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Why Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Save the Planet

Another livestock industry propaganda piece recently appeared in Time Magazine by Lisa Abend titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet.” The basic premise of the article is that factory farming is bad, so grass-fed or free-range beef is good for the planet and even human health. Grass-fed beef is the latest fad with people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements.

While there are some livestock operators who are promoting grass-fed beef, many of the advocates are well meaning people who are vulnerable to anything that have the word “natural” in it. Just because raising cows in factory farms on grains is bad for the Earth, does not mean that cows grazing on pasture or hay are better for the Earth.

The assumption of many people is that less industrialized makes it better to consume. Some of the “natural” folks eschew city water treated with chemicals, for instance, and prefer “natural” water sources. Yet many natural water sources have many unhealthy things in them. Arsenic, for instance, is often found at naturally high levels in water at levels that are a health risk to drink. One needs to be careful about assuming that anything more “natural” is automatically safer, healthier, and better for humans and the planet.

I do not want to contend that industrialized livestock production is good. There are huge problems with factory-raised meat. Cattle raised on grain tend to be given more hormones, and grain production generally requires heavy pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as fossil fuels to operate machinery. But just because a cow grazes in a pasture, does not mean it is “green” or that eating grass-fed beef is environmentally beneficial. Indeed, as a generalization, almost all the negatives associated with Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) exist with grass-fed beef. And grass-fed livestock has many unique impacts not shared by their factory-raised counterparts that may be more environmentally destructive. The assumption that grass-fed beef is “healthier” is based more upon wishful thinking than reality.

One of the presumed benefits of grass-fed meat is the idea that somehow livestock fed grass reduces global warming gases. Research suggests that livestock, particularly cows, are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the planet. One recent UN report finds that as much as 18% of the GHG are from livestock—more than all transportation and/or industry sources of GHG. Others put the figure even higher. No matter which studies are used, there is little dispute that cattle are a major contributor to global warming.

Fermentation in the animal’s rumen generates huge quantities of gas—between 30-50 liters per hour in adult cattle. So those proponents of grass-fed beef start with the simplistic assumption that since cattle evolved to eat grass, such a diet must be superior to grain-fed factory raised animals. Yet grass is a poor substitute for grains in terms of caloric energy per pound of feed. As a consequence, a grass-fed cow’s rumen bacteria must work longer breaking down and digesting grass in order to extract the same energy content found in grain—all the while the bacteria in its rumen are emitting great quantities of methane.

Researcher, Nathan Pelletier of Nova Scotia has found that GHG are 50 percent higher in grass-fed beef. If somehow magically we could convert all factory grown cattle to free range grass-fed animals, our global warming situation would be greatly accelerated.

Beyond the GHG issue, free ranging cattle present other problems that CAFO raised animals do not. For instance, one of the major consequences of having cattle roaming the range is soil compaction. There’s not a single study that demonstrates that having a thousand pound cow trample soil is good for the land.

Soil compaction reduces water penetration, creating more run-off and erosion. Because water cannot percolate into the soil easily, soil compaction from cattle creates more arid conditions—a significant problem in the already arid West, but also an issue in the East since the soils are often moister for a longer period of time. Moist soils are more easily compacted. Sometimes the influence of pasture grazing is long lasting. One study in North Carolina found that stream insect biota were still significantly different in streams heavily impacted by agriculture 50 years after agricultural use had ceased compared to control streams. Soil compaction also reduces the space in the top active layer of soil where most soil microbes live, reducing soil fertility.

Free ranging cattle trample riparian areas, the thin green lines where 70-80% of all western wildlife utilize for homes and food. According to the EPA livestock is the major source of pollution and riparian damage in the West. But that doesn’t let eastern cows off the hook since trampling of riparian areas also occurs in the East, though with less biological impact since fewer species are solely dependent on this habitat.

Cattle, of course, release a lot of manure on the soil. A typical 1,100 pound cow releases 92 pounds of manure a day as compared to a typical person a pound of feces Most of that excrement is left on the land where it washes into streams and adds to nutrient loading as well as the spread of disease like E coli bacteria. In fact, livestock manure is a major source of water-borne disease and pollution throughout the country.

To put this into perspective, consider that state of Vermont has approximately 150,000 cows, most of whom excrete their waste either directly on pastures or if collected from barns it is later spread on fields. In either case, most of this waste winds up on the land without further treatment. This is the same as permitting a city of nearly 14 million people to spread their human waste on the land!

It has been asserted without good evidence that grass-fed beef cattle produce less E-coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens. Yet all of these diseases have been repeatedly isolated from both grass and grain-fed livestock.

