Dr. Rob Williams
CHAPTER 6: GROW GRASSY - DIGESTING THE (YAK) MEAT OF THE MATTER
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Special thanks to the University of Vermont Humanities Center for providing a grant supporting research for this chapter.
Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at email@example.com. Yak on!
Yaks go grassy.
As our planet’s most efficient grass eating bovine, the yak represents a shaggy sustainable symbol pointing the way towards a more resilient pastoral future for we sapiens.
Let me explain.
I grew up as a suburban New York kid in a “meat and potatoes” family. After a Saturday of yard work and backyard baseball, my dad liked nothing more than firing up our family’s charcoal grill and charring meat– burgers, steak, sausage. Flank steak was his favorite. Connoisseurs consider flank a “working class” cut, but my dad “chef’ed up” this thin flat section of meat (taken from a cow’s lower rear torso) by marinating the cut all day long in his special sauce. Come early evening, he’d sear the flank to near perfection – almost black outside, with a beautifully crimson red interior when sliced, spilling delicious red juiciness onto our plates. Like many suburban kids, I gave little thought, growing up, to what I was eating or from where my food came. I just knew, deep down in my gut, that I loved eating meat. Only after I became a yak farmer did I realize that the ubiquitous US marketing slogan “Beef - It’s What’s For Dinner,” incessantly pitched at TV-watching Americans throughout the Seventies, pointed the way back into our meat-rich evolutionary past.
Simply stated, eating meat has make us fully human.
“The origins of human intelligence are linked to the acquisition of meat, especially through the cognitive capacities necessary for the strategic sharing of meat with fellow group members - shared evolved traits with humans [that] point to the origins of human intelligence,” observes Craig Stanford in his seminal book The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior. Stanford, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California and co-director of USC’s Jane Goodall Research Center, is one of many scholars currently exploring the deep evolutionary links between primates’ attraction to meat and our emergence as homo sapiens sapiens. “The intellect required to be a clever, strategic, and mindful sharer of meat is the essential recipe that led to the expansion of the human brain,” Stanford argues, noting that “the central importance of meat acquisition and meat sharing in modern and ancient human societies is simply undeniable.”
Other scholars share Stanford’s conclusions. “The oldest undisputed record of cut marks tells us that humans started to butcher savanna animals 2.6 to 2.5 million years ago…by two million years ago, meat appears to have entered the diets of our ancestors for good - early humans came back to the same place, over and over, to butcher and eat animals,” explains Marta Zaraska in her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5 Million-Year Obsession With Meat. “Meat made us human,” agrees anthropologist Henry T. Bunn, as does Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham, whose book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human expands our evolutionary understandings of our meat-eating origins. “Meat hunger,” a term used by anthropologist Marvin Harris (author of Stone Age Economics), refers to “a universal craving for animal flesh that can’t be satisfied by any other foods, no matter how plentiful.” Our species’ meat-obsessed reality is confirmed by contemporary hunting peoples around the world, who refer to this “inordinate longing and craving for meat” by many names, including ekbulu (central Africa’s Mbuti), eyebasi (Bolivia’s Yuqui), and gouamba (Africa). Both the southern Brazil Kaingang and Bolivia’s Siriono people refer to meat as “real” food, while the Amazon’s Canela people have a term that distinguishes “meat hunger” from all other types of hunger. Peru’s Sharanahua women, meanwhile, refuse to have sex with their men when they return home from the hunt without animal flesh in tow. Clearly, meat matters to us. “Human intelligence is bound to the presence of animals,” explains Paul Shepard, and ingesting the meat of animals with whom we share the planet offers profound insights into both our collective past as hominids and our potential future as a sapiens species.
While I grew up eating meat, I swore off animal flesh in my twenties, going vegetarian while living in the American southwest, my ethical eyes opened to the widespread mistreatment of animals in the land of grain-fed industrial feed lots. When my wife and I moved back to Vermont, we found ourselves surrounded by farmers raising all manner of animal flesh, and I gradually returned to eating local meat. Sampling yak beef in Montana for the first time in 2007 raised my interest in the ecological efficacy of meat eating, and my curiosity was amplified by years of grass-fed yak farming in our Mad River Valley. It was in 2013, when I became the proprietor of a yak meat mobile food operation, that my meat quest got really interesting. Most every summer weekend since then, I have satisfied my fellow humans’ “meat hunger” in the form of a small red two-wheeled food cart with a sign that reads:
YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon – featuring “the planet’s greenest red meat”!
Yak, of course.
As the front man for North America’s only (to my knowledge) exclusively yak meat mobile food kitchen, I have grilled thousands of locally raised grass-fed yak burgers and Vermont maple-infused yak sausage sandwiches for what we call “adventurous eaters.” Our home base and international headquarters? The Waitsfield farmer’s market, held every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm (May-October) on our town green in the geographic center of Vermont’s Mad River Valley – on any given Saturday morning, more than 1,000 visitors wander through. We’ve also grilled yak for many years at the Friday night Arts Riot food truck stop event in Burlington (Vermont’s biggest urban area – population 45,000), national musical festivals like Waking Windows and Grand Point North, and our state’s July 1, 2018 cannabis legalization festival held in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, when Vermont became the ninth state in the US to legalize Mary Jane. Yak munchies for all!
Why the Planet’s greenest red meat?
YakItToMe! Mobile BBQ food wagon - yakking every Saturday from 9-1 in Vermont (May - October).
