Sustainability Plus

Communications > Sustainability Plus > Posts > Among Locavores, the Meat that Gets No Respect (But Should)

The demand for locally grown food has grown so widely and is expressed so passionately that a word has now been invented for it — locavorism.

Yet, hunting — or to be more specific, game meat — is seldom associated with it.

But shouldn't it be? Isn't wild game, by definition, locally grown food? For that matter, isn't it free-range and organic, precisely the kind of food locavores desire?

Many wildlife experts, including Dr. Mark Smith, answer a resounding yes to that question.

"If you're concerned, for whatever reason, with commercially grown or processed meats or want to follow a locavore lifestyle, game meat is the way to do it," says Smith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System wildlife scientist and Auburn University assistant professor of forestry and wildlife sciences.

But Smith says hunting secures something even nearer and dearer to the locavorist heart: knowing exactly where your food comes from.

Yet, within most locavorist circles, deer and other wild game, which impose the smallest carbon footprint of any animals harvested for meat, scarcely rate as a blip on most locavorist food radars — a fact Smith attributes to persistent stereotyping.

"Whatever the cause, there is still this perception among some people that hunting is bad, killing is wrong." says Smith.

Therein lies one of the great ironies associated with hunting, Smith says. Without regulated hunting, life for us humans would be different. Far more deer and other game animals would be around to cause high-speed auto collisions on the nation's roads or, minimally, causing considerable mischief munching their way through home gardens and suburban landscapes.

In Alabama alone, some 30,000 accidents each year stem from vehicle collisions with deer, averaging about $1,500 an accident, Smith says. Many other accidents likely go unreported.

Federal, state and local governments have developed all manner of lethal and nonlethal methods to reduce potentially harmful human/animal encounters, but experience has taught time and again that regulated hunting remains the most cost-effective strategy.

As a prime example, Smith cites translocation methods, removing deer and other animals to more remote locations.

But like all other animal control strategies used in lieu of hunting, translocation is beset by challenges. Aside from being especially costly, it often proves self-defeating in the long run.

The stress imposed on deer following removal to unfamiliar surroundings typically increases mortality rates, Smith says. Unintended consequences may also follow these animal introductions — the spread of disease, the disruption of preexisting ecosystems, and simply moving the problem into someone else's backyard.

Other options are just as costly and inconvenient, Smith says. For example, high-wire fences built to contain wildlife may cost as much as $10,000 to $15,000 a mile, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

Approaches such as fertility drugs, sharpshooting by trained experts, and trap-and-euthanize operations cost as much or more.

Hunting offers other benefits. Local hunting hot spots typically form the nucleus of satellite enterprises, including sporting good stores, restaurants, hunting lodges and meat processors to name a few — all of which embody locavore values.

Another especially well-served group: local landowners who sell hunting rights to their land.

"The South, while not exactly a Mecca of leased hunting, is a region of the country where lots of leasing is occurring," says Smith, citing leasing rates that typically run between $10 and $14 an acre.

"This could add up to a few thousand acres a year for some landowners," he says.

Underscoring yet another strong affinity between hunting and locavorism, Smith says the principle behind hunting leases bears a strong resemblance to another practice near and dear to locavore hearts: community-supported agriculture, in which local consumers contract with local producers to secure a share of their produce.

"Just as consumers chip in to secure a desired amount of produce from a local famer, hunters lease tracts of land from property owners to secure game meat," he says.

There are other stark parallels. For example, one expert says hunters have been thinking and acting like locavores long before the term was invented. Much like locavores, for example, they're training their sights closer to home as a cost-saving measure following the recent economic downturn.

"Based on what I've gathered from hunter blogs and other online sources, they're not planting as many food plots or driving as far to a hunting lease," says Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff, Auburn associate professor of wildlife ecology and management. "They're figuring out how to tighten their belts, but they're not turning their backs on hunting."

So what will it take to bring these two disparate camps together?

Some observers contend that hunters could start by underscoring their longstanding emphasis on land stewardship and securing sustainable food sources — once again, the same sentiments that are driving the emerging locavore phenomenon.