My favorite meal in the world is a bacon-cheeseburger. My grandpa, a jovial, hearty man would say, “Good on ya,” whenever he’d see me demolish a steak or tear apart a plate of bacon and eggs. I’d feel validated, even blush with a strange sort of pride.
My girlfriend is vegan; she’s not one of those “I’m a vegan,” vegans (you know what I’m talking about), but she’ll send me the occasional tweet explaining how smart pigs are or how terrible factory farming is for our collective carbon footprint. I always tell her how important this type of information is and how she should help spread awareness for the environmental impact of unsustainable farming.
Yet, somehow I didn’t change. The worst part was I knew all the information – knew about the environmental argument against eating meat in this modern, industrialized fashion, and I changed nothing. I convinced myself there were other aspects of my life I could focus on improving – that would solve suffice, right?
Then, I met Carla.
I arrived in Costa Rica two weeks ago around noon, just in time for lunch. I went straight for Casado con Carne, a traditional Costa Rican dish. The harmony of beef, rice, plantains, peppers, and onions created a fantastic meal, and I thought to myself, I’m going to love this place.
Days passed in San Jose, before our group moved to the CIEE campus in San Luis, just outside the pristine Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Being somewhat of an ecology nerd, I fell in love immediately. Hummingbirds flitted from bush to bush right in front of my eyes, shades of green I had never seen before covered the surrounding mountains, and I even spotted an agouti dash past on the way to my first class.
When one of the resident naturalists asked if anyone wanted to milk cows the next morning, I jumped to the opportunity. Why not explore rural Costa Rica to the fullest?
I woke at 6 AM the next day and traipsed up to the small barn only a few minutes away from campus. A worker at the stables (whose name I truthfully can’t remember) led a full-grown heifer to a station where she could feed peacefully as each of us took a turn milking.
It was a unique experience, and I learned how inefficiently ten college students milk a cow. Perhaps, this is a good commentary on how removed much of Gen-Z is from the processes that put food on our tables.
However, it was while I waited for my peers to finish taking their turns on the cow that I learned a much more important lesson. I stood by a pen that held two calves, only a month old yet already larger than me.
Remembering a video my girlfriend had sent me featuring a cow playing fetch like a dog, I extended a hand to the darker brown calf. She approached carefully, sniffing my hand with a gentle curiosity. Then, as if reading my thoughts, she began to lick me—much like a dog would.
And I laughed. Hard.
It was such an unexpected response from the cow, whom I will now reveal to be the mysterious Carla. Carla let me pet her surprisingly soft fur, but she would always resume her incessant cleaning of my entire forearm. I met her big brown eyes, silently asking, “What the hell are you doing?”
If she had a response, she didn’t care to share it.
Shortly after, one of the naturalists who’d accompanied my friends and I showed us the biodigester nearby, one of several around the CIEE campus. The apparatus breaks down waste from the livestock with bacteria that live inside a large, flexible tube. This, along with a few other filtration systems allow the water to reenter the San Luis watershed, without polluting the nearby river and tributaries. The byproduct of the biodigester’s process is methane gas, which is funneled back to campus and used for cooking.
At first, I was slightly repulsed by the idea that Carla’s feces helped cook the lunches I’d been eating but was more impressed by the innovative mechanism that made such practical use of otherwise harmful waste.
We’d discussed sustainability while in San Jose, and it was mentioned in passing that Costa Rica is one of the few nations that uses no fossil fuels whatsoever. For somebody that wants to pursue a career in sustainability policy and research, this was incredible news to me. I’ve learned an awful lot about environmentalism as an undergraduate, studying different problems individually. However, it wasn’t until that morning, as I walked back from the pasture, that I truly realized sustainability was a complete process, not just something piecemeal like recycling.
Here in San Luis, they repurpose cow dung to cook the food we eat, and bacteria is used to mute the effect of cattle pollution. The livestock live peacefully on farms large enough to support the surrounding population, but not too large that it comes at a huge cost to the environment. The food is all locally-sourced, from rice and beans to delicious plantains and fresh cheese. Somehow, the taste of everything is enhanced with the knowledge that the negative impact is diminished.
So, what now?
A medium-rare bacon-cheeseburger remains my favorite meal, as I haven’t forgotten what they taste like. That being said, I made a new covenant with Carla that day (and no, it’s not just to win brownie points with my girlfriend—though that helps) as I left her that day: I was going to try harder to adopt sustainability into all facets of my lifestyle. And (don’t fall off that chair) that I wouldn’t eat beef until the industry is streamlined.
I mean, if it can be done almost effortlessly in Monteverde, why can’t America, and the rest of the first-world, put the world first?