Cattle (like sheep, deer, and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because, unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45-or-so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.
In the US, however, about 97% of the cattle raised for beef spend the latter portion of their lives in feedlots, where they’re fed corn and other grains that humans could eat — and they convert it into meat quite inefficiently. Since it takes anywhere from, depending on who is doing the calculation and what they include, four to (according to some estimates) as many as 20 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot-derived beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in. What we’ve created is effectively a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet are on the edge of starvation.
But industrialized beef is facing criticism from a growing body of leaders. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is calling for humanity to eat less meat in order to help us save the planet. Organizations like the American Heart Association and the National Cancer Institute are urging consumers to eat less (or no) red meat in order to help fight heart disease and cancer. And even superstar entertainers like Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been getting in on the action, offering free concert tickets to fans willing to commit to a plant-based diet.
The Rise of Grass-Fed Beef
Despite the calls for consumers to eat less meat in order to fight environmental problems like climate change — as well as research showing that red meat isn’t doing your health any favors — beef consumption in the US has recently been on the rise. This is partly fueled by rapidly expanding sales of grass-fed beef.
Advocates for grass-fed beef say it has health and environmental benefits compared to conventionally-raised beef. Marketers and enthusiasts praise it as a healthy food rich in protein, B vitamins, iron, and other nutrients. And some environmentalists gush over the theory that properly managed grass-fed beef could help sequester carbon in the ground, building topsoil and fighting climate change at the same time.
And consumers are responding. The grass-fed beef market has emerged as a multi-billion dollar industry that shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the market for grass-fed beef is predicted to grow by $14.5 billion between 2020 and 2024.
But is there truth behind these beliefs about grass-fed beef, or is this just a bunch of hearsay by environmentally conflicted burger-lovers trying to justify their meat habit? Is grass-fed beef really better for you, the animals, or the environment? And if it is, does that mean you should eat it?
What Is Grass-Fed Beef?
Grass-fed beef was the norm in the beef industry before the 1950s. Cattle got to live longer back then, sometimes reaching their 3rd birthdays. In the middle of the 20th century, as the popularity of hamburgers and fast food in the US grew, farmers and ranchers needed a way to fatten up cattle faster, so they started feeding them energy-dense grain and soy instead.
Today, most cattle in the United States start out eating grass, but are fattened — or what the industry euphemistically calls “finished” — on grain and soy for their last 160-180 days of life. (While this accounts for barely a third of their lifespan, more than 50% of their weight gain occurs during this final half-year.) Cattle who are fattened up in CAFOs reach their slaughter weight in as little as 14 months.
Grass-fed cattle, on the other hand, feed on grass and other forage for their entire lives. Since the grass they eat is much less calorie-dense than feedlot grain, they’re sent to slaughter later — usually between one and a half and two years old. Their average weight at slaughter is about 1,200 pounds, compared with about 1,350 pounds for feedlot cattle.
So grass-fed cattle live longer and yield less edible meat than their grain-fed counterparts.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Better than Conventional Beef?
Despite all the claims that grass-fed beef is better than conventional beef, what does the research actually show us? Let’s take a look at the three main areas where grass-fed beef is said to be a better option: nutrition, the environment, and the treatment of animals.
Grass-Fed Beef Nutrition
Grass-fed beef is marketed to consumers as being nutritionally-superior to conventional beef. And it is. But that’s not a very high bar. When compared on a per calorie basis, grass-fed beef is higher in B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, and vitamins A and E (it’s also touted as being higher in omega-3 fatty acids, but the truth is it still has only a negligible amount of them). Plus, it’s lower in saturated fat.
So grass-fed beef is more nutritious than conventional grain-fed beef. But that doesn’t exactly make it a “health food.” Overall, it’s still high in saturated fat, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. And then there’s cancer. Red meat of all kinds, including grass-fed beef, is labeled a class 2A carcinogen by the World Health Organization, meaning that it’s “probably cancer-causing” to humans.
Recent research also suggests that red meat, grass-fed or not, promotes the body’s production of a compound called TMAO, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic lifestyle diseases. And all red meat can be a nasty vector for the spread of pathogenic bacteria, which can sneak into meat during processing, grinding, and packaging and cause foodborne illness. While the risk of dangerous bacterial contamination from grass-fed beef is lower, it’s certainly not zero.
Grass-fed beef is clearly a nutritional improvement over conventional grain-finished beef. But we don’t have any studies that have demonstrated positive health effects from eating it over time. And we know that, like grain-fed beef, it’s still high in saturated fat. It still contributes to your production of cancer-causing TMAO. And it’s still utterly devoid of fiber (a critical gut-health nutrient that less than 5% of us are getting enough of).
