A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots, and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals. One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”
Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S. Now there are thousands.
How much difference does it make? Is grassfed really better? If so, in what ways, and how much?
If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better. But then, almost anything would be. Putting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.
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 today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that humans can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat. Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in. It’s a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.
How has a system that is so wasteful come to be? Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces. They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.
From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion. This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been. Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.
Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area. Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place. If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today. But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill. Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.
Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down. Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.
Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster. Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.
All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa. But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain. 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. That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system. It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.
Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows 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.
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike 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.”
Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh. 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.
Further, 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 deadly 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 that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.
It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene. It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S. Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.
Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment. As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed. It is now nearly as acidic as our own. In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us. As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
Which is more nutritious?
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. A grassfed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grainfed steak.
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.
What about taste?
The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost. These differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some 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.”
Even the people who market grassfed beef say this is true. Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”
Unlike cows in a feedlot, animals on a pasture move around. This exercise creates muscle tone, and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many people prefer. Grassfed beef doesn’t provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come to prefer.
What about the environment?
As well as its nutritional advantages, there are also 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 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.
Less misery on the menu?
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.
Grassfed or organic?
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free. These products come from animals who were fed organically grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots. The sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold in the U.S. today comes from feedlots.
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.
And then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing. A case in point is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County, California. Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in health food stores west of the Rockies. The company says it is “at the forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural beef.”
But even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is meaningless. Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a 100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley. And the feed is not organically grown. The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed. Despite the marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed. (Harris Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)
Is grassfed beef the answer?
Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do.
There is a dark side even to grassfed beef. It takes 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 current 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 a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.
What would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef? It’s been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental nightmare of epic proportions. In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global deforestation, which is in turn responsible for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. 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 percent of Amazonian deforestation. Much of the remaining 20 percent is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu. It is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Trendy consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef. But grassfed and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change. They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases: methane and nitrous oxide.
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. The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each cow produces methane emissions for a longer time.
Meanwhile, producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the slower weight gain, even more. These emissions are not only fueling global warming. They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
The sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a tremendous toll on the environment. Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle spending much 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. 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 taxpayer-funded 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.”
But the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it 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 intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and who pay almost nothing for the privilege.
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
Not the Stiffest Competition
Grassfed beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and may be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have 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 an improvement.
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, far more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a modest scale. Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat beef, 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 are still high on the food chain, and so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins.
While grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat, or even none. If as a society we ate less, the world would indeed be a brighter and more beautiful place. Consider, for example, the impact on global warming. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20 percent. Such a change would decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars and trucks for Priuses.
If we ate less meat, 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, as indeed most of them are, 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.
John Robbins is co-founder of the Food Revolution Network, and author of many bestselling books.
His latest book, co-authored with his son, Ocean Robbins, is Voices of the Food Revolution: You Can Heal Your Body And Your World — With Food!