Why Pasture-Raised Animal Products Beat out Conventional | Chris Kresser

Why Pasture-Raised Animal Products Are Better for Your Health and the Environment

by Katie Melville, Ph.D.

Published on

pasture raised
Pasture-raised animal products are more nutritious and eco-friendly than their industrial counterparts. iStock/georgeclerk

Do you want to eat healthy and also help the environment? Consider sourcing pastured animal products, which are both more nutritious and more eco-friendly than conventional products.

Animal Products Are Part of an Ancestral Diet

Animal products are key components of an ancestral diet, along with starchy and non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Meat, eggs, bone broth, organ meats, and sometimes even milk provide high-quality nutrition for humans. Animal products often provide micronutrients that can be hard to obtain elsewhere, including:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Choline
  • Heme iron
  • DHA and EPA (docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • Vitamin K2
  • Selenium
  • Preformed vitamin A
  • High-quality protein

Pasture-raised animal products are better for you and better for the environment. Check out this article from Katie Melville for an updated look at the benefits of pastured animal products. #paleo #wellness

Our ancestors started eating animal products at least 2.5 million years ago. (1) In fact, scholars believe that eating nutrient-dense animal protein is one of the things that helped us evolve into humans in the first place. (2, 3) Looking at modern day hunter–gatherers and ancestral populations, animal protein provides (and has provided) the majority of calories for most traditional human societies. (4) That makes it a core component of an ancestral health-based lifestyle.

A Paleo diet that includes pasture-raised meat, eggs, and (if tolerated) dairy is a great starting place for most people. In the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we go over the ins and outs of Paleo alongside core principles of Functional and ancestral health. All this is within the context of a program that teaches you what you need to know about communication, presence, mindfulness, behavior change, and the other skills and toolkits needed to become a successful health coach.

Click here to find out more about the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

Pasture-Raised Animal Products Are More Nutritious

One big difference between the average cut of meat at the grocery store and the average animal protein consumed by our ancestors is how the animals were raised. Unfortunately, most of the animal products in industrialized countries today started off in concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) farms. In contrast, the only kinds of animal products our ancestors knew were from pasture-raised animals.

A couple of examples to highlight this contrast:

Chickens are meant to range free, foraging for bugs and eating greens like clover, in addition to their grain-based food. Instead, industrial chickens are generally housed in crowded environments, with little or no access to fresh air, and fed completely vegetarian diets. (5, 6)

Cows are herbivores and meant to eat grass or hay year-round. Instead, CAFO farms mix animal products and animal waste into cattle feed, violating their herbivore nature. (7) Steers are often fed exclusively grains for the last few months of life to fatten them up and to produce a supposedly favorable flavor profile. (8)

Put simply, pasture-raised animals are provided the conditions, space, and foods that respect their biology, welfare, and needs.

In humans, the saying goes, “you are what you eat.” But the same is true for animals. Just as humans develop chronic illness on a standard American diet, full of inflammatory foods like industrial seed oils, refined grains, and processed sugars, (9) animals fed inappropriate diets become unhealthy and produce less nutritious products.

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Pastured Animal Products Have a Superior Fatty Acid Profile

Feeding ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats grass instead of grains results in more favorable fatty acid profiles in both meat and milk. The omega-3 fatty acid content of meat and milk from grassfed cows and sheep is higher than from conventionally raised animals. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16) Conjugated linoleic acid, which is inversely related to cardiovascular disease, is also higher in meat and milk from grass-fed animals. (17, 18)

Although the omega-6 fatty acid levels in meat tend to remain similar regardless of animal diet, (19, 20) the higher omega-3 content in grass-fed animals results in a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, at around 1.5:1. The ideal dietary ratio for humans is around 2:1, yet the typical Western diet approaches 20:1, a highly inflammatory ratio. (21)

Pasture feeding also increases the omega-3 fatty acid content in chicken eggs to up to three times the levels of conventionally raised chickens. (22, 23, 24)

Micronutrient Density Is Greater in Pastured Animals

In general, grains are less nutrient-dense than greens. Therefore, it should be no surprise that pastured animal products have higher levels of certain nutrients compared to animals fed excessive grains:

  • Grass-fed beef has higher carotenoids, vitamin E, glutathione, riboflavin, and thiamine compared to CAFO beef. (25, 26)
  • Eggs from pastured chickens boast higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and flavonoids compared to conventional eggs. (27, 28, 29, 30)
  • Milk from pastured cows has more vitamin A, vitamin E, and beta-carotene than milk from conventional cattle. (31, 32)

Pastured Animal Products Have Fewer Antibiotic, Pesticide, and Herbicide Contaminants

Antibiotics used in raising livestock significantly contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “Nontherapeutic” low levels of antibiotics are permitted in animal feed. Confined, overcrowded conditions in CAFO farms cause animals to get sick more often and require more antibiotics compared to pastured animals.