“Two reasons,” I explain every Saturday to our YakItToMe! customers. “Yaks are incredibly efficient grazers, eating less grass per acre than any other bovine,” pointing to the greenery below our feet, “so ecologically speaking, yaks are light on the land.” Nods of interest from visitors, grunts of affirmation. (Note: comparative data vary, based on seasonal grass quality and other ecological factors. “To gain one pound, yaks need only six pounds of forage,” says one high profile yakker, “as against eight pounds for typical cattle and twelve for bison.” Others yakkers claim 2-3 yaks can forage on a single acre of pasture grass that would support only a single larger dairy cow.) “Second, more than any other cow, yaks pack more protein into their bodies at the cellular level – they are really good at converting grass, water and sunlight into energy,” I note, waving up at the blue sky, “so when we enjoy a delicious piece of yak, we reap the evolutionary benefits – more protein, higher Omega 3s and CJL (conjugated linoleic acid), and less fat than any other bovine beef option.” Voila. The planet’s “greenest red meat,” rendered as Green Mountain yak terroir (the French term for “taste of place”), translated and served up here on North American continent’s Vermont frontier.
I imagine our tiny 10 x 10 YakItToMe! operation as a very small piece of a much larger food-focused civilizational puzzle that explores how sapiens and animals like yaks are conjoined. “History is replete with incidents of humans devising ways to make animals more delicious,” observes Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search For The World’s Tastiest Piece Of Meat. “Was there a land,” he asks, “Where all the beef was bursting with deliciousness, and the people ate nothing but good steak? Such a place exists – Planet Yak. “We lack an adequate meat vocabulary,” Schatzker explains, confessing to me in an email that he had never sampled yak steak while researching his entertaining and enlightening book. Part of my ongoing creative challenge as a chef and agripreneur, then, is to explore how yaks “go grassy” – a “meataphor,” if you will, for expanding the language and importance of Planet Yak cuisine. My hundreds of conversations with foodies of all stripes – carnivores, vegetarians, vegans - about the ethical efficacy of eating meat indicate interest in “going grassy” is high. The challenge begins by easing eaters over the obstacles created by the word “yak,” for obvious reasons. What’s a “yak,” most of our visitors ask? I point to a yak photograph on our cart’s napkin holder – “a hairy, humpy, horny Asian cow,’ I answer, which elicits laughs and the beginning of a conversation. I have convinced many vegetarians and hundreds of yak-skittish meat eaters to sample our yak beef, and, beyond the initial taste, we try to connect our customers to the meatier global story of bos grunniens – the yak’s history, pastoral practices, and future possibilities.
Food cart visitors often ask me how we could possibly kill and cook our yaks. (“They’re so cute / fuzzy / shaggy / adorable!”) “If we humans choose to eat meat,” I say in response, “best to consume beef from cattle grown on grass, close to home, on small farms, in expansive pastures, yaks who have lived peaceful lives of dignity and integrity.” I then explain that as local farmers, we decided to split our yaks into two herds – the “breeders” (they receive names, love, affection) and the “eaters” (unnamed yaks, mostly young steers, marked with numbered tags for the butcher). Over time, this use of dualistic nomenclature got me thinking about how seemingly simple acts of naming and grouping animals informs a much deeper process of co-domestication – yaks and humans living together.
Slaughtering and consuming our yaks’ flesh after getting to know many of them quite well, is an intense process, and not for the faint of heart. Like everything else in Vermont, our abattoirs are tiny, and I was able to bear witness to their passing on several different occasions. This may sound strange, but there is a strange sort of indescribable mystery involved in taking another living creature’s life before preparing them for ingestion. “Eating different animals,” Paul Shepard explains in The Only World We Got, “joins us in a kind of unity with them.” He’s right. Whenever I eat yak, I imagine consuming the animal’s spirit and energy– a strangely mystical experience that transcends words alone. Tibetans and other Eurasian pastoralists have intuitively understood this powerful reality for millennia. “When you eat meat, you’re forming a connection, or association, with that animal, even though it’s dead,” explains Lama Norlha Rinpoche, abbot of Kagyu Thubten Choling (Tibetan monastery) in New York’s Hudson River Valley. “Praying will benefit the animal’s mind, and reciting the mantra with compassion for that being - Om Ah Bhi Ra Hung Kay Tsar Mam So Ha - will help it find its way to a good rebirth.” Greek philosophers like Pythagoras referred to this cycling of souls among animals, birds and humans as “metempsychosis,” the “supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or different species.” (OED) Perhaps, every time we consume yak flesh, we become a bit more yak’like. At least, I certainly feel this way.
Back at the farmer’s market, I realize that chanting trans-migratory mantras while cooking for customers might prove a bit off putting for some of our visitors, but providing grilled yak every Saturday is a joy, and our adventurous eaters come back every year for the opportunity to partake. Chemically speaking, every time I toss yak meat onto our grill, magic happens – more than one thousand substances, to be exact, contribute to unlocking grilled yak’s unique flavors and aromas. Meat is muscle, but more tender, low in the collagen that comprises tendons and other more rope’y and grisly anatomical parts. Applying heat to “brown up” raw yak meat activates the famed “Maillard Reaction,” directly engaging our meat-loving taste buds, the mushroom-shaped fungiform papillae perched on the tips of our tongues. To make sense of what happens beyond the sizzles and smells, foodies speak of five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and “meaty,” what the Japanese famously call “umami” (loosely translated as “delicious”). As gifted chefs know, it’s the protein that provides meat’s primary attraction to flesh eaters– “an important part of all living organisms,” explains OED, “and the essential nitrogenous constituents of the food of animals.” Food analysts have traced umami’s mouthwatering meatiness to a potent combination of protein, heme iron, and a variety of chemicals: amino acids such as glutamate and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), and nucleotides like inosonate (IMP) and guanylate (GMP) – all working together to deliver the slightly sweet umami taste and herbaceously chewy texture of locally grown yak meat – the Planet’s greenest. Worth noting, too, is the fact that meat’s potent combination of healthy goodness is difficult to find in other foods such as grains. “The protein in beef contains the full spectrum of amino acids and is easy for humans to assimilate,” explains food activist and radical environmentalist Lierre Keith in her book The Vegetarian Myth, “while the protein in the wheat is both low-quality and largely inaccessible because it comes wrapped in indigestible cellulose.” “An impartial review of the evidence indicates that red meat is one of the healthiest foods you can eat,” summarizes nutrition expert Chris Kresser.
