There is a lot of debate when it comes to if beef is good for you or the environment. What complicates things, and I think causes a lot of confusion, is it depends on how the cow is raised. If the cow spent it’s life on lush pastures and didn’t eat grain, then that animal will deeply nourish your body and help the environment. If that cow was raised in a feedlot with thousands of it’s closest friends then that animal is more likely to contribute to environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance and E-coli breakouts.
It seems like every year or two there is a nationwide beef recall due to E-Coli. But research has shown that feeding cattle a forage based diet (versus a concentrate or grain diet) up until slaughter can dramatically reduce the chances of contamination and infection. A grain diet is full of starch and a cow’s digestive system was never designed to handle a high starch diet, leading to a lot of undigested grains in the colon. All of this fermenting grain produces acids like acetic, propionic and butyric acids. This acidic environment is perfect for acid resistant E-Coli bacteria to flourish.
A cow finished in a feedlot will spend the entire time from weaning until processing in a feedlot. During a cow’s time in the feedlot, the cow will be in cramped, dirty, stinking conditions with thousands of others in the same conditions. They are also fed a very unnatural diet of corn, soybeans and other grains. Because their bodies were never designed for this, they develop all sorts of health problems. Not only does it cause unhealthy animals, it impacts animal performance in the feedlot. And poor performance is bad for business. But, feedlots have a solution for this, that only helps their bottom line. It does not benefit the cattle, the environment or those that eat the meat grown in such conditions.
The solution they came up with? Subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics. And while antibiotics are an important, life saving medicine, they were never designed to be given continuously.
Some statistics on antibiotics:
Clearly animal welfare is not at the forefront of the industrial agricultural system. Efficiency, profits and lowering cost of production have come before providing animals with decent lives. Basic things like fresh air, sunshine, and a soft place to rest. Living in a filthy, crowded, stinking environment cannot be considered humane- no matter how good it looks to the bottom line.
With all the scary facts, statistics and bad living conditions, it’s enough to put anyone off of steak. But, fear not, there is a viable option that benefits everyone involved. Raising a cow on grass addresses all the concerns mentioned above and even comes with some pretty great benefits for you and the environment.
University of Louisiana research has indicated that cattle methane emissions can be notably reduced simply by rotating cattle onto fresh pastures. Methane can further be reduced by having dung beetles in pastures.
Methane is not the only emission that can be reduced by switching to grass fed beef. By having cattle outdoors fuel usage is reduced, which results in less carbon dioxide emissions. A grass based system will also reduce methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide by 8% when compared to a confinement system (feedlot). Ammonia emissions are reduced by an impressive 30%.
Carbon sequestration is the next thing improved by a grass/forage based farming system. By transitioning from feed crops (think corn, or soy) to perennial pasture, carbon sequestration goes from zero to as high as 3,400 pounds per acre per annum.
Grass fed beef packs a nutritional punch when compared to conventionally raised beef. It’s higher in nutrients like:
Personally, and I will admit that I am spoiled when it comes to good meat, I much prefer the taste of grassfed beef when compared to grain fed/conventional. And how could it possibly taste good? Cattle raised in that environment spend months living in a crowded, dirty space breathing in putrid air and eating a diet that causes all sorts of health problems (for you and the cow). Compare that to a grass fed cow that spends their life on pastures with fresh air and sunshine and plenty of room to be a cow. Grass fed animals are not treated with subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics to keep them “healthy”.
I particularly like this quote from Nicolette Hahn Neiman’s Defending Beef: “I’d much rather my food source had spent it’s life exercising, breathing fresh air and grazing meadows than cooped up in a crowded, stinking warehouse. Why would I want to eat food that originated from a place I would never want to visit?”
Instead, take the time to search out quality proteins, from quality sources. Often, this will mean directly from a farm where you can talk to the farmer, ask questions, and even see where the animals were raised.