Despite measures to reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to conventionally raised animals, antibiotic residues are found in many animal products. (33) Residues have also been found in the water, air, and soil surrounding CAFO farms. (34, 35, 36, 37, 38)

Conventionally raised cows and chickens rely primarily on corn- and soy-based feed. (39) Unfortunately, these crops are heavily treated with pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers—and residues make their way into the animal products we consume. (40, 41, 42) Low-level exposure to many of these environmental toxins is considered “safe,” but increasing evidence indicates that chronic, low-level exposure may cause significant harm over time. (43)

In contrast, pasture-raised animals feed on grasslands, and in turn their waste naturally fertilizes both the grass and other agriculture on the farm. As a result, organic, pastured animal products contain lower levels of antibiotics, pesticides, and other toxins. (44, 45)

CAFO Farm Nightmares

I don’t want to devote much time relaying the horrors of CAFO farms, mostly because the conditions are horrifying. The egregious conditions on industrial-sized farms are cruel at best and torturous at worst.

Animals on CAFO farms live in confined and overcrowded conditions, contributing both to animal stress and sickness. (46) Animals are meant to range in wide open spaces, with plenty of sunshine and fresh air. For example, over 95 percent of dairy cows in the United States have no access to pasture. (47) It’s no question that animals are treated more humanely in pasture systems than on CAFO farms.

Pastured Animals Are Better for the Environment

In order to increase productivity and profit, farms have transformed into specialized businesses. Instead of a symbiotic ecosystem of pastureland, livestock, and varied crops, today the operations resemble factories more than farms. Unfortunately, the results of monocropping and CAFO farms include: (48)

  • Depleted nutrients in the soil
  • Eroded soil
  • Increased pollution

In monocropping systems, plants aren’t grown around animals, so synthetic fertilizers need to be manufactured and transported on-site. These fertilizers destroy soil microbial communities that are integral to its function and pollute the environment. (49)

Monocropping depletes nutrients in the soil by failing to rotate crops, to mix crops, and to give the land proper time to rest. (50) Levels of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron have all fallen in fruits and vegetables due to poor soil management. (51) Soil has also lost 30 to 70 percent of its organic carbon. (52)

In CAFO farms for cows, overgrazing during the first part of life leads to soil degradation and the destruction of about 20 percent of grasslands around the world. (53)

In contrast, properly managed, smaller “agroecosystems” work with the cycles of nature. Plants photosynthesize and grow. Pastured animals eat the plants and turn them into high-quality food. Animal manure provides an organic, natural fertilizer to the soil for future crops and returns some carbon directly to the soil.

Through strategic grazing and cropping, pastured animals in an agroecosystem allow the land to rest, and the nutrients the soil needs are returned to it. (54)

Pastured Animals Can Sequester Carbon and Combat Climate Change

We’re often told that vegetarian and vegan diets are better for the environment. (55) It’s no doubt that CAFO cattle farms emit astronomical amounts of greenhouse gases. Around the world, both crops and livestock together contribute about 28 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. (56) Our farms today are detrimental to the environment and unsustainable in the long run. (57)

The solution lies within smaller, mixed grazing and crop ecosystems. (58, 59) By incorporating practices that work with the environment in even just one-quarter of the current large-scale farms, a 2016 study calculated that farming systems overall could become carbon negative. (60) Some of the changes included the following:

  • Stop soil tilling that erodes the soil.
  • Include crops like legumes and perennials, and rotate crops.
  • Bring grazing animals back to the cropping systems.
  • Replace nitrogen fertilizers with organic manure when possible.
  • Let animals graze on lands not suitable for cropland, and rotate them wisely.

Beyond speculation, an independent life-cycle analysis conducted by Quantis verified that pastured animals can actually help reduce greenhouse gases. The study compared beef from White Oaks Pasture, a holistically managed farm owned by Will Harris in Georgia, to the Impossible Burger, a plant-based meat substitute. They found that White Oaks sequesters 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of beef produced, while Impossible Foods released 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of Impossible Burger they produce. Veganism is not the answer to climate change.

Pastured Animals Provide Food Security

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that cropland is possible on only about one-third of the earth’s land, and almost half of that available land is already occupied by forests. (61) Much of the land cannot sustain crops, due to weather, topography, humidity, and other issues. Decreasing meat consumption while increasing cropland just isn’t feasible in many climates.

However, animals can live in a variety of conditions: in mountainous regions, temperate or arid environments, tropical savannahs, great plains, and drylands. (62) Ruminants in particular turn marginal plant resources into nutrient-dense food, and provide livelihood for vulnerable populations around the globe. (63)

Pasture-raised animals are better for your health and the environment than conventional animals. Choose sustainable food when you can.

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