Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Grass-fed Meat: Better for the Environment?

It's easy to forget as you're eating that delicious burger from Five Guys that the cow the meat came from was brought up in a tight pen, fattened with a corn-based feed until it's plump enough to be slaughtered and processed into the meaty goodness that you're about to put in your mouth. But before you take that bite, let one quick thought cross your mind: "Wait, would a cattle normally eat corn?"

No. And that's where grass-fed meat comes in. Grass-fed refers to the natural, pre-industrialized method of how cattle and other animals ate food. A cow's digestive system is set up to process grass and produce omega-3, a healthy non-saturated fat. Additionally, the waste produced by free-grazing cattle has nutritional value to the earth, helping to regrow the land (ah, that beautiful circle of life). Conversely, in confinement, cattle waste is generally stockpiled, actually doing damage to the environment in its excess, the opposite of its naturally intended effect.

So it seems simple. Can't we just transition beef production over to grass-fed farms? Well according to some people, the omega-3 rich grass-fed meat has both the smell and taste of ammonia, not a high selling point to most consumers. Also, the cost is substantially higher than corn-fed beef, another negative in an already faltering food economy. The biggest negative though, is there's simply not enough space to feed Americans the amount of grass-fed beef they're used to eating in their current industrialized diets. What really needs to happen is for most Americans to cut back on meat in general, a thought that scares the steak-loving bejesus out of me.

That's not to say that grass-fed cattle should be ignored. I've never experienced any of the ammonia or bad tastes that have been associated with free-range cattle, and I've eaten my fair share of it over the years. The cattle are also treated much more humanely, well worth the extra cost incurred. I'm far from an expert on this massive topic, so for those of you looking to dig deeper, check out this informative interview with sustainable farmer Shannon Hayes on Green Luvin' or this in-depth, if rambling, article on The Food Revolution.

1 comment:

Annette G. said...

You write that the cost of grass fed beef is "significantly higher" than corn fed, but prices must be placed in context. Those of old enough to remember the 70s remember when steak was a rare treat. "Stagflation" made all food, but especially meat, very expensive - consumers spent much more of their earnings feeding themselves back in the day. (Think of Mary Tyler Moore eyeing the price of a steak before tossing it into her shopping cart in disgust during the opening credits.)

The expansion of globalization in the 90s in particular ushered in an era of incredibly cheap food. Until the recent spike in prices, food as a share of income has been flat or declining globally for years. Any rise in food prices is a shock simply because we haven't seen ANY food price inflation in decades - and wages are stagnant.

This current spike IS both new and significant and comes for a variety of sources - epically bad harvests in Australia and other parts from droughts at the very least made worst by climate change; millions of Chinese and Indians starting to consume meat and dairy like Westerners; supersizing from the years of cheap food; rising energy costs; and of course food policy.

Which is the second reason that US grass fed beef is 'so expensive' compared to corn fed. It takes about 2 yrs to bring a grass fed steer to market vs. about 18 months for corn fed. When you factor in the insane subsidies to the corn industry - thank you Iowa caucuses! - the 'market' will favor corn fed.
The USDA rules favor large slaughterhouses fed by enormous feedlots often owned by the same corporation. Oh, and that meat with the 'grass fed, organic' label you've eaten in the past? Chances are the cow that produced it was fed corn, shot full of hormones and stood in a feed lot for a month or two right next to cows headed for McDonald's before slaughter - all perfectly legal under US law and standard practice for Niman Ranch and 'organic' meat suppliers. Even educated consumers have little real choice under existing laws.

The real victims of the current food price crisis are the millions who live on $2 a day or less, not American consumers of 'grass fed' beef. But if you still hunger for a cheaper, better burger - or maybe some justice for the worlds poor - then it's US farm/food policy that MUST change.