Outbreaks of diseases like E coli have been traced back to pastured animals. Notably, the E. coli spinach outbreak in California in 2006 was isolated from pastured cattle. And there are other examples.

By contrast CAFO operations, because of their scale and ability to collect and process manure in a treatment plant, can potentially be less polluting overall compared to grass-fed beef—though admittedly this is not common practice as yet.

There are disease issues for wildlife as well. For example, grass-fed animals carry disease that can harm native species. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Mad Cow disease is thought to have originated with domestic livestock and later transferred to elk and deer. And foot and mouth disease transmitted from cattle has been shown to infect bison. Brucellosis, another disease originating with domestic cattle, has created a huge controversy in Montana, where bison infected with the disease are killed when they wander from Yellowstone National Park.

Free range cattle are also problematic for other reasons as well. Take predators. Most grass-fed cattle are vulnerable to predators, and it is the presence of “free range livestock” that leads to conflicts and the eventual slaughter of everything from wolves to coyotes both as preventative or in retaliation for predation.

On western rangelands where livestock are often let loose on public lands, even the mere presence of cows socially displaces native herbivores like elk that simply won’t graze in the same place as cows. Since there are no empty niches, these native herbivores are displaced into lower quality habitat. Thus even “predator friendly” beef is more hype than reality.

One of the big problems with grain-fed livestock operations is the huge amount of land that is used to produce grain. Approximately 80-90 million acres of land in the US are used to grow corn alone. That is 80-90 million acres of once native prairie that is now growing a mono crop at a tremendous loss of biodiversity.

As bad as that plant community conversion may be for natural process, and native species, grass-fed beef generally dine on either pasture or hay—both of which consist of exotic grasses that are planted at the expense of native plants. In most states, the biggest single factor in the destruction of native plant communities has been their conversion to hay or pasture. Indeed, across the country more than 130 million acres have been converted to hay and pasture. To put this into perspective, the entire footprint of all urbanization and developed land in the entire US is about 60 million acres. In a sense one could argue that grass-fed cows have destroyed far more of the native plant cover than all the cities, highways, factories, Wal-Mart parking lots, etc. combined. No small impact. Whatever the exact figure may be, there is no denying that a lot of native plant communities have been converted to hay or pasture.

In the West, much of the pasture and hay is created by irrigation thus require water withdrawals from streams and rivers. In most of the western United States, the majority of water consumed is not for domestic or industrial uses, but for agriculture, and the prime agricultural product produced is hay and/or irrigated pasture. As a consequence, aquatic ecosystems are fragmented, destroying fisheries, degrading riparian areas (water withdrawals affects water available for streamside vegetation), and increasing the effects of pollution (because toxins become more concentrated).

Even cattle grazing on native grasslands are not immune from judgment. One can’t be putting the majority of native grasses into the belly of exotic animals like cattle which are then exported from the system without impacting the ecosystem. Every blade of grass going into a cow’s belly is that much less forage for native animals, from grasshoppers to elk.

There are far more ecological problems I could list for grass-fed beef, but suffice to say cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.

The further irony of grass-fed beef is that consumption of beef products is not healthy despite claims to the contrary. There may be less fat in grass-fed beef, but the differences are not significant enough to warrant the claim that beef consumption is “healthy.” There is a huge body of literature about the contribution of red meat to major health problems including breast, colon, stomach, bladder, and prostate cancer. The other dietary related malady is the strong link between red meat consumption and heart disease.

Another health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats which are considered important for lowering health attack risks. However, the different between grain-fed and grass-fed is so small as to be insignificant, not to mention there are many other non-beef sources for this. Fish, walnuts, beans, flaxseeds, winter squash and olive oil are only some of the foods that l provide concentrated sources of omega-3 fats. Arguing that eating grass-fed beef is necessary or healthier grain-fed beef is like claiming it is better to smoke a filtered cigarette instead of a non-filtered one. The health benefits are minor if they make a difference at all.

There may be ethical reasons to prefer grass-fed animals over the often inhumane treatment given to factory-farmed animals. But even that rationale seems hollow to me. If one is that concerned with ethical issues, one should consider whether keeping any animals captive for slaughter is really ethical.

Beef consumption, whether grass-fed or grain-fed animals is neither healthy for the planet nor for humans. Reducing or eliminating red meat—whether grass or grain fed—from one’s diet is one of the easiest way to “save” the planet.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is the editor of Welfare Ranching—The Subsidized Destruction of the American West as well as a contributor to Fatal Harvest about Industrialized Agriculture, and a soon to be published book on Factory Farming.

 

 

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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