Now that we’ve digested the yak meat of the matter, go global and tour Planet Yak with me, utensils poised, for a moment. Beyond our yak farm and the YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon, I’ve eaten yak meat all over the world. In Mongolia: yak steak frites in downtown Ulan Baator; and yak stew in traditional nomadic gers (yurts) throughout the countryside in the “land of the eternal blue sky.” In China: yak steak in Shanghai; yak meatballs in Beijing; thinly sliced yak meat boiled in traditional Chinese hua gua (“hot pot”) in Urumqi, Xianjiang province’s capital city, featuring a heated vat of cooking oil into which customers toss meats, fish and vegetables of every description (deliciously spicy); and yak “blood sausage” at a nomadic tourist trap in Qinghai province, the gateway to western China – perhaps the most interesting lunch I’ve ever eaten overseas, complete with performances by a two-stringed Mongolian cellist and a local dancing troupe. In Nepal: the yak steak I devoured in Kathmandu, Nepal’s famed five star hotel – “Yak And Yeti” – proved a bit overcooked and slightly tough ( 2 ½ stars), but the yak “momo” (traditional tiny dumplings) my 75-year-old sherpa host “Big Nima” and I ground up and prepared on his 3rd story kitchen floor one rainy afternoon after returning from a 2013 trek up to Everest base camp – well, I can still taste the tangy spices of them on my tongue.
Back home in North America? We’ve conducted yak tastings in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. Capitol building as invited guests of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s annual “Taste of Vermont” event (yes, Senator Bernie Sanders likes yak). We arranged for a full yak, quartered, to be featured as the “secret ingredient” on an episode of Iron Chef America, and attended the ICA studio filming in New York City’s Chelsea meatpacking district (yes, the chef challenger won the contest). Our single biggest yak customer? Himalayan Yak in the Big Apple’s Jackson Heights district in Queens – for years, the restaurant owners purchased all of our yak top and bottom rounds – arranging yak meat “drops” for cash on US interstate I-91 midway between Manhattan and Mad River. Beyond the east coast? Yak burgers in Columbus, Ohio; yak steak in Denver; Mongolian yak BBQ in Idaho. I’ll always remember the two-half pound Alaskan-grown grass-fed yak burgers I enjoyed at 49th State Brewery’s two locations in August 2019 (see chapter X). My favorite yak meat moment? Back in Vermont, a grass-fed yak tenderloin steak from our own herd – perhaps my single favorite yak eating experience – the “cadillyak of grunniens beef,” from a meat lover’s perspective – a deep, rich reddish tender meat which, when cooked properly (medium rare with a few minutes to “rest") must be masticated to be believed.
Two skillet-grilled grass-fed Vermont rib steaks - rare and "resting" prior to eating.
My obsession with grass-fed yak beef is echoed by many North American yakkers. “Yak meat is very succulent,” explains Montana yak rancher Jim Watson, “with a deep crimson color and a mild, rather than gamy, flavor.” Yak is “sweeter than even farmed venison and more tender than buffalo,” says Taos, New Mexico connoisseur Joseph Wreede, chef and owner of Joseph’s Table restaurant, “The people who are brave enough to try it really get into yak.” “Delicate, juicy, and even sweet, low in cholesterol, and saturated fat, yak meat is very heart healthy, healthier than skinless chicken and most fish,” observes South Dakota yakker Jim Anderson. “Very lean, as well – being 95 to 97% fat free.” “It has a very delicate flavor – it’s not gamey (sic). It’s a red meat, but not like venison or antelope.” “Higher in sodium – which “helps retain water in the muscle,” she says, “so the meat ends up being juicier than other red meats, but from water and not fat,” explains Anderson’s wife Julie. “When cooking yak, there’s no secret – it can be substituted for beef in just about any recipe – it’s just going to be a tastier recipe.”
Building on Julie’s point about water and sodium, yak meat’s unique distribution of fatty acid percentages, meanwhile, make it high in moisture content, which explains the source of the juiciness. Yak meat is also high in “good” fats, low in “bad” fats, and contains just 20 to 30 percent of beef’s Palmitic acid, the most common fatty acid found in animals and plants, explaining the leanness of the beef. Yaks’ high-altitude evolution also plays a role in grunniens meat composition. Yak “tastes a bit like bison, but it’s a much deeper red thanks to higher hemoglobin in yaks’ blood cells,” explains one yak rancher. “Built for high-altitude environments with less oxygen, [yaks] also have up to three more ribs and a larger lung capacity than cattle.” A yak’s larger rib cage houses a larger heart, upping the oxygen’carrying heme and red blood cells found in yak muscle, and thus, yak meat. “Everyone who tries yak loves it – It’s got characteristic traits of beef, but it just tastes better,” notes chef Tyrone Green, who runs “Dark Side Of The Moo,” a New Jersey exotic meat food truck serving more than twenty kinds of meat, including kangaroo, llama, and camel. “‘Best burger I’ve ever had,’ Green says, “is probably something I’ve heard 100 times since I’ve started selling yak.”
