Not all beef is created equal
Written by Tivon Steffes
Published: April 23, 2021
I lived on a farm ion Indiana for 15 years. We raised grass-fed beef alongside various other side projects. At our peak we had 50 head of cattle and about 45 acres of land, surrounded on all sides by corn fields. Alongside living in such an environment, my family also attended numerous farming conferences. Ultimately what I learned is that the United States’ food system is fundamentally flawed. In this article, I will break down one aspect of the food system, beef production. This article is the combination of my lived experiences and also several scientific articles and journals.
The grains required to feed cattle create a multitude of environmental issues. First, expanding farms continue to remove woodlands and destroy local ecosystems and habitats. Removing the trees and the foliage also causes the top soil to erode. Second, there are the emissions from the farm vehicles used to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport feed for the cattle. Every step of the process requires fossil fuels. In comparison, free range grass-fed beef creates far less emissions. Free-range cows feed themselves from the spring to the fall, and in some places the winter as well, stored food (hay) is only necessary in the winter. Finally, grain fields require a large amount of fertilizer, which results in runoff.
Since crops are grown in the same fields year after year, the nutrients have no chance to replenish through natural means. In and of itself, fertilizer is not a bad thing, the problem is when fertilizers leave the fields they were initially sprayed on. Rain on a freshly sprayed field washes the fertilizer off the field and into the local waterways. This is amplified by the practice of tiling (laying drainage pipes under a field to prevent standing water). Fertilizer in water can cause massive shifts in the local ecosystems. “Typically, bacteria remove excess fertilizer from water through a chemical process known as denitrification” (1), however they can only remove, on average, 16 percent of nitrogen pollution. The rest is then carried through the water ways or used by algae. When algae encounter an excess of nitrate, they bloom (growing incredibly rapidly), and then die because the water cannot sustain that much algae. The dead algae then decomposes and uses up the oxygen. Such algae blooms can kill all local wildlife and create “dead zones”. These dead zones have appeared in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf of Mexico “lifeless waters now cover more than 7,700 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) during the summer months” because of fertilizer run off (1). Such algae blooms can also be toxic. They can make people and animals sick from any contact with the water, or even breathing in tiny water droplets (2).
Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are common when raising animals in large numbers. The main environmental impacts from CAFOs are a result of the manure from the animals. CAFOs can produce “between 2,800 tons and 1.6 million tons a year” (3). While manure can be valuable as a fertilizer, when dealing with such massive amounts, it becomes problematic. When too much manure is applied, the excess is either run off into local waterways or leached down into groundwater. Improper or malfunctioning containment units can also lead to contaminated groundwater. The contamination in the water can have a multitude of effects, ranging from unhealthy levels of nitrates to pathogenic organisms. These not only effect the local environment, but also the health of the local community as “the EPA estimates that 53% of the population relies on groundwater for drinking water” (3).
While cows in CAFOs eat mostly grain, their diets are supported with vitamins, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Antibiotics are necessary in CAFOs for a multitude of reasons, one of which, is the grain-based diet. The acid released from fermenting grain products can damage the cow’s stomach wall and release bacteria that lead to liver abscesses. Antibiotics can drop the amount of cattle that grow liver abscesses by over half. One unfortunate side effect of antibiotic use is the creation of antibacterial resistant bacteria. This issue is a bigger deal than it might initially seem to be. Viruses and bacteria can be transferred from animals to people. If antibiotic-resistant bacteria migrate to people from the feedlot, they would be resistant to some antibiotics (4). While better grass-fed beef cannot avoid the issue entirely, animals still get sick occasionally and require antibiotics. That said, the amount and frequency antibiotics are used is substantially less, since their diet is not actively harming the cows.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef are rich in essential nutrients. However, there are some differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef as well. Grass-fed is typically lower in calories than grain-fed since it is lower in fat. While grass-fed beef contains far less monounsaturated fat, it has significantly more omega-3, vitamin A, and vitamin E (5). However, because of the differences in composition, there are noticeable differences in taste and texture between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Grass-fed is also typically more expensive and more difficult to find in stores. The combination of these factors means switching to grass-fed is not feasible for everyone. Additionally, I would like to advise trying small quantities of grass-fed beef before buying any in bulk, because of the differences in taste/texture.
There are multiple ways to change your meat consumption to protect the planet and eat healthier. The easiest way is to simply switch from grain-fed beef to grass-fed beef. If you can afford it, this is the path that I recommend. This approach continues to provide you all the essential nutrients found in beef plus some that are found in higher quantities in grass-fed beef. The second approach is to reduce beef consumption. This does not mean becoming a vegetarian, although that is an option. Even something as simple as eating one meatless meal a day, or even a week helps. This solution is also available to everyone, regardless of income. The first approach and the second approach are both valid options to help protect the environment. Any combination of the two will also help. Overall, the best approach, is whatever approach works for you.