Tuesday, October 16, 2012

There's Gotta Be a Better Way to Clean Goat Guts!

The sun hadn't yet peered above the horizon - so I could only hear the crashing ocean waves as I walked to meet up with the family of goat butchers I'd met just two days ago. It was 5am; and by the time I arrived - their one goat of the day was already slaughtered and on the fire. I was greeted cheerfully and offered a steaming cup of malagasy coffee.

The malagache; as I believe for most African meat workers - use an open fire to scorch their animal carcasses prior to removing the guts..... it looks just disgusting - but I try to keep my emotions in check as I remember the lessons learned from a dearly departed colleague; Dr. Chris Raines from the Penn State University Meat Sciences Department. Before his tragic car accident just over a year ago - Chris and I had many discussions about the purported benefits of small scale slaughter and meat processing. I had come to him as a wide-eyed cattle farmer hell-bent on developing viable meat processing on a micro-scale.

At first I thought Dr. Raines was 'just another meat scientist in the pocket of industry' - as the narrative goes; but over our more than year long discourse - I came to see his very valid point. It is a point, as well - reflected deeply by some of the latest evolutionary thinking in agricultural development!

What Chris was incredibly adept at, was understanding the trade-offs inherent in the complex adaptive systems that yield our edible meat-stuffs  The scale of operation (e.g. the size of a butchery) is - in many cases - far less important than the management of the operation. Indeed - very few problems are as scale-dependent as the "Local Organic" food movement too frequently touts; most challenges we find in our meat systems simply require the best and most appropriate management for the size of the operation.

I wanted to visit this family-run independent goat butchery because; compared to the larger scale urban meat markets - their potential for hygienic handling seemed orders of magnitude higher. I chatted with the brethren of butchers as they carefully tended their product - it became clear that their care for their work was genuine. Yet - my point is not that these small-scale goat folk are good; and that larger urban meat markets are bad - far from it.

While the eldest brother prepared the carcass for quartering (dividing the whole animal into quarters and ultimately steaks and ground chevre) - the youngest brother took to his thankless task; manually - or should I say orally - cleaning out the goat bowels...... I've been curious about the hand-made charcuterie that abounds in the marketplaces here - but was not quite prepared for this intensely personal practice. Is this practice requisite to small-scale sausage making? What kind of improvements would it take to make it such that this otherwise 'good' butchery didn't require one of it's key workers to kiss goat butt every time they process?

There are aspects of this micro-butchery that make it far better than "the big guys"; but there are also limitations - for whatever systemic reasons - that make it far worse. As R. Ford Denison describes in his latest Darwinian Agriculture - what we must seek in terms of agricultural development is "trade-off free improvements" - improvements to the whole that don't also 'cost' some measure of quality elsewhere in the system. For evolved biological systems, Denison theorises; such trade-off free improvements may be challenging to find (whether through GMOs or Agro-ecology). For evolved socio-economic systems (such as butcheries), I postulate many of us have only begun to look in this direction.

In the great global debates about meat; we should paying less mind to the divisive "big vs. small" narratives - and more attention to matching the scale to the society; and then adapting the management to that scale. Improving meat systems in Madagascar will be no easy feat for anyone; the only clear thing we can say is that cookie cutter one-size-fits-all solutions imported from the west will be unlikely to work whether they are big and efficient or small and artisanal. What is needed is a concerted effort and support for regional butchers to internally and cooperatively search for those trade-off free improvements that may be out there - and start implementing them!

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