Scientifically speaking, meat lovers seem to stop at nothing to solve the mysteries surrounding our love of cattle flesh. “Meat science,” writes Schatzker in Steak, is “a discipline that craves the certainty of physics and the penetrating insight of psychology.” He’s correct. Just consider the obsession with meat’s many physical manifestations, captured by Schatzker’s list of adjectives: “juiciness, tenderness, cohesiveness, springiness, flavor, intensity, and my favorite, “mouth feel” (a term I first found years ago in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.) Schatzker takes us to Lubbock’s Texas Technical University, where “meat scientists” build careers learning how to “wrestle with the mysterious, intangible qualities bound up in meat – flavor, satisfaction, succulence – and attempt to render them into numbers, too,” using specially developed meat measuring tools like the Warner Brayzler device, a “contraption that adds weight to a cutting blade to determine exact resistance of cooked steak.”
Rogue scientists and a small but vocal community of pasture-loving US cattle ranchers (including most North American yakkers), meanwhile, challenge the American beef industry’s obsession with grain-fed cattle, right down to the obsession with “marbling,” those white streaks of fat in a steak that clearly indicate a grain-fed (and fattier, thus tastier - allegedly) animal – or so the conventional thinking goes. Grain fed beef is “symptomatic of an agricultural sector gone wrong,” decry American grass-fed cattle loving mavericks. “We’re trying to grow everything too fast,” says Ph.D. meat scientist Ted Williams, a proponent of the grass-fed cattle approach and frequent contributor to “The Stockman” and other grass-fed publications. “Grain is the atomic bomb of the Americans food system - there is no worse food you can eat than grain,” Red River cattle farmer Ted Slanker agrees. Grass-fed beef “should have a slightly sweet and sort of nutty flavor,” Schatzker summarizes in Steak, but “with a discernable beefy robustness.” Agreed – and explains the “yak sizzle” we sell to our Saturday farmer’s market customers.
Halfway across the world, Eurasian scientists, too, are obsessed with improving meat production and consumption, and yaks are now being pulled into the conversation. China, home to the vast majority (95%) of the planet’s yaks (16 million) and the world’s biggest meat-consuming country, is now trying to figure out how to “bottle” the beauty of grunniens meat for a growing base of Mandarin-speaking beef eaters. “Yak meat is a potential new resource for the meat industry in China – high in protein, low in fat, and has a unique flavor,” observe Chinese scientists in a 2015 paper entitled Using near infrared spectroscopy to predict the physical traits of Bos grunniens meat, published in the LT Food Science and Technology journal, and based on research conducted at Beijing-based Institute of Animal Science and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in conjunction with the National Beef Cattle Industry Technology System of the Ministry of Agriculture of China (and a half dozen other organizations). (China’s bureaucracy is dizzying). “However,” the paper observes, “the commercial potential of yak meat is limited due to a lack of data regarding meat quality.” China’s ongoing attempts to “science the yak” applies “quick, non-destructive, and inexpensive” near infrared spectroscopy (NIR), “proven to be useful for predicting the chemical composition and physical traits of meat,” to “evaluate the use of NIR for predicting the physical traits of yak meat, including Warner-Bratzler shear force (WBSF), cooking loss, press loss, chromaticity coordinates, hue angle, and saturation index of meat from the longissimus thoracis of yaks.” Chinese scientists’ preliminary conclusions, based on this exhaustive approach? “The results of this research,” they conclude, “show that NIR spectroscopy may be a good predictor of the physical traits of yak meat such as tenderness, water holding capacity, and meat color.” Hen Hao! (Very good).
From Eurasia to North America, “going grassy” means considering the (yak) meat of the matter in two holistic ways: 1) considering the current impact of (mostly grain-fed) beef production and consumption, and 2) exploring how the pastoral Planet Yak community values the entire animal, rather than merely meat alone. The “grain versus grass” debate is playing out within a much more expansive global debate about the history and future of meat-eating. Working with yak since 2008 has raised my awareness about this global conversation – let’s just say that the 21st century debate about the efficacy of raising and eating beef rages. As we sapiens grapple with living on a Planet of Limits, partisans on all sides advance arguments about the efficacy of raising and eating meat – some conclusions seem ridiculous, but many are thoughtful and well-reasoned.
Consider many of the most popular meat-focused titles of the past two decades. Those opposed to our current grain-fed beef paradigm include Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef: The Rise And Fall Of The Cattle Culture, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side Of The All-American Meal, Tony Weiss’ The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden Of Industrial Livestock, and David Robinson Simon’s Meatonomic$: How The Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much. Pro-beef books, meanwhile, include two with epic and revealing titles: Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Defending Beef: The Case For Sustainable Meat Production – The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer And Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher, and Judith D. Schwartz’s Cows Save The Planet, And Other Improbable Ways Of Restoring Soil To Heal The Earth – Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients To Our Food.
So how do we make sense of beef’s central role in shaping our alimentary experiences? Begin by removing the blinders we bring to our civilizational dinner table, seeing with fresh eyes (and taste buds) how we human communities treat our cattle counterparts. Doing so reveals the myriad meat-filled ways in which yaks and humans interact, beyond stereotypically cliched conclusions about meat and human nature. Case in point is Nick Fiddes’ oft-quoted book Meat: A Natural Symbol. “The litany of social and environmental sins associated with meat production could almost make one feel that meat alone is responsible for bringing the world to a state of ecological crisis,” Fiddes observes. “What meat exemplifies, more than anything, is an attitude: the masculine world view that ubiquitously perceives, values, and legitimates hierarchical domination of nature, of women, and of other men and, as its corollary, devalues less domineering modes of interaction between humans and with the rest of nature.” Fiddes fails to consider what I explicitly argue here – grass-fed yak agriculture represents a different and more holistic human sensibility towards meat, one that goes back millennia and can provides vital insights for our species moving forward.
