As crazy as it seems, humans are not built to eat grass. We cannot graze off the evergreen terrain of this Earth without our stomachs churning with revulsion and our bodies refusing to function. However, one could say our species likes to live on the wild side, as we do eat a little bit of grass each day. Three-quarters of all human nutrition comes from wheat, rice, and corn, which are all grasses. The exception to these foods is that we are actually consuming their seeds, the dense package of complex carbs that comes from annual grasses. On the other hand, perennial grasses, which are more common, pack a large proportion of their energy in their roots, stems, and leaves; the building block for these is cellulose. Humans cannot convert cellulose to protein, but cows, sheep, and other mammals can because of the resident bacteria in their highly specialized fermentation stomach machine, known as a rumen.
The animals we raise, farm, and consume are meant to feed on grass. Grass-fed beef comes from animals that eat perennial grasses all their lives. Grain-fed beef, what is most commonly sold in supermarkets, comes from cattle that possibly began as grass-fed at some point, but transitioned to corn and other grains, typically in a confined feedlot, for most of the animal’s life. Logically, as one chows down on a Big Mac, they think back to the origin of this high-end meal and envision a picturesque scene of the once blissful cow, roaming Old McDonald’s abundant acres, eating greens like there’s no tomorrow. I am here to say that this is far from reality.
Where We Are
Since the 1950s, it has become routine practice to add low levels of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy poultry, cattle, and swine to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary quarters. In fact, 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are used in animals rather than humans and 83 percent of those are given to healthy animals, not to treat the sick. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the “overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animals” as a major source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are affecting humans in a major public health crisis. Additionally, bacteria are resistant to multiple antibiotics, leading to incurable or difficult to treat infections.
In addition, Corn is high in starch, low in roughage, a poor source of calcium and magnesium, and unnaturally acidic, so it is evident to why this grain would upset a cow’s stomach that is suited for a diet of cellulosic grasses. Grains are not only harmful to the cow’s stomach, but allow a wide range of parasites and disease, such as E. coli to foster and grow. One of biggest issues the world faces today is not about boosting food supply, but reducing food demand – particularly on meat. Meat is resource-intensive with 16 pounds of grain for every one pound of meat and 50% of global grains fed to livestock.
Wheat prices have doubled in the past year, mainly because corporations use grain to feed their livestock. One of the biggest challenges the world faces is not about boosting food supply, but rather reducing food demand, especially for meat. Rising grain prices may help make meat less attractive in addition to any outbreak of food-borne illness, but Americans have and will always return to meat. Corn is a cheap means to not only feed animals, but make animals fat as well. It has allowed America to drive down the price of meat (over 200 pounds per person per year), which makes our carnivorous diet possible. This cheap resource translates into an expensive end product when one considers the environmental and health costs.
The current food system uses 19 percent of all the fossil fuel consumed in the United States, more than any other sector of the economy. Twenty-three millions tons of chemical herbicides and fertilizers are used in crops. To make the fertilizer to grow the corn that feeds just one feedlot steer during his short life (14 to 16 months) takes about 284 gallons of oil, or 1.2 gallons per bushel. This scenario is only worsened by the fact that the federal government heavily subsidizes corn. Over the past decade $50 billion has gone to the corn industry. Our modern factory farming is the accumulation of huge surpluses plus the USDA’s encouragement to feed this surplus corn to cattle.
The feeding of massive quantities of grain to animals and the market’s dependence on cheap fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that are linked to the changing climate. Agriculture contributes about 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions after land conversion impact, which is far greater than transportation emissions. Tillage systems used to grow grains release carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane by triggering the decay and erosion of topsoil.
Where We Should Be
Today, you can find grass-fed beef, lamb, and even bison in standard supermarkets. It is a movement that continues to grow as consumers become more aware and demand increases. Restaurants, such as Hopdoddy’s Burger Bar, are taking notice and transitioning to grass-fed sourced meat. The options are there for consumers, but it is up to the public to make the right choice.
