Grass-Fed Beef: Solution or Diversion?

  • Posted on 30 June 2004
  • By Joan Zacharias

Google 'grass-fed beef' these days and you're likely to see it described as everything from 'old-fashioned goodness,' and 'meat without the guilt' to 'the right thing to do.'

Naturally, ranchers, farmers and restaurateurs anxious to profit from changing consumer tastes are singing grass-fed beef's praises, but so are many environmentalists, food activists, and proponents of local, organic, sustainable agriculture. A Sierra Club E-File tells us, 'By buying beef conscientiously, you can enjoy a fine steak and help steer modern agriculture in the right direction.'

Confined cattle feeding operation in Arizona.

Photo by Jeff Vanuga/USDA Resources Conservation Service

What has changed since 1992, when Jeremy Rifkin called cattle 'our greatest ecological threat,' contributing to deforestation,global warming, hunger, rangeland degradation, wildlife destruction, world hunger, heart disease, and inefficient water and grain usage?

While there is no doubt that grass-not corn-is the natural diet of cows, can we really have our steak and save the planet, too?

The Sierra Club's Sustainable Consumption Committee has been grappling with this question. We welcome input from Club members as we launch the True Cost of Food campaign, which encourages a shift toward plant-based, local, and organic food. Recently, we spoke to Danielle Nierenberg, a staff researcher at Worldwatch Institute and an expert on the environmental impact of food.

JZ: In recent years we've been hearing a lot about grass-fed beef. How are grain-fed beef and grass-fed beef production different or similar, in terms of inputs and impacts?

Danielle Nierenberg: Most cattle, whether they're grass-fed or factory farmed their entire lives, start off on pasture. The problem with factory-farmed beef is that near the end of their lives they're fed a very high-protein, dense diet of corn and soybeans. Because cattle are ruminants, they're not really equipped to digest that high-protein feed, so a lot of digestive problems result from that. They fart a lot and produce a lot of gross manure, and that contributes to methane and greenhouse gases.

So on the environmental side, what's coming out of the cattle is not so good for the environment, and what's going in is not so good. All the corn and soybeans that are grown in monocultures-not only in the U.S. but now in Brazil and other developing countries-to feed all these cattle are displacing native vegetation or native crops that people were growing to subsist on.

Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, is raised on mostly pasture, with very little grain. Those farmers are much smaller than the feedlot farmers, and so pasture-raised beef can help keep small farmers in business. It's a growing niche market right now that all of us are hearing a lot more about. Those farmers are tapping into something that people are interested in, because grass-fed beef is healthier, has leaner flesh, and is typically not full of antibiotics and hormones and all the other chemicals that cows in feedlots get.

When we talk about feeding a growing human population grass-fed beef, where would we get the land to raise all these cows on pasture? Couldn't the land be used for something else? For example, grass could be harvested for biomass fuel or restoring wildlife habitat.

DN: It's not a question of where you get land. What people have to realize is that the current system of meat production isn't working. What it means for consumer is that we all have to start eating less meat than we currently do. The cheap hamburgers that you buy at McDonald's are a product of a system that can grow those corn and soybeans, put them in animals, stick them in feedlots and process them. Whether we're raising animals on this corn and soybeans or raising them on grass, we all just have to stop eating as much meat and realize that it's expensive no matter what way you produce it in terms of land pressures or all the food safety problems with the animals in feedlots and all the water that it takes. It's a highly resource-intensive system. Meat used to be a luxury, for special occasions. I think we've taken for granted what really goes into it.

At any given moment, we have 1.3 billion cattle on earth-many crowded into factory farms and feedlots. Is there enough land to graze all of them sustainably on their natural diet?

DN: Oh, no! We wouldn't want to, I don't think! That gets back to what I was saying before: We've just got to stop eating so much meat. That's what it boils down to. You cannot go into McDonald's and pay 99 cents for a hamburger anymore. That is not sustainable. I don't even think it's ethical. The system is set up in such a way that that hamburger is so cheap because there are all these other factors that make it cheap when it really shouldn't be that inexpensive. I think that's the problem. We need to...really think about what we're doing. The obesity epidemic is now global. One in four people are obese worldwide-there's something wrong there.

The world's population is expected to grow to 8 or 9 billion by 2020. Can the planet sustain this many people eating the way most Americans do?

DN: I wouldn't want the whole world to eat like we do. Do we want to keep eating Chicken McNuggets and cheap hamburgers, or do we want to eat food that enriches our own health and the health of the planet? The fact that a hamburger is 99 cents, but then organic broccoli is $3.99/pound-there's something wrong there.

What do you see as a sustainable diet for the planet? And, if you like, could you discuss why you eat the way you do?

DN: My thinking on this has evolved, from mainly being concerned about the welfare of animals to being concerned about my own health to being concerned about the health of the entire world. I'm vegan, or try to be as vegan as I can, and I try to buy organic vegetables. I work at a friend's farm, I work at a farmer's market, and I'm very interested in the entire food system. But not everyone can do that. Low-income people are forced to buy their groceries at convenience stores and fried chicken places. I think there's not a lot of food justice. There's no 'food democracy' for many people because they don't have access to a farmer's market where they can buy that organic broccoli.

Won't some of us Earthlings have to be vegetarian or vegan in order for the planet to maintain 8 to 9 billion people?

DN: We as a society, as a global community, have to start changing our eating practices, or the results are not going to be too nice. The fact that factory farming is taking off in developing countries like China is a problem. China can't support factory farming because of the water issue they have there. The country will literally run out of water not only because of the water needed to grow the grain to feed these animals but also the water needed to sustain them once they're in the feedlot if they're factory farmed.

I think what it comes down to is, it's not a question of grass-fed versus grain-fed, it's a question of 'how can my diet enrich the planet, my health, and local livelihoods-the farmers who are growing it?' I think those are the three most important things that people need to think about.

From a policy angle, what should be the priorities of the environmental movement on this issue?

DN: Getting rid of the horrible environmental subsidies that encourage really bad practices, whether it's growing those monocultures or giving big agribusinesses subsidies to build pesticide or insecticide plants in developing countries, or subsidies that encourage factory farms to be built in Iowa or North Carolina or wherever else they're built because there's no 'polluter pays' policy. So what's been happening in North Carolina is that the pig operations can go in there, create a lot of waste, fill lagoons, and then just leave them-just shut down the plant and leave them-and they're not really responsible for the waste. You can treat animals any way you want, you can treat the environment any way you want, and you're not responsible for whatever food safety problems that come about as a result of your practices. That's not right.

Do you think the environmental movement should get involved in pointing out, like our campaign, the true costs of food and educating the public about that? If so, how far should the environmental community go in prescribing personal changes or more sustainable ways of living?

DN: I think that's what's been missing. We can tell you about all these really bad problems, but what consumers need now are solutions-even if they don't take it all the way, <even if they don't become vegans or live in a hut, there are little things that everyone can do.> I think our role is to show them that it doesn't have to be hard or scary, that there are little things you can do that will not only help the environment but also will enrich your life and make your life better.

Joan Zacharias is a member of the Sierra Club's national Sustainable Consumption Committee. A Club member since 1992, she also serves on the Atlantic Chapter (NY) ExComm Steering Committee, Farm & Food Committee, and Biodiversity/Vegetarian Outreach Committee.

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