As our new century unfolds, and civilizational conversations around beef production and consumption grow more intense, I suggest a bit of thoughtful humility is in order. “Because we have zillions of reams of information about food production and endless columns of numbers to pick from in support or denial of whatever we want to believe, we think that human intelligence has analyzed the subject well enough to start dictating public policy about what we should eat and how it should be produced,” observes grass farmer Gene Logson in his introduction to Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance. “No matter how fervently we support the no-meat or the pro-meat point of view, or how much allegiance we have for any particular dietary bible, or what kind of farming we think best serves humanity’s food purposes, or what we think about carbon footprints, global warming, greenhouse gasses, and any of the other trendy phrases with which the news batters us, or what economic religion we think best serves the purpose of providing food for all,” he writes, “no one has all the right answers, because neither science nor ideology knows all the right answers yet.”
Agreed. Begin with the big picture regarding beef. Our planet currently hosts around one billion head of cattle, occupying 25% of the earth’s land mass, consuming enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of humans, with one million bovines slaughtered daily for food. The majority of these cattle live lives of quietly bawling desperation. “The most heartbreaking feature of today’s hellish industrial meat production systems is that none of the billions of animals who spend their entire lives as prisoners will ever experience the slightest affection from, or fellowship with, another living being – the one truly valuable asset they possess, a sense of personal dignity, will be stolen from them and tossed away without a care,” explains David Simon in Meatanomic$. “They’ll be jammed into such close spaces with others of their own species that rather than develop healthy social networks, they’ll live in a state of constant hostility and fear [and] lead lives of misery in painful parallel, in a kind of solidarity of time, place and debilitating stress.”
A bleak picture, one amplified by the groundbreaking 2013 book The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden Of Industrial Livestock. “Agriculture arose roughly ten thousand years ago and its expansion was the dominant force of ecological change over most of the Holocene, the relatively warm and stable geological epoch from the end of the last ice age that began around twelve thousand years ago,” observes the book’s author, Canadian geographer Tony Weiss. “Agriculture revolutionized how humans obtained biomass and nutrients from the environment, gave rise to new class and gender hierarchies, and established new inter-species relations through the course of domestication.” Weiss explains what he means by “the ecological hoofprint” in this lecture summary, worth quoting at length here:
The relentless meatification of diets is a momentous but wildly under-appreciated aspect of modernity. The average person on earth annually consumes nearly twice as much meat as occurred just a half century ago, during a period when the human population leapt from roughly 3 billion to over 7 billion people. On the current course, there will be more than 9 billion people by 2050 consuming an average of more than 50 kg (over 110 pounds) of meat per year, with huge disparities between rich and poor and the fastest growth occurring in the middle. Roughly 70 percent of global meat production by volume comes from pigs and chickens alone, and the industrial production of these two species, led by chickens, is expected to account for almost all further growth. The industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex occupies a large share of the world’s arable land, with soaring animal populations concentrated in dense enclosures and tied to great flows of feedstuffs. The ecological hoofprint helps to understand how this trajectory of dietary change and system of agriculture contribute to global inequality, the degradation of agrarian labour, and an expanding world of animal suffering.
Ironically, as animal suffering increases, our human awareness of our four-legged fellow creatures is diminished as we distance ourselves - through (sub)urbanization, farm consolidation, chain grocery store and now online shopping - from the myriad places where the animals who provide us with sustenance live and die. “The ‘disappearance’ of animals from sight and mind,” Weiss rightly explains, represents a “profound loss of consciousness about the animal lives.” Historically speaking, these dietary transformations have negatively affected humans, as well. “The most radical change to the way humans eat since the discovery of agriculture and the chronic diseases that kill most of us,” writes In Defense Of Food author Michael Pollan, “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.”
Despite ongoing debates about beef’s impact on our 21st century global environment, meat has never been more popular in the North American diet, and Eurasian countries, led by China’s population of more than one billion eaters, are consuming more animal flesh than ever before. The first option before us is to embrace a “business as usual” approach to grain-fed global meat production and consumption, a position pushed by powerful business interests eager to continue to profit from the beef status quo, and governments interested in feeding their people, no matter how inequitably. Most objective observers seem to conclude that perpetuating this global grain-fed, corporate commercial industrial system is simply unsustainable, even in the medium term –our global “ecological footprint” built on the grain-fed “meatification” of our sapiens diets is already an environmental disaster in the making for some time.
A second option? Push humans to enter, as eaters, a world beyond meat. A few years ago, this idea might have seemed ludicrous, even impossible. Technological advancements, however, combined with heightened interest from entrepreneurs, environmentalists, investors, and inventors, now suggest that in this new century, collective human ingenuity might usher in a world “beyond meat,” beginning in the United States - ironically the world’s biggest (and most profitable) meat-producing economy. Americans annually consume 200 pounds of meat (red, white, and fish) and eat a weekly average of three beef burgers (60% of American red meat gets “ground”), while the three largest US meatpacking companies – Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef – recently boasted a combined $200 billion in annual revenue. Most of US beef is produced in what are politely called “concentrated animal feedlot operations” (CAFOS), those places where cattle lead lives of quiet desperation before being “disintermediated” – slaughtered, disassembled, and run through an industrial assembly line horror show that would make the most hard-hearted humans blanch. What if, the “beyond meat” crowd asks, we sapiens could reinvent meat, doing a global end run around the “ecological hoofprint’s” myriad tradeoffs?
