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What About Grass-fed Beef?
April 18th, 2010

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Feeding grain to cattle has got to be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.

Cows, sheep, and other grazing animals are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which those of us who possess only one stomach cannot digest, into food that we can digest. They can do this because they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon (in the case of cows) fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.

Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but in the United States today what is commercially available is almost all feedlot beef. The reason? It’s faster, and so more profitable. Seventy-five years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

Switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animal’s digestive system that it can kill the animal if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics. These animals are designed to forage, but we make them eat grain, primarily corn, in order to make them as fat as possible as fast as possible.

Author and small-scale cattleman Michael Pollan wrote recently in the New York Times about what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed grain:

“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.

A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”

All this is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound consequences for us. Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are the new “superbugs” that are increasingly rendering our “miracle drugs” ineffective.

As well, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria, which in turn kills people who eat undercooked hamburger.

E. coli 0157:H7 has only recenty appeared on the scene. First isolated in the 1980s, this pathogen is now found in the intestines of most U.S. feedlot cattle. The practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for microbes to come into being that can harm and kill us. As Michael Pollan explains:

“Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids — and go on to killl us. By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”

Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.

Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. As a consequence, the meat from feedlot animals typically contains only 15- 50 percent as much omega-3s as that from grassfed livestock.

This is certainly an advantage for grassfed beef, but it comes with a cost. The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition contributes to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that most people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”

In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.

As well as these nutritional advantages, there are also decided environmental benefits to grassfed beef. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy. Growing the corn used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,

“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”

In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting. The animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’ wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.

From a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond. Pastured livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming. They are not cooped up in cages barely larger than their own bodies, or packed together like sardines for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.

It’s important to remember that grassfed is not the same as organic. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free. While these products come from animals who most likely were fed less grain than the industry norm, they typically still spent their last months (or in the case of dairy cows virtually their whole lives) in feedlots where they were fed grain. Even when the grain is raised organically, feeding large amounts of grain to a ruminant animal compromises the nutritional value of the resulting meat or dairy products and exacts an added toll on the environment.

Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.

Grass-fed beef is typically more expensive, but I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do. While there are surely many advantages to grassfed beef over feedlot beef, this is still not a food that I, for one, am able to recommend.

It takes a long time and a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger. Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population. But in the world as it is today, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.

We do not yet have studies that tell us what percentage of the health problems associated with eating beef would be reduced or eliminated by the eating of grassfed beef. I’m sure grassfed beef is much healthier than feedlot beef, both for the environment and for the consumer. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have many advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be better.

I am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound like a hamburger was truly a health food.

The competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of Coke.

Comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, more humane, and more environmentally sustainable. It’s indeed better. If you are going to eat meat, dairy products or eggs, then that’s the best way to do it.

But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They take less toll on the environment, but the land on which the animals graze still must often be irrigated, thus using up dwindling water resources, and it may be fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers.

And there are other environmental costs. Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis.

Plus there is the tremendous toll grazing cattle takes on the land itself. Even with U.S. beef cattle today spending the last half of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. Just about the only land that isn’t grazed is in places that for one reason or another can’t be used by livestock—inaccessible areas, dense forests and brushlands, the driest deserts, sand dunes, extremely rocky areas, cliffs and mountaintops, cities and towns, roads and parking lots, airports, and golf courses. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”

Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.

The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”

In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”

This is an interesting choice of words. What “Wildlife Services” actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.

Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.

All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is “Living with Wildlife,” intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who wish to use public lands to graze their livestock.

The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate. Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.

“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985

While grassfed beef certainly has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat. If as a society we did this, then the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as ecosystems.

And there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like you to hold. And there is some truth to it.

But it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse.

The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.

These comments are moderated to support respectful, non-commercial, and open-minded dialogue.

53 Responses to “What About Grass-fed Beef?”

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  2. SoLuna says:

    How can I deal with Food Policy Councils nationwide that are promoting grass-fed beef and using the council’s as a vehicle to establish the acceptance of a grass-fed beef culture? It is still beef and it will kill you!

  3. john says:

    I live in PA. The beef that I buy from a local farmer avoids many of the problems the article associates with grass fed beef. I’m trying a new farmer this time around (my fourth quarter cow in 2 years). The cows have a large pasture and are not crowded at all. Much of the land used would just lay fallow or be used for growing corn and some of the land is hilly which is not the best land to grow crops on but fine for cows. I think the cows are better for the land than big fields of feed corn sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. The cows, if moved around and not too crowded, seem to improve the land and probably increase biodiversity, not too many predators here endangering cows. You sometimes see deer sharing the pasture with the cows.
    As to the cost: When buying grain fed beef at the supermarket I only buy expensive cuts (flank steak, strip steaks, pot roasts, etc.). I avoid ground beef since most of the dangers of grain fed beef are worse in ground meat. So my cost is high per pound. Now that I buy grass fed beef I am getting a lot of ground beef. But all my ground beef is from one cow, not 100 cows like when you buy grain fed. So now I eat all different cuts including a bunch of ground beef. So, in my case, the price per pound is probably the same when you average it out.
    The farmer tells me that they use an organic natural processing plant. Of course I’m just taking their word and don’t really know the details of the slaughtering. But taking the word of a local farmer committed to raising natural grass fed beef is easier than taking the word of a large beef producer or industry spokesman.
    The taste is different. With less fat steaks must be cooked rare or they will get dry. With less fat and marbling the taste is not as rich and the meat is not as tender as we are used to after a lifetime of eating corn fed beef. But I’m getting used to it and will continue. Since the cows are much smaller than traditional beef the steaks are smaller and we end up eating less beef that is healthier and better for the environment. Eating less beef means we eat more fruits and vegetables, many of which I grow in my backyard garden. My backyard garden uses no oil to produce loads of food, fed with some organic fertilizer but mostly compost that I make myself mostly from the weeds which I seem to be very good at growing. In 25 years I’ve turned clay soil into rich dark black loamy soil that is a foot thick and I can dig with my hands. When I pick up my latest quarter next week I won’t buy any grain fed beef for 6 months. I estimate that I am paying about $7 pound, expensive for ground beef but cheaper than filet mignon at the supermarket. The downside for me is that I only get to eat 2 flank steaks a year rather than one a week. I’m getting used to it and rediscovering the many uses for ground beef.
    Maybe grass fed beef can’t completely replace grain fed beef worldwide but it has for me. And there are theories that the more of your food that comes from your locality the healthier for you and the environment.
    To paraphrase Michael Pollin: You can vote for better agriculture policies, 3 times a day. And, you are what you eat eats.

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