- Grass-fed beef represents a sought-after solution to unsustainable agricultural practices – one that could not only drastically reduce pollution but also produce a nutritionally superior meat
- While far from the norm at this point, a new appreciation for grass-fed meat, and all that it stands for, is steadily growing and these so-called ‘unconventional’ ranchers are now becoming mainstays in the industry
- Grass-fed beef is higher in certain vitamins and minerals, lower in total fat, and has a more balanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than grain-fed beef
- Grass-fed beef is now widely available via farmer’s markets, food coops, direct farm-to-consumer sales, and even online.
In the grand scheme of all that is wrong with modern agriculture, the unnatural transition that turned cattle (which naturally eat grass) into grain-eating ruminants is at the top of the list.
When a cow is left to eat on its own, it doesn’t choose corn or soy to munch on… it selects grass, but in the twisted realm of agribusiness, raising grass-fed cows, especially in the heart of ‘corn country’ (the Midwest) is now regarded as a specialty industry “for the crazies,” as the New York Times recently reported.1
“Where the great cattle herds once roamed, grass finishing — an intricate and lengthy ballet involving the balance of protein and energy derived from the stalk, with the flavor rendered by earth, plants and even stress — is a nearly lost art.
…said Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University… ‘The attitude out there is that grass-fed is for the crazies.’”
Yet, far from being ‘crazy,’ grass-fed beef represents a sought-after solution to unsustainable agricultural practices – one that could not only drastically reduce pollution but also produce a nutritionally superior meat.
While far from the norm at this point, a new appreciation for grass-fed meat, and all that it stands for, is steadily growing and these so-called ‘unconventional’ ranchers are now becoming mainstays in the industry.
Change to the Cattle Industry Must Come ‘From Educated People From the Outside’
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), in which the majority of US beef (and pork, chicken and eggs) is raised, contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – in fact, more than the entire global transportation industry.
They also contribute to climate disruption by their impact on deforestation and draining of wetlands, and because of the nitrous oxide emissions from huge amounts of pesticides used to grow the genetically engineered corn and soy fed to animals raised in CAFOs.
The cows are fattened for slaughter on giant feed lots as quickly as possible (on average between 14 and 18 months) with the help of grains, as CAFOs represent a corporate-controlled system characterized by large-scale, centralized, low profit-margin production, processing and distribution systems.
Contrary to popular arguments, factory farming is not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That’s a 70 percent loss.
With the Earth’s population predicted to reach 9 billion by mid-century, the planet can no longer afford this reckless, unhealthy and environmentally disastrous farming system. And as Prescott Frost, great-grandson of poet Robert Frost who has entered the grass-fed meat business, told the New York Times:2
“If change is going to come to the cattle industry, it’s got to come from educated people from the outside,” Mr. Frost said, quoting from Allan Nation, the publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, considered the grazier’s bible.”
Grass-Fed Beef Is Better for You, Better for the Planet and Better for the Cows
A joint effort between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Clemson University researchers determined a total of 10 key areas where grass-fed is better than grain-fed beef for human health.3 In a side-by-side comparison, they determined that grass-fed beef was:
|Lower in total fat||Higher in beta-carotene||Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)|
|Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin||Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium||Higher in total omega-3s|
|A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)||Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter||Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)|
Another troubling aspect of grain-fed cattle involves the well-being of the animal and, consequently, the health effect this has on you. Common consequences among grain-fed cattle include:4
- Acidosis. During the normal digestive process, bacteria in the rumen of cattle produce a variety of acids. Saliva neutralizes the acidity from grass-based diets, but grain-based eating in feedlots prohibits saliva production. The net result is “acid indigestion.”
Animals with this condition are plagued with diarrhea, go off their feed, pant, salivate excessively, kick at their bellies, and eat dirt. Over time, acidosis can lead to a condition called “rumenitis,” an inflammatory response to too much acid and too little roughage and results in inefficient nutrient absorption.
- Liver abscesses. From 15 to 30 percent of feedlot cattle have liver abscesses, which result when bacteria may leak out through ulcerated rumen in cattle and are ultimately transported to the liver.
- Bloat. During digestion, cows produce gas and when they are on pasture, they belch up the gas without any difficulty. Grain-based feeding causes these gasses to become trapped, and results in bloat. In more serious cases of bloat, the rumen becomes so distended with gas that the animal is unable to breathe and dies from asphyxiation.
- Feedlot polio. A highly acidic digestive environment may result in the production of an enzyme called “thiaminase,” which destroys vitamin B1, starving the brain of energy and creating paralysis.
- Dust pneumonia. In dry weather, the feedlot can become a dust bowl, which springs the cattle’s immune system into action and keeps it running on a constant basis, ultimately resulting in respiratory ailments and even death.
- Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is a living example of how incredibly successful and sustainable natural farming can be. He produces beef, chicken, eggs, turkey, rabbits and vegetables. Yet, Joel calls himself a grass farmer, for it is the grass that transforms the sun into energy that his animals then feed on. By closely observing nature, Joel created a rotational grazing system that not only allows the land to heal but also allows the animals to behave the way the were meant to — expressing their “chicken-ness” or “pig-ness,” as Joel would say.
- Cows are moved every day, which mimics their natural patterns and promotes revegetation. Sanitation is accomplished by birds. The birds (chickens and turkeys) arrive three days after the cows leave — via the Eggmobile — and scratch around in the pasture, doing what chickens do best.
- No pesticides. No herbicides. No antibiotics. No seed spreading. Salatin hasn’t planted a seed or purchased a chemical fertilizer in 50 years. He just lets herbivores be herbivores and cooperates with nature, instead of fighting it. It’s a different and refreshing philosophy. When cows are raised on a ‘salad bar’ of natural grasses, the meat takes on different flavors that cannot be achieved with grain. Frost told the New York Times:5
- “’When the wine industry started out in California, nobody had a language for what a bouquet was,’ Mr. Frost, 55, said. ‘Vintners had to come up with a way an audience could have a conversation about hints of raspberries, of chamomile. And that’s what we have to do with beef.’”
- Farming done in this type of sustainable manner can be incredibly profitable, too. Instead of making $150 per acre per year from a crop that produces food for three months, but lays fallow for the rest of the year, Salatin’s making $3,000 per acre by rotating crops throughout the year, thereby making use of his land all 12 months — and maintaining its ecological balance at the same time. This generates complementary income streams for the small farmer and allows them to compete with CAFO operations, while protecting the land from ecological disasters.
- Where Can You Find Grass-Fed Beef?
- Currently, meat in supermarkets will be labeled 100% grass-fed if it came from pasture, but if it contains no label it’s probably CAFO-raised. In 2013, a new alliance of organic and natural health consumers, animal welfare advocates, anti-GMO and climate-change activists will tackle the next big food labeling battle: meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on factory farms, or CAFOs.
- This campaign, which aims to have CAFO foods labeled, will start with a massive program to educate consumers about the negative impacts of factory farming on the environment, on human health and on animal welfare, and then move forward to organize and mobilize millions of consumers to demand labels on beef, pork, poultry and dairy products derived from these unhealthy and unsustainable so-called “farming” practices.
- In the meantime, you can boycott food products from CAFOs and choose to support farmers who produce healthful grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products using humane, environmentally friendly methods. You can do this not only by visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also by taking part in farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture programs, many of which offer grass-fed beef. The following organizations can also help you locate grass-fed beef and other farm-fresh foods in your local area, raised in a humane, sustainable manner.