A Better Choice: Deer

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in: Soapbox

Jackson Landers

Nearly all of us are concerned with the ethics of our food. Some draw a simple line against eating any sort of meat. Others look for free-range or “cruelty-free” options. Most people reading this would probably be unwilling to eat a dog or a cat, but wouldn’t flinch at a burger. But what’s the reasoning? Why is it OK to eat a lamb or a cow, but not a kitten or a horse?

Meat is not the only food that is the byproduct of animals suffering. Other foods have what I call a “blood footprint,” but the relationship is more subtle. It is possible for a vegetarian meal to require more suffering than a carnivorous meal. A thoughtful carnivore, especially if she is a hunter, can potentially eat with a smaller blood footprint than a vegetarian.

Soy burger death toll

Consider the typical blood footprint of that mainstay of a vegetarian diet, the soy burger. The meal itself contains no meat. But the production of soy and tofu on an industrial scale requires quite a lot of killing. Crop depredation by deer and other animals is a huge problem for most soy growers. The majority of states will issue depredation permits to farmers who are suffering crop damage, and as a result, deer are shot in high numbers in the name of protecting soy and corn crops. Some states require that the deer shot under these permits be left to rot, and forbid any meat from being taken from the animals. Crows, starlings, blackbirds and other birds are shot, trapped and poisoned by the millions every year in North America for the sole purpose of protecting crops. Millions of mice, voles and ground squirrels are trapped, poisoned or otherwise killed for the same purpose.

All of the food harvested from these fields is technically vegetarian fodder, but how many lives were lost to produce that tofu burger? How much suffering was required? You won’t find anything on the label about that. If your purpose in ordering from the vegetarian menu was to dodge cruelty, your mission failed.

Good life, bad day

True, if you compare a tofu burger to a grain-fed beef burger, the tofu burger comes out ahead. Corn-fed beef involves all of the sins required to grow its food, and then the cow is slaughtered to boot. But a wild venison burger is arguably a more ethical way of putting lunch on the table. A wild deer requires no killing until the moment of harvest to produce some 40 pounds of meat, even from a smallish animal. The deer lives free of cages, electric prods, hormones or antibiotics. No other animals are trapped, poisoned or shot to bring it to maturity. The blood footprint of the venison burger may be less than that of a tub of popcorn. One life, divided among many meals. The deer lives a good life, and then has one bad day.

There is more to the cruelty in our food than the presence of animal flesh. Hunting abundant, non-endangered wildlife is an honest and ethically defensible means of reducing our blood footprints. We can find plenty of other good ethics supported by hunting for our food. Deer represent a means of transforming land with other primary uses into sources of food. The deer graze in our backyards and in public parks; that’s residential and recreational land with the potential for producing roughly 40 pounds of meat annually for every five acres of mixed suburban development. State and national forests are producing timber and paper as well as venison. Airports and highway median strips are transportation infrastructures that are also making meat. In a world that is running out of arable land, deer produce food in places that we had otherwise removed from the food system.

Think local

Odds are that there is a wild deer within a few miles of wherever you are sitting as you read this. These are not endangered species; whitetails in particular are dramatically overpopulated in much of North America. Many state and local parks allow hunting in designated areas. There is probably some place within an hour’s drive of your home where you can hunt deer for food. Compare those food miles to the journey of thousands of miles that a shipment of soy or corn makes — plus the trip around the world that is made by the petroleum used in fertilizer.

In terms of animal cruelty and environmental ethics, there is a powerful case in favor of hunting for your own food. Can everyone do this? No, but certainly we need more people hunting for food than we already have. When butchered with care, venison tastes like lean beef, without any sort of gamey taste (if it’s gamey, blame the hunter or the butcher, not the deer). 
Wild venison absolutely beats out most soy in the ethics department. The blood footprint is lower, the food miles are lower and the land use is more responsible. The question now is what you, personally, are going to do about it.


This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor Jackson Landers, who grew up in a vegetarian household, is the author of “Hunting Deer for Food.” A hunting instructor and guide, he has taught hunting skills to hundreds of people, including vegans, grandmothers and chefs. He lives near Charlottesville, Va., with his two children.

Enter here to win Jackson Landers book and learn more about hunting deer for food.

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