Why grass-fed is best – part I

Grass fed beef

Although most consumers have heard of grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products, confusion still abounds about what their benefits are and why we should choose them over commercially-raised animal products.

It is important to note that the “organic” label does not have anything to do with whether an animal product is pasture-raised or not. It’s possible, and indeed common, for an organic meat or dairy product to come from cows raised in confinement feedlots. Likewise, it is also common to encounter pasture-raised animal products that do not have the “organic” label. This often occurs when the farm raising the animals is too small to afford the expensive organic certification process. In these cases, if one knows the farmer and his or her practices, it is preferable to choose the non-organic, grass-fed source over the organic, commercially-raised alternative.

Many environmental and ethical objections to eating meat stem from the tremendously destructive and cruel practices of commercial feedlot meat production. When meat and dairy animals are raised in a humane and ecologically responsible manner, these objections (which I entirely agree with in the case of commercial production) are no longer defendable.

In this two-part article I will cover the benefits of pasture-raised animal products. In part I, we’ll examine the environmental and economic benefits, and in part II, we’ll look at the nutritional and health benefits. Information is adapted in part from the Eat Wildwebsite.

Back to the pasture

Pasture-raised animals live on the range where they forage on their native diet. They are not sent to feedlots to be fattened on corn, soy or other grains which they do not normally eat. Pasture-raised livestock are not treated hormones or feed them growth-promoting additives. As a result, the animals grow at a natural pace. For these reasons and more, grass-fed animals live low-stress lives and are so healthy there is no reason to treat them with antibiotics or other drugs.

More Nutritious

A major benefit of raising animals on pasture is that their products are healthier for you. For example, compared with feedlot meat, meat from grass-fed beef, bison, lamb and goats has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids. Meat and dairy products from grass-fed ruminants are the richest known source of another type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA. When ruminants are raised on fresh pasture alone, their products contain from three to five times more CLA than products from animals fed conventional diets. Grass-fed meat also has more vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C than grain-fed meat.

Factory Farming

Raising animals on pasture is dramatically different from the status quo. Virtually all the meat, eggs, and dairy products that you find in the supermarket come from animals raised in confinement in large facilities called CAFOs or “Confined Animal Feeding Operations.”  These highly mechanized operations provide a year-round supply of food at a reasonable price. Although the food is cheap and convenient, there is growing recognition that factory farming creates a host of problems, including:

  • Animal stress and abuse
  • Air, land, and water pollution
  • The unnecessary use of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs
  • Low-paid, stressful farm work
  • The loss of small family farms
  • Food with less nutritional value

Unnatural Diets

Animals raised in factory farms are given diets designed to boost their productivity and lower costs. The main ingredients are genetically modified grain and soy that are kept at artificially low prices by government subsidies. To further cut costs, the feed may also contain “by-product feedstuff” such as municipal garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers, and candy. Until 1997, U.S. cattle were also being fed meat that had been trimmed from other cattle, in effect turning herbivores into carnivores. This unnatural practice is believed to be the underlying cause of BSE or “mad cow disease.”

Environmental Degradation

When animals are raised in feedlots or cages, they deposit large amounts of manure in a small amount of space. The manure must be collected and transported away from the area, an expensive proposition. To cut costs, it is dumped as close to the feedlot as possible. As a result, the surrounding soil is overloaded with nutrients, which can cause ground and water pollution. When animals are raised outdoors on pasture, their manure is spread over a wide area of land, making it a welcome source of organic fertilizer, not a “waste management problem.”

Make sure to see part II for the nutritional and health benefits of pasture-raised animal products!

