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.
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.
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
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.”
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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