April 13, 2021
By Dr. James C. Kroll
As intensive agriculture pushed across North America following European settlement, wild meats became increasingly scarce. In fact, by the early 20th century most people had to rely on farming and ranching for food. Such staples as wild venison gave way to farm-raised beef, lamb and pork produced under confined conditions. Forests were indiscriminately replaced by croplands and managed pastures.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 200 years ago there were great bottomland forests extending over 30 million acres in the Southeast alone. Today, only about 40 percent of this region remains in productive forest ecosystems. In fact, over 400,000 acres of wetlands were converted to cropland just from 1965-75.
This largely resulted from the emergence of soybeans as a protein source, due in turn to lifestyle changes among urbanites. Vegetarianism appealed to an interesting mix of people: some opposed to using animals for food, others simply seeking cheaper protein.
Meanwhile, hunters declined as a percentage of the growing population. Opportunities to hunt became more limited by the emerging urban/technology lifestyle. Today there are only about 11 million deer hunters (3.35 percent of the U.S. population). Yet by my estimate, on average they annually harvest some 360 million pounds of venison.
Until recently, deer meat wasn’t considered a gourmet food item in North America. But that’s changed. My friend Mike Robinson’s Outdoor Channel show Farming the Wild has been a hit, playing off the “locavore” movement: the desire to eat foods more naturally and locally produced.
Due in part to COVID-19, people are fleeing large metropolitan areas in search of a more rural lifestyle. I’m receiving calls weekly from folks wanting help in managing their newly acquired properties for wildlife. And producing deer meat for the table is squarely in their sights.
VENISON & THE ENVIRONMENT
Vegetarians often claim that eating plants is more “environmentally sound” than eating meat. I submit there’s no evidence to support this claim, and particularly not in regard to wild venison. First, let’s note that loss of forests to corn and soybean agriculture. Humans can’t eat or digest the vast majority of the world’s plants, and billions of people live where they can’t hunt or gather their own nutritious foods. So modern farming practices are needed to feed all these mouths.
Faced with this shortage, agricultural scientists genetically modified corn and soybeans to be immune to certain herbicides. While this increased yields, the hidden costs of growing soybeans alone are staggering. They include greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution and heavy water consumption.
What about the recent craze for “fake meat?” Some of those products are made from soybeans. Others replace soybeans with peas and rice, but those crops have similar environmental costs.
Coming from an agricultural background and working with many fellow rural landowners, I understand the need for efficient farming and ranching. But in the face of issues such as those just described, we should promote venison as a healthy, environmentally responsible way to feed people.
A whitetail doe is unique among ruminants, in that she has the potential to wean more than her body weight annually. Here in East Texas, an average doe weighs about 100 pounds on the hoof, and the weaning weight of a fawn is about 60 pounds. If the doe weans both her fawns, that’s 120 pounds. This is high-quality protein produced naturally and without substantial environmental cost.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS?
Ours has become an obese society, largely due to the consumption of too much unhealthy food. Red meat often is brought up as a primary culprit. Yet “red” is a broad term. When we analyze the composition of venison it comes out No. 1 over other red meats, including domesticated meats.
Venison is low in calories but high in protein, as well as B vitamins and zinc (which offers important immune function). This meat also has higher proportions of beneficial nutrients, with five times more omega-3 fatty acids than beef and the tightest omega-6:3 ratio of all meats, including chicken (2.2:1 for venison, 8.4:1 for chicken). Plus, venison contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, thought to have a positive effect on heart health and offer protection against cancer.
An intangible benefit to wild venison is the health benefits of the outdoor lifestyle, including exercise and improved mental health. So that’s another reason the meat of North America’s No. 1 big-game animal is a healthy alternative to “factory farm” sources of protein, including farmed fish.
IS VENISON SAFE TO EAT?
When properly butchered and prepared, venison has proven to be safer than livestock meats. None of the chemicals used in confined animal production show up in significant amounts in wild deer.
Concern that Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) could cross species barriers from deer into humans persists in the popular media. Every wildlife agency’s website contains this cut-and-paste comment: “Although CWD has not been found in humans, avoid eating venison from an obviously sick animal.
First, who in their right mind would eat an “obviously sick” animal? Second, despite what you might have heard or read, no scientific, peer-reviewed study to date has reported CWD infection of a human.
How many pounds of venison have been eaten by humans since CWD was discovered in Colorado in the 1960s? My gross calculation is at least 18 billion pounds. Yet monitoring of the human equivalent of CWD, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, has shown no significant increase in cases in the 50 years since CWD’s discovery.
So wild venison remains an ecologically sound, safe source of protein. When you harvest and process a whitetail, you know where the meat came from and how it was handled. Hunting is a healthy lifestyle yielding a host of societal benefits and delicious food for the table. Bon appétit!