The people asking this question are not starry-eyed utopian cow-hugging refugees from a PETA rally gone sideways, but some of our well-financed and deeply connected humans. “We are not going to decrease meat consumption unless we give consumers alternatives that cost the same or less and that taste the same or better - on our current trajectory, we’re going to need to be producing 70 to 1000 percent more meat by 2050,” claims food innovator and TED fellow Bruce Friedrich in an April 2019 TED talk. “This requires a global solution – what we need to do is produce meat that people love, but we need to produce it in a whole new way.” Two ways, actually, according to Friedrich. “Let’s grow meat from plants,” Friedrich suggests, and “for actual animal meat, let’s grow it directly from cells - your friendly neighborhood meat brewer,” he jokes, pointing out that an actual chicken – feathers, wings, toed claws - grows to market in six weeks, while chicken cells – tiny organisms – can be lab grown in a mere six days. “We have the solution,” Friedrich concludes. “Let’s make meat from plants. Let’s grow it directly from cells. It’s past time that we mobilize the resources that are necessary to create the next global agricultural revolution.”
To be clear, this is not idle yakking.
“Can A Burger Help Solve Climate Change?” asks a 2019 New Yorker feature story exploring the rise of the faux meat making movement. Writer Tad Friend’s answer is yes, but the burger in question is not derived from cattle flesh, but “formed by an extruder, a machine that operates like a big pressure cooker, using heat and compression to replicate meat’s fibrous morphology.” How is this possible? Two California-based meatless meat companies – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – are pioneering methods they hope will soon render bovine beef obsolete. “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth,” says Impossible Foods founding CEO Pat Brown, a Stanford University biochemistry professor who, in 2009, devoted an 18-month sabbatical to exploring how to mitigate industrial grain-fed beef production’s deleterious ecological effects. “Strategically, a hamburger is hugely symbolic - we see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.” Around the same time, entrepreneur Ethan Brown founded Beyond Meat (initially called Savage River, Inc.), and, after years of lab experimentation, Brown’s scientists rolled out a simulated beef product in 2014, attracting attention and investment from a wide variety of stakeholders, including (curiously) Tyson Foods. "Every significant invention must be startling, unexpected, and must come into a world that is not prepared for it,” observed Land in 2019, the year the company went public.
Sounds inspiring, but let’s talk texture and taste. Impossible “burgers” contain 21 ingredients: mostly soy and potato proteins, plus coconut and sunflower oils. Beyond “burgers,” meanwhile, possess “18 ingredients, a mixture of isolated pea protein, mung bean, and rice proteins,” explains a 2020 article in The Week. “Beetroot juice provides the ‘bleeding’ effect. The thickener methylcellulose, potato starch for texture, and the salt substitute potassium chloride are all used,” while the burger “gets the marbled look of ground beef from coconut oil and cocoa butter whipped into tiny globules of fat.” Chemical engineering at its most delicious. And the taste? “The new faux burgers are engineered to imitate the way ground meat sizzles on the grill, bleeds in the middle, and crumbles in your mouth,” explains The Week. “That’s no small feat, considering cooked beef contains 4,000 different molecules, about 100 of which create its smell and umami-rich flavor. Impossible Foods simulates that pinkish color and savory flavor with heme, the iron-carrying molecule in blood and some plant roots. The heme is created by genetically modifying yeast with soy DNA in gigantic tanks.” While this sounds decidedly unappetizing to this food cart owning grass-fed yak beef chef, industry insiders are elated. “We feel that we have sufficiently recapitulated the multiple chemistries of cooked beef,” exults Allen Henderson, a flavor scientist at Impossible Foods.
My wife is a committed if nonjudgmental vegan foodie, and invited me, on a bit of a good-natured dare, to sample a Beyond Meat burger while researching this chapter. She offered to shop, cook and serve – I would be a fool to decline. Setting aside my reservations, I agreed. While I watched, glass of red wine in hand, she prepared the two patties on a cast iron skillet over medium heat in our kitchen, topping the “met” with a delicious dressing of homemade basil pesto cut with vegan mayo, and then garnishing the mix with fresh pea shoots, served with a side of sautéed brussel sprouts. (Super vegan, right?) I confess to enjoying the experience, impressed by the imposter beef’s taste and texture. Score one for the chemists. Note: we’ve enjoyed the same meal on several occasions since, though the superior taste of grass-fed yak burger remains.
Beyond Beef's 2020 packaging.
Some food industry insiders take issue with US faux beef companies’ novel and potentially game-changing approach. “These products are super, highly processed foods,” says Whole Food CEO John Mackey, while others argue that the term “plant based” is a euphemism, pointing to the fact that these “burgers” are, in reality, “heavily engineered” products higher in sodium and lower in nutritious proteins than real beef. Critics aside, plant-based meat’s popularity is rapidly gaining ground, driven by debates about beef’s role in global environmental deterioration, and concerns about health and wellness among many American consumers. “Plant-based burgers attract eaters who are health conscious and/or environmentally concerned,” explains The Week, “but aren’t willing to give up familiar tastes and textures for quinoa and seitan.” And the proof is in the proverbial pudding – of profits. Plant-based meat saw 400% growth in 2019, with US consumers spending $1 billion (the same number as there are now cows on the Planet). Beyond Meat proved 2019’s most successful US IPO, with products now found in 20,000 grocery stores and more than 50,000 fast food restaurants, including Carl’s Jr and Dunkin Donuts, while the explosive success of Impossible Foods’ Burger King “I Whopper” and White Castle “I Slider” saw both chains temporarily run out of these popular meatless burger options.
