We don’t eat a great deal of red meat, but we do like to be able to enjoy beef from time to time, the occasional Sunday roast, or comfort foods such as spaghetti bolognese or kali ladika.
In the UK I didn’t worry too much about where the beef was coming from, I hadn’t heard of feedlots and had only ever seen happy cows in fields. Then we moved here, and I have learned more about where our food comes from, how it is treated and the effect it has on our environment.
When my Dad last visited I had just finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and we got to talking about beef, its effects, and the consequences of feedlots. After he returned home he emailed me to say that he had read an opinion piece promoting vegetarianism in his local paper, and that one of the facts given was that grass-fed cows emit four times as much methane as grain-fed ones. And that this could perhaps suggest that feeding cows on corn, for all its drawbacks, actually has one advantage.
Grass fed cows may emit more methane, but how does that balance against the staggering amount of fossil fuel energy that is required to feed a cow in a feedlot?
“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.” – Michael Pollan
How does it balance against the fact that their waste is spread onto the land, providing fertilizer for the next set of crops. Whereas in feedlots and other types of factory farming the waste simply builds up becoming a huge source of air and water pollution. While non-natural fertilizers and pesticides are needed to grow the grain.
Then there are the health benefits or detriments to the consumer, grass-fed beef is leaner and higher in omega-3 fats. Whereas feedlot cattle are continuously fed antibiotics leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or the new “superbugs” we have started hearing so much about in the news. Feedlot cattle are also being fed a completely unnatural – for them – diet, consisting of grains rather than grasses, which has led to the spread of very dangerous strains of E.coli.
“Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids — and go on to killl us. By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.” – Michael Pollan
All of these considerations are before we even mention the inhumanity of the conditions these creatures are kept in.
I don’t think there is any question really that grass-fed beef is far superior to feedlot on all fronts – it is far healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more humane . If you don’t want to give up beef – as we don’t – I would simply suggest eating less meat, appreciating what you do eat, wasting less, and considering the above mentioned factors before you pick up that cheap cut in the supermarket.
I recently spotted an advertisement on UsedOttawa for grass fed beef. Now given that people can put anything they like in their advertisements I wanted to be certain, so I contacted the farmer. I asked a few questions about the conditions and such, and then asked if we could come out and see his cows. Now he thought I was crazy, but he was willing to humour us.
Fortunately he wasn’t too far away, and we in fact had other errands to run very near to him. He also raises chickens which have free range of his farm during the day, and he keeps sheep. Everything looked healthy and happy, including the cows. So we ordered a side. Realizing we wouldn’t have the freezer space we arranged to share the side with a couple of friends, buying in bulk this way makes it far more affordable.
If you would like to read more about this issue then I recommend this article What About Grass-fed Beef? by John Robbins or this one Of cow burps, beef, and methane by Lou Bendrick or finally this article on Mother Earth News – The Amazing Benefits of Grass-fed Meat.
This post is part of Fight Back Friday, why don’t you head over and check out some of the other shared wisdom.