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Dan D. says

    Actually pasture raised animals are worse for the environment:

    “Many environmentalists have argued that finishing up the fattening of beef cattle on corn is worse for the environment than cattle that are raised solely on pasture grass. Pelletier says his team’s analysis finds that at least from a climate perspective, the opposite is true. “We do see significant differences in the GHG intensities [of grass vs grain finishing]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.”
    When an audience member questioned whether he had heard that right, that grass-fed cattle have a higher carbon footprint, Pelletier reiterated, “higher. Yes.” The reason: “It’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions.” He added that most pastures were highly managed, and subject to “periodic renovations and also fertilization.” Finally, with grass-fed cattle “there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that [GHG] difference,” Pelletier said.” 

    via: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/40934/title/AAAS_Climate-friendly_dining_…_meats 

  2. says

    Dan D.,

    Thanks for your comment. I am actually working on an article that addresses the question you raised.

    In short, Pelletier’s argument is incomplete and completely ignores the carbon impacts of producing grain. There is no mention of the carbon released into the atmosphere in the production of these grain-based, “improved diets”, just as there is never any mention of the petroleum requirements to produce corn-based ethanol.

    To produce the grain fed to cows, first the soil must be plowed (a process that requires immense amounts of diesel fuel). Then the seed is planted. This is again accomplished with a tractor that runs on diesel fuel. After the plant begins to grow, it is sprayed several times by a tractor-mounted rig, dowsing the plants in oil-derived herbicides. If bugs are a problem, the same process will be repeated – with yet another diesel-guzzling tractor rig, and more petrochemical-derived chemicals. Then comes the harvest, with its massive diesel combines. The seeds are then trucked cross-country in huge 18-wheeler trucks (guess what they run on?) to distributors and suppliers.

    In contrast, grass-fed livestock eat, well, grass that is entirely derived from solar energy. No chemicals or petroleum required. Just the sun, the grass and the cows.

    Unfortunately, Pelletier and the “industrial environmentalists” who are quick to criticize grass-fed livestock practices for methane production completely ignore the environmental consequences of producing grain. As you can see, these are not at all insignificant and far outweigh the methane production of grass-fed ruminants.

    I’ll have more to say on this subject in the coming article. Hopefully I’ll send it out next week.

    Best,
    Chris

  3. Kimberly says

    So my question is how do you know?  I was recently looking at the grocery store and there are brands that say Organic, no antibiotics, no hormone but it doesn’t mention what the feed is?  Can I assume if there were no antibiotics they were pastured?
    And then a butcher told me all they need to get that label is to keep them free of hormones and antibiotics for 120 days.  So they could be on all kinds of crap the rest of the time.  That totally teed me off!  Feels like I am being lied to.
    So where can I find grass fed products and would it explicitly state that?
    And my husband tells me it is illegal to get or sell raw milk in MA…is this true?  I admit I never knew there were benefits to drinking it without the pasteurizing so I never looked to see if anyone sells it.
    Thanks!  Another interesting read.

  4. Gary Howie says

    Both farming and ranching can be done in ways that are environmentally friendly and actually help restore the soil. Chief among those who are demonstrating how are Allan Savory (see his Ted Talk plus the Savory Institute has a lot of information) and farmers like Gabe Brown (see his QUIVIRA presentation on Youtube). Cattle can actually be raised and managed in such a way that they are a critical tool not only in sequestering carbon but also in improving the soil in many other ways.

  5. says

    Hi Kimberly,

    Normally meat will be labeled as grass-fed when it is pasture-raised. In general, it’s only available at stores like Whole Foods or specialty local butchers. You can also buy meat directly from a local farm that raises animals on pasture. Visit this page for a list of such farms in Massachussetts.

    Grass-fed is not the same as organic. Meat can be grass-fed and not organic, or it can be organic and not grass-fed. In fact, most commercially-raised organic meat is not grass-fed. On the other hand, a significant number of small, grass-fed meat producers can’t afford the expensive organic certification. So even though their meat may not be “technically” organic, it is produced with standards that meet and often exceed the organic criteria. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping.

    As for raw milk, it’s illegal in most states to sell in stores. However, there’s a legal way around that. You can participate in something called a “cow share”. Basically you buy a partial ownership of a cow from a local farm. Then you can pick up milk directly from the farmer. Because you own the cow, you are free to drink the milk from it. You’re not paying for the milk (which would be illegal), you’re paying for the cow.

    There should be a list of cow shares on that same link above.

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