Will plant-based and cell grown “beef” save the world? A growing number of powerful players certainly hope so. The seductive appeal of meatless beef plays directly to the heart of our techno-utopian fantasies about engineering our way out of any crisis, no matter how daunting – “better living through chemistry – soy says so.” Beyond Impossible’s techno-beef (option two) and the Ecological Hoofprint’s grain-fed industrial status quo (option three), however, lies a third, more ancient choice – going grassy - rooted in a deep historical understanding of ecology, a growing post-modern appreciation for “rumen powered” bovines, and an acknowledgement of cattle’s beneficent role in shaping much of our Planet over millennia. Fortunately, “growing grassy” has a number of champions who have devoted their lives and careers to advocating for what we might call “best practices” around grassland cattle management. This focus on grass, coupled with a decentralized and democratic approach to sapien-bovine relations, perhaps can best be seen in communities that comprise Planet Yak.
But first, a bit of planetary ecological history is in order. Begin with a question.
“You know what’s unnatural for human beings to eat?” asks Scott Gold in his book The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto For Meat Lovers. “Grass. We don’t eat like cows and other ruminants because our bodies don’t have the ability to process cellulose for nutrition, which is why we’re not outside munching on the lawn. We can process meat, and it’s good that we do,” he concludes, “since meat is extraordinarily beneficial for the human body.” Cows, fortunately, are not carnivores like us – they are all about grass, and not surprisingly, going grassy is all about the green stuff. Rumen, a special evolutionary bovine biological adaptation - the four-chambered stomach / fermentation chamber - that allows cows to digest cellulosic grasses most other species, including humans, find inedible, may prove to be the Planet’s saving grace, but only if we understand and learn from our deep environmental history.
Imagine our Earth eons ago, when Pleistocene herds of giant ruminants – aurochs, bison, and other hooved cattle with four chambered stomachs - roamed large swaths of Eurasia and North America. As Ice Age glaciers gradually receded with our planet’s warming, expansive regions of pasture grass emerged in places as diverse as what we now call modern Mongolia, Europe, and the North American west. By the time we sapiens showed up 200,000 or so years ago, the global grasslands provided a platform for diverse ecosystems, and yak’s ruminant ancestors thrived on these grasses for millennia, thriving in a symbiotic relationship with sunlight, pasture, and the bovine’s evolved unique digestive capacities as ruminants. “The ‘rumen’ is a fermentation chamber [and] the bovine gut flora is nothing short of miraculous,” writes Nicollette Hahn Niman in her book Defending Beef: The Case For Sustainable Meat Production. “Tiny organisms aid digestion, enabling cattle to survive entirely on cellulosic plants like grass, which transforms the globe’s vast grasslands into an invaluable piece of the human food system.” An environmental lawyer turned cattle rancher, Niman is among many articulate defenders of the grass-fed beef paradigm, co-owning a California cattle ranch with her husband and publicly championing the “go grassy” message. Her book provides a comprehensive critique of the “crappy cows cause climate change” critique advanced by the United Nations in such exhaustive policy statements as “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” published by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Today, “grasses cover around 40% of the earth’s land surface, about 70% of the world’s agricultural area, and are the fourth-largest plant family in the world, containing more than 11,000 species worldwide,” Niman explains, drawing on the pioneering work of Food, Energy and Society scholars David and Marcia Pimentel. “Grass is the base layer of the global food system…it continually converts massive quantities of solar energy into food for grazing animals. Grasses and herbivores, working together, are the indispensable intermediaries between humans and the energy of the sun.” Yaks and other cattle are “uniquely able to eat grass and other cellulosic plants from which humans can get no nourishment,” Niman concludes, “and then “miraculously convert those plants into milk and flesh, which are jam packed full of nutrients…in a form that is often uniquely usable by the human body.”
Niman and other authors, including Cows Save The Planet’s Judith Schwartz, point to the myriad beneficial ecological impacts that grazing animals like yaks provide for the planet, including carbon sequestration for carbon rich soils, obtained via short and intense pulses of grazing time using high densities of animals. “Cattle are the world’s single best hope for reversing climate change,” argues Allan Savory, who has spent decades restoring degraded grassland environments with grass-fed cattle - 40 million acres of grazing land, to be precise, with grass-loving bovines as the key to ecological restoration. The approach? Keep cattle in dense herds and move them often – intense grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil, while their waste adds fertility, their hooves break the soul surface, press in seeds, and push down dead matter to be transformed by soil microorganisms. All of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention, and may be, Savory concludes, “the only way to stop and to reverse desertification the world over.”
Going grassy has now caught the attention of agricultural luminaries here in the northern United States. “When I think about the challenge of feeding northern New England, where I live, from our own resources, I cannot imagine being able to do that successfully without ruminant livestock able to convert the pasture grasses into food,” observes veteran farmer and author Eliot Coleman. “It would not be either easy or wise to grow arable crops on the stony and/or hilly land that has served us for so long as productive pasture.” Meanwhile, in hardscrabble Vermont, a state historically knit together by tiny towns fed by small rocky hill farms, we adopted a rotational grazing system with our yak herds during our summer seasons. A bird’s eye view of our river valley over the past few hundred years reveals exciting possibilities for raising grass-fed livestock side by side with farms growing vegetables, hay, and other food crops.