Grass-Fed Beef & the Environment
Grass-fed beef advocates claim that it’s better for the environment than traditional beef. But that, in and of itself, is not saying much. After all, conventional beef production is nothing short of an environmental disaster.
Problems with the Cattle Industry
At least one-third of the world’s arable land is used to raise livestock. And new areas are constantly being cleared through deforestation to make more room — most alarmingly in the precious and irreplaceable Amazon rainforest. Beef cattle production contributes an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. In fact, according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, cattle impact our global climate more than all of the world’s cars, planes, trucks, trains, and ships combined.
Cattle eat plants, which is where they receive the nutrients that they capture in their flesh. But they also turn those plants they eat into hoof, hide, bones, energy, methane, and manure — lots and lots of manure. After cattle come into a feedlot, they gain enough weight to produce about (according to my estimation) one new pound of beef for every 12 pounds of feed input. The other 11 are essentially wasted.
A 2011 analysis by the Environmental Working Group looked at the carbon footprint of various foods over their entire life-cycle, including the raw materials that go into them. In other words, in totality, how much do different foods contribute to climate change?
They concluded that beef production emits about 10 times more greenhouse gases per pound of meat than chickens or pigs, which themselves emit about 10 times more than legumes. This means that a pound of beef is responsible for 100 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a pound of beans.
And then there’s water. Some experts estimate that it takes more than 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of conventionally raised beef. In total, the livestock sector uses at least 8% of the world’s clean, fresh water supply while polluting much of the rest.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Any Different?
Proponents of grass-fed beef tell us that, unlike conventional beef, grass-fed beef can be raised in a way that is actually good for the planet. They argue that it improves soil with organic matter and benefits carbon sequestration and that it restores natural ecosystems and wildlife habitat, increases biodiversity, reduces our reliance on petrochemicals, improves water quality, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. That all sounds good, but is it really true?
The earth has lost enormous reserves of soil carbon over the years, as humans have converted forests and grasslands into land for crops and grazing cattle. The idea of soil carbon sequestration is that the carbon previously lost from soil could be returned to it via practices that restore degraded soils and conserve existing soil in a soil carbon pool. There are several possible ways to do this, one of which is called carbon farming. In this process, farmers use plants to trap carbon dioxide, and then employ strategic practices to trap carbon in the ground — like planting long-rooted crops, incorporating organic materials in the soil, and tilling the land less often.
Another approach is rotational grazing. According to Successful Farming: “Rotational grazing involves controlling livestock’s access to pastures, allowing animals to graze in designated paddocks for limited periods of time. The livestock are rotated to fresh pasture before they graze the grass down to the ground. This provides the grazed pastures with ample time to rest so that the leaf matter can regrow. The more leaf matter a plant has, the more sunlight it can process through photosynthesis and the longer its roots will be. These root systems are key to maintaining healthy soils.”
Attaining Carbon Neutrality
A 2018 study published in Agricultural Systems, which was conducted by Michigan State University researchers and the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that the finishing phase of grass-fed cattle could be managed in a way that makes them strongly carbon-negative in the first few years. Over time, however, the buildup of carbon in the soil decreases, and the net impact of even well managed grass-fed herds becomes merely carbon neutral. In conclusion, the researchers stated, “… the path to a climate-friendly, science-based, ethically consistent, and practically achievable decision on beef production and consumption remains about as clear as the mud in a herd-trampled pasture.”
Considering the devastating environmental consequences that accompany conventional modern beef production, it’s heartening to hear that it might be possible, with well managed grass-fed herds, to attain carbon neutrality in the long run.
But although that could be an important step in the right direction, is it really a reason to chow down on beef? Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production. And all that land yields less than 2% of humanity’s calories. What else could be done with that land that might more effectively regenerate soil and sequester carbon? What if we used it to grow cover crops? Or used it to grow trees? It turns out, there are many ways we can use land to capture carbon far more effectively than rotational grazing. If you want some serious carbon-sequestration hope, check out the eight solutions in this article. (Spoiler alert: the word “beef” does not appear.)
The Rest of The Environmental Picture
In some ways, grass-fed beef might actually be worse for the planet than feedlot beef. The biggest reason for this is that grass-fed cattle take longer to fatten up, so they live an average of 18-24 months, whereas feedlot cattle are typically killed at around 15 months. This extra longevity necessitates more cattle roaming around — and more land on which to grow their (grass) food. If we moved all cattle out of feedlots, and we didn’t reduce our beef consumption dramatically, we’d find ourselves with a severe shortage of grazing land. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Animals, if all the US beef produced in 2010 were grass-fed, the industry would have required an additional 200,000 square miles — an area larger than all the land in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio combined. Of course, we’d free up some of the land currently growing corn, soy, and other feedstuffs for cattle feed. But not nearly enough to provide for all those cows roaming around for all those additional months.