Feeding cattle grain, not only changes the texture of the meat, but taste as well. Paul Roberts (The End of Food) interviewed an Italian farmer who proclaimed people come from across the globe to eat the meat from his cattle because they cannot find that flavor anywhere else. His cattle feeds off the surrounding area’s grass, which is specific to that region, climate, and environment, making the flavor of the meat unique. It is only natural that a steak served in Brazil taste distinct from that of one served in Italy.
Furthermore, the USDA grades beef in a way that reward marbling with intramuscular fat. Corn is deceptive in that it gives cow’s meat this well-marbled look, but it is simply saturated fat that cannot be trimmed off. In contrast, grass-fed meat is lower both in overall fat and artery-clogging saturated fat. With added advantage of providing more and healthier omega-3 fats, the meat is four times higher in vitamin E. Ultimately, grass-fed meat is associated with lower heart disease and cancer risk.
Consumers as well as producers believe the biggest hurdles to modern grazing methods are the cost and efficiency. Still, modern grass farmers almost universally rely on a managed intensive rotational grazing, which outworks an industrial-scale grain production. Polywire fences confine a herd of around 60 cows to a small area (one-quarter acre) for typically 12 hours. The farmer then moves the fence, cycling through a series of paddocks every month or so. Rotational grazing forces cows to eat all the available forage, including the plants they would typically leave untouched, which ultimately produces more beef or milk per acre than laissez-faire grazing. A grazer can produce more money than a subsidized corn farmer because he can produce about two steers per acre. This same acreage grows 3,000 pounds of grain used to feed a single steer in a feedlot.
Additionally, Grassfed beef translates to a healthier ecosystem. Shallow-rooted annual grasses, such as corn, wheat, and soy, are further depleting the soil of critical minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iodine that are vital to maintaining the proper biological matrix our agricultural system needs. Yet, perennial roots lift nutrients back into the system, making them available to plants and everything else up the food chain. Pure prairie builds up organic matter as perennial pastures can restore the richness of soil in about a decade. Perennial crops not only pull methane and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stash them in the soil, but also are often better at sequestering carbon than forests are. A cow’s diet can extend beyond the field. Farmers can give leftover vegetables to cattle, which is beneficial both economically and environmentally. Likewise, the conversion of cornfields to perennial grasses can significantly reduce the devastation of aquatic life from fertilizer and herbicide-heavy runoff.
Just by switching cattle’s diet from corn to hay in the final days before slaughter, the population of E. coli reduces in its manure by as much as 70 percent, but this is not the solution to the current problem. When cattle are shipped to these ever-popular feedlots to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin to lose the omega-3s stored in their tissue. Consequently, the meat from feedlot animals typically contains only 15 to 50 percent as much omega-3s as that from grass-fed cattle. In saying this, antibiotics are allowed for certain grass-fed certification programs, USDA Process Verified for one and not the American Grassfed Association. Use Label Lookup when shopping for groceries to distinguish certain claims from others and what claims on meat mean.
Grass-fed meat may involve more effort, money, and/or time, but if we care so much about what we eat, then we should care about what our food eats as well. Every consumer has options though. One can wait for a sale at the grocery store and stock up, which may not save a lot initially, but this savings accumulates throughout the year. Next, find a local or regional farmers’ market with grass-fed vendors. Lastly, look to buy direct from a farm. The Internet is the key to everything. Research the location for your nearest provider or find a company that can source the meat directly from the farmer to you. One such company that I have discussed in prior blog posts is Greenling.
Likewise, ths price increase in grass-fed beef could result in less consumption of meat, which is an entirely separate argument to the downfall of our food system.
“Meat Production Continues to Rise.” Worldwatch Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013. <http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5443>.
“NRDC: Top 10 Reasons to Eat Grass-Fed Meat.” Natural Resources Defense Council: The Earth’s Best Defense. Natural Resources Defense Council, 19 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2013. <http://www.nrdc.org/living/eatingwell/top-10-reasons-eat-grass-fed-meat.asp>.
Roberts, Paul. The End of Food. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print.
Sisson, Mark. “The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef.” Mark’s Daily Apple. N.p., 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2013. <http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-differences-between-grass-fed-beef-and-grain-fed-beef/#axzz2i5Ctjsr3>.