One other significant element of “going grassy.” Beyond digesting the (yak) meat of the matter, a grass-fed approach considers the impact of the whole animal, in co-domestication with humans, throughout the course of its life on the land. Grazing several dozen acres of pasture grass on our hillside, our yak herd did the maintenance work of oil-powered tractors, daily providing poop for fertilizer, and doing this “brushhogging” in a much more sustainable and quiet fashion (other than the occasional grunt.) One summer at our own family homestead, Tashi, our bottle-fed yak calf, mowed our own lawn – a bit unevenly, to be sure, but he fertilized the grass, pressing down and compacting the soil with his hooves in Savory-like fashion. All he needed were a few shaggy lawn mowing yak compatriots to do a more thorough job. Beyond meat and mowing, as pastoral, nomadic, transhumant peoples have known for a long time, yaks provide manure, plowing, transport, hides, art, bones, skulls, and every day, creature companionship. Co-domestication at its finest.
Looking backward into our deep evolutionary past, and forward into possible planetary futures? “There are many striking parallels between post-industrial men and hunter-gathering men - they are both highly mobile, non-territorial, non-soil-working, nature-interested, much-leisured, function-oriented, small-familied, and altruistic,” observes Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. “The most modern urban men are ready to abandon, if they only knew how, civilization based on war and competition and on an industry so heavy that the human personality as well as the surface of the earth is stamped with its obscenity…new shifts in social thought bring urban man and hunting man closer in their mutual belief in traditional as opposed to existential behavior, in permanence rather than in progress, in small group democracy rather than mass society.” Unlike Shepard, who proved a mystifyingly harsh critic of pastoralism, I envision “going grassy” as a bridge forward toward a more decentralized, resilient, and democratic future – for Vermont, New England, and all cold weather regions capable of joining the Planet Yak community.
In sum: yak pastoralism’s potential to bridge our species from post-modern industrialism to a more resilient future begins with “going grassy,” co-domestication between yaks and humans. Here’s my modest suggestion - we 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might consider adopting grass-fed yak meat and reincorporating decentralized pastoral beef raising into our 21st century agricultural practices and foodscapes to blunt the negative impacts of the global corporate commercial mono-crop agricultural juggernaut. It might also behoove us to learn how, historically peaking, transhumant cultures incorporate yak into their decentralized food production systems – how they “go grassy” and digest the (yak) meat of the matter. Not all pastoralists eat animals, of course, but this seeming contradiction actually highlights one of this chapter’s central claims – thinking only about bovine beef production and consumption in isolation ignores larger fundamental realities about how yak (and other animals) holistically contribute to place-based cultures around the world, and how we in the West might reincorporate grass-fed meat into our agriculture and food economies moving forward.
One last story. While trekking into northern Nepal’s Kingdom of Mustang, we passed through the gateway town of Kagbeni featuring a local tea lodge called “Yac Donalds.” Our small team of trekkers agreed we’d make a stop at the end of our tour, and arrived back in Kagbeni footsore and travel weary, our hearts and minds set on burgers and fries after two weeks of rugged off-road travel. “Homely atmosphere with organic cuisine, Yac Donald is derived from Himalayan very local animal – Yak - which is one of only sustainable mountain animal in Nepal and Dong is the king of the yak,” explained the Yac Donalds menu. Arriving at the trekking season’s tail end, we caught the cooks by surprise – it was a quiet day in Kagbeni. Almost an hour after placing our order (“fast food” this was not!), our hosts served up one of the more delicious yak burgers I’ve ever enjoyed, along with side cars of “french fries.” I asked the owners where they sourced their ingredients. They gestured over their shoulder: the potatoes grown right up the road in fields below the upper mountain pastures where the locals grazed their yaks. What if, I wondered, Planet Yak could do this everywhere? Turn the McDonalds paradigm on its head – build a global franchise dedicated to hyperlocal yak terroir, providing places dedicated to serving grass-fed local yak beef across the world for adventurous eaters?
Yac Donalds in the town of Kagbeni, on the trekking trail into Nepal's Kingdom of Mustang.
The night I finished drafting this chapter, I thawed 1/2 pound of Vermont-grown grass-fed yak burger for a celebratory dinner. Sculpting the ground yak muscle in my hands, I admired the beef's deep rich reddish hue, drinking in the slightly sweet, herbaceous aroma of the meat as I shaped a patty. Sear browning the yak in a medium size cast iron skillet with just a hint of canola oil for lubrication evoked the music of the Maillard reaction, and both the skilled beef and my mouth's taste buds began to sizzle in anticipation of the meal to come. Before I nestling the meat in the midst of a Vermont-made Koffee Kup Bakery potato hamburger roll (we take our localvore impulses seriously here in the Green Mountains), I melted two thinly shaved slices of yak cheese atop the hot brown meat, made of Highland Chauri milk sourced in Kathmandu by Nepal's Dairy Development Corporation (a trekking souvenir saved for this special occasion). A Tunbridge farm fresh tomato, an egg (sunny side up), and a dash of Himalayan red rock salt and a pinch of pepper on top completed the masterpiece Condiment choice? Vermont maple horseradish mustard, of course. Perched on a kitchen stool, I took my first bite of this burger, remembering for just a moment Planet Yak's potential to transform our 21st century industrial meat economy. Overwhelmed by the taste, I gave grateful acknowledgement to the yak in question, and embraced the tastes and textures of this remarkable gustatory gift.
The "Kathmandu Burger" - 1/2 pound of Vermont grown yak beef with Nepalese trimmings.
Go grassy, I say.