For a look at the worst possible environmental impact of large-scale, grass-fed beef production, we need look no farther than Brazil, where an environmental nightmare of epic proportions is unfolding. In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle were the biggest single cause of global deforestation. And in turn, are responsible for 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Since then, the situation in Brazil has only gotten worse. Even Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd, acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of Amazonian deforestation. Much of the remaining 20% is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu. Most is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grass-fed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Although well-managed grass-fed cattle might be able to sequester carbon in the soil, and they can be raised on natural grassland instead of freshly destroyed rainforest, they still contribute to climate change in other ways. The greenhouse gas methane, which cattle produce in staggering amounts, is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a hundred-year time frame. With the higher fiber content in grasses than grains, cattle may produce even more methane than grain-fed ones. And with grass-fed cattle living up to twice as long as feedlot cattle, they produce methane for longer, too.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for Cows?
Grass-fed beef appeals to consumers who are told that it’s better for the animals. But is this accurate?
In some big ways, yes. They’re healthier, and almost certainly happier, than conventional cattle. Again though, that’s a low bar.
Feedlots such as California’s Harris Ranch routinely cram up to 100,000 cattle into one square mile. But the cows aren’t potty trained, and they don’t pay for sewer hookups, either. So they live their entire lives in a mess of their own excrement.
Author Michael Pollan describes what happens to cattle when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:
“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.”
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 new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
In comparison, cattle experience greater well-being and better health when they’re able to eat the diet for which their digestive systems were designed, and when they have access to more outdoor space.
While it’s certainly true that grass-fed cattle live significantly better lives than their feedlot counterparts, there’s still nothing cheery about their deaths. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, many cows are alive and conscious for as long as seven minutes after their throats are cut. And some have their legs cut off while still breathing.
What Grass-Fed and Organic Beef Labels Actually Mean
Grass-fed and organic beef attract premium prices. (In more layman’s terms: They’re expensive.) But the meaning of the terms is poorly regulated and often misunderstood. Technically grass-fed should mean that the cattle lived its entire life on pasture, without confinement, eating grass. But keep in mind that most cattle are grass-fed for at least part of their lives until they weigh 600 to 800 pounds, at which point they are shipped off to a feedlot for fattening.
And the US government isn’t of much help here, either. Starting in 2016, the USDA dropped regulatory control of the term altogether. So some products might be deceptively (yet legally) sold as “grass-fed” beef, even if cattle lived a portion of their lives cooped up in feedlots, eating grain and soybeans.
Consumers who care about this critical distinction need to make sure they’re getting 100% grass-fed beef, which is sometimes called “grass-finished beef.”
The USDA organic certification guarantees that the animals were raised on pesticide-free food, and were never given hormones or antibiotics. But beef labeled “organic” can still come from animals that were cooped up in feedlots and fed grain and soy for the latter part of their lives.
Anyone looking for truly organic, 100% grass-fed meat needs to look carefully at what they’re actually getting.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA), which advocates for grass-fed producers and offers a certification program for cattle farmers, assures that beef bearing its seal comes from cattle raised on a 100% grass-fed diet. And they add further specifications, too, including that the cattle are raised by family farmers, on pastures without confinement, and are never fed antibiotics or hormones. There appears to be a few hundred member farms across the US that currently carry the AGA certification.
Grass-Fed Beef: Better, But Not Best
Conventional feedlot-finished beef is nothing short of a health, environmental, and ethical disaster. And grass-fed beef is arguably better on all three fronts. So if you’re going to eat beef, then there are good reasons to choose grass-fed and organic beef over the products of feedlots.
But if you want to save money, and do a good turn for your health, the planet, and the animals, there are plenty of plant-based options to choose from. (For our article on how to get rolling on a whole-foods, plant-powered diet, click here.)
There are also plant-based meats, of course. But don’t forget about beans. If the whole world started swapping beans for beef, we could take a huge bite out of climate change. We could save what’s left of the Amazon rainforest. We could spare the lives of tens of millions of cattle. We could restore the fertility of our soils. And we could prevent countless heart attacks, too.
Tell us in the comments:
- Do you eat grass-fed beef? Why or why not?
- Do you think that grass-fed beef can be part of the climate change solution?
- What are some of your favorite beef-free food alternatives?
Feature image: iStock.com/adamkaz
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