that are yet undiscovered. Once again, this is not meant to fully explore the topic of micronutrients, rather we’re just observing that protein is only one constituent in the larger array of nutritional components in meat.

Reduction to Production and thence to Perdition

Each point in the previous section can stand on its own, but I don’t find any of those lines of reasoning adequate to address my deepest discomfort with calling our farm a protein farm. I’m most concerned about the way it flattens out all aspects of the farm and strictly focuses on one aspect of production. It ignores all the life, indeed the living and the dying, the interactions between water, air, rocks, soil, bacteria, fungi, plants, animals (wild and domestic), and our family.

The classical problem of human behavior is that we are too good for our own good at narrow optimization tasks. We’ve learned how to optimize meat production with high-density livestock confinement operations. If you want protein, we can get you protein. Agriculture solved that problem. Just don’t look behind the curtain at all the new problems created in the process of satisfying your consumer demand.

This pattern of focusing on single value optimization in agriculture has created terrible damage, even as it also, almost miraculously, gives us this day our daily Doritos. Agriculture has created plenty. Agriculture has created erosion, silting, nitrification, salination, acidification, flooding, desertification, extinction, infestation, and war. With our eyes fixed on a particular goal and all our efforts pushing toward it, we fail to notice how good we’re getting at doing bad things well.

So What Kind of Farm Is This?

Our farm has always been about more than the production, the limited measure of pounds sold or dollars collected. Clearly, our farm can’t persist in our capitalized society without covering our costs, so we must achieve some base level of production and generate some amount of profits. But profits bring us no special joy, and increased profits bring us no incremental joy. There’s no pleasure in expanding our operation larger than our daily needs demand. We farm because we have an ideal in mind, one where food production fits within a landscape, and where the life of our family is surrounded by beauty and growth. As with all ideals, we never succeed in any absolute sense, but our ideals guide us through our decisions.

I understand that folks will feel compelled to label us in some manner. If the farm must be designated only by the products it sells, then let’s at least call it meat instead of protein. And then we can tack on whichever production modifiers are appropriate, such as “grass fed,” “pasture raised,” or “Certified Organic.” But these designations are indicators of the superficial economic activities of the farm, the production that can be measured in tax rolls and GDP. Even calling this a “pasture raised meat farm” ignores the way the farm works with wildlife species, the way it restores water flows through the landscape, the way it adds organic matter to the soil. The labels are incapable of conveying the human aspects of life on the farm, all the non-commercial activity of producing resources for our household from within the farm’s renewable abundance, such as garden vegetables, eggs, fruits, nuts, firewood, and lumber. And of course it ignores the way the farm’s daily and seasonal cycles have tuned the rhythms of our lives.

We don’t get up each morning saying, “Time to make the protein.” We’re glad to provide protein, we’re glad to provide fat, we’re glad to provide B12, carnitine and all the rest. But that’s not the reason for the farm. We farm because we want to participate in the complex system of living this unique place makes possible.

8 thoughts on “Enough With the Protein Already!”

    1. Thanks Jud. Maybe some person will read this at just the right formative moment and take off in the direction of farming. Still, we need people to go to med school and to do a zillion other things with their lives. We farmers haven’t cornered the market on worthy pursuits.

  1. Well said! I believe the protein label is being pushed for a sinister reason. That is to lump lab created protein into a desired category. I’m personally sick of Gates, his ilk and all of the investors pushing us to ingest chemicals, dyes, soy oil, safflower, canola etc. All to financially benefit their buddies in “healthcare.” These mad scientists have to stop. It is time that we get back to basics and that is regenerative farming. You have this all right. We thank God for your family, as my family cannot even find edible, clean food around us and how sad is that? Someday we hope to afford a nice sized greenhouse just to give our family proper clean vegetables. Anyhow, I just wanted to say thank you for being a farming family that cares about the earth and it’s creatures.

    1. Christine – Thanks for writing. I agree with you that regenerative models of farming certainly bring us to a better place in terms of what we’re eating and what we’re doing to the world around us.

      Since you brought up Bill Gates, he’s someone I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve been sitting a draft article about Bill and his influence on agriculture, but I haven’t ever quite found the right framing for it. The one thing I’m hung up on is how much to blame on Gates or other extraordinarily influential people like him. I’m no fan of any of them, and I can always find cause to be offended at their arrogant and domineering plans to reshape the world according to their wishes. But taking Gates as an exemplar of this class, I wonder whether paying attention to him will help me accomplish any of the goals for my life. I don’t think it will help me.

      Anyway, I’m not going to pretend like I know what you should do or how you should feel toward such “big” people with their fingers on the levers of power. I just wanted to share that I also am concerned about him, and that I’m trying to figure out how to live my life in ways that disengage me from them while more tightly engaging me in the things that matter to me. Maybe I can get that article shaped up and ready to share soon.

  2. “There’s no pleasure in expanding our operation larger than our daily needs demand.” — Would that this were a fundamental maxim of modern economics. One of your best reflections yet!

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