Beef choices and the environment – grain or grass fed?

It’s always a bit tricky writing on the topic of meat as it can be a very polarizing issue. So to start out with, I’d just like to mention that reducing meat consumption is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of your lifestyle – and if you make the choice of adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet, even more power to you.

With that important point made; let’s push on. Most of us aren’t going to stop eating meat any time soon, but we can make some more educated choices about our meat purchases. Knowing more about the issues can also be a trigger for reducing or ceasing meat consumption now, or paving the way in making that decision in the future.

Sizzling char grilled grain fed beef

… mmmm… but at what cost?

Back when meat featured very, very heavily in my diet (I’m still an omnivore, carnivore, whatever you would like to call it); the mention of grain fed beef would have me drooling and visualizing fat juicy steaks sizzling over a charcoal grill.

These days, the term brings up all sorts of conflict in me and I tend to eat little of it. The reasons?

Cattle were not meant to eat grain

It makes perfect sense but it never occurred to me until somebody pointed it out. The digestive system of cattle was designed to deal with grass, not grain – and unfortunately most of the beef we buy these days is grain fed.

While grain helps fatten the animals up very quickly, it seems that it is really, really bad for cattle and can cause painful conditions such as feedlot bloat as the result of a diet containing too much starch and too little fiber. Left untreated, feedlot bloat can suffocate cattle.

Acidosis is another side effect, which can also be a painful or life threatening condition. According to Michael Pollan, author of books including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Food Rules”, acidosis can lead to bloat, diarrhea, ulcers, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system, meaning the animals are susceptible to bacterial infections and all sorts of other illnesses.

Grain fed beef often need to be treated more heavily with supplements and antibiotics to make up for what they are missing from the diet that was intended for them. Then there’s the issue of other stuff being introduced to their feed such as (depending on local regulations) ammonium sulfate, blood meal, bone meal, dried cattle manure, defluorinated phosphate, fat from poultry, meat meal, poultry litter and dried poultry manure – again, to make up for what they miss out on by being grain fed.

Must we torture our food? I hate to think of the collective suffering going on right this minute due to some factory farming practices.

Environmental issues

Huge swathes of rainforest and other timbered areas have been wiped out to grow corn and soy beans to feed to cattle. While soy beans aren’t considered a grain (they are a legume), they can have the same effect as corn on the animals.

Grain fed feedlot cattle are also incredibly energy intensive in terms of their diet as so much fossil fuel, fertilizer and pesticides are used to grow the corn and soy beans.

The benefits of grass fed beef

Grass fed cattle need to roam – so there’s a benefit straight away in relation to humane treatment of animals.

As long as there’s feed around and the pasture isn’t overcrowded, it appears the grass fed cattle rarely need supplements or antibiotics and are generally much healthier. Their poop is returned to the land they’ve taken their feed from to act as a fertilizer – just as nature intended. A well managed pasture doesn’t usually require additional fertilizer.

Based on what I’ve read, the meat is better for you too – not so much of the “bad” fat and more of the good fats.

It’s important to bear in mind though that grass fed beef doesn’t mean it’s organic. If it’s organic as well as grass fed, the meat will likely be labelled as organic as that aspect adds to its attractiveness among eco-savvy consumers.

Grass fed beef is unfortunately harder to get and quite a bit more expensive; but given our tendency to eat too much meat anyway, is it really such a bad thing to pay more for meat from an animal who has probably been treated better and eat a little less of it? It seems the health and environmental benefits of doing so also make it worthwhile as part of greening our lives.

Time to put a bit of pressure on our local butchers to start offering grass fed beef I think.

Don’t forget, there are alternatives to any sort of beef while still not foregoing a meaty type dining experience – check out some mock meat recommendations. Mock meat has certainly come a long way from the products I swear used to be made from sawdust. I just had a meal made with mock meat and it was still very tasty and filling!