Cows grazing in pasture at sunrise.
Aliza Majewski—Pre-veterinary Science
Ayana LaSalle—Sustainable Food and Farming
Rachel Foley—Animal Science
When Betty Jo learned that she needed to choose between veganism and her health, she made the only sensible decision—she began eating meat. Betty Jo was a vegan for 14 years, however, deficiencies in her diet developed that could only be overcome through the consumption of meat. She called the Whisnant family, a local farm she found online, in hopes of purchasing a cow for herself. Thus began a waterfall of events that would change the Whisnant family forever. With Betty Jo’s call, the Whisnant’s realized there was a growing consumer demand for beef that is raised humanely, healthily, and outside of factory farms and that they could easily revamp their farm to meet this demand. With proper marketing and management, pasture-raised cattle would allow them to have the successful future farm they desired. In their current financial state, there was not enough demand and income to keep the family working at the farm, but grass-fed beef would change that. This realization was the turning point, the future that could support the entire family. The Whisnant family knew then, as did Betty Jo, that grass-fed beef was better for the animal, the consumer, and the environment. Betty Jo was vehement that, if she was going to eat meat again, it would only be the best, not only for herself but also for the animals and the planet. And so began the family company: American Grassfed Beef. (Whisnant, M. & Whisnant, P., n.d.)
As production of grass-fed beef has slowly increased, consumers like Betty Jo have become more aware that commercially farmed beef has negative impacts on human, animal and environmental health. There are many things to consider when raising animals in the commercial style. For instance, “you could not crowd animals into these feedlots or feed them this highly concentrated ration without giving them antibiotics. But the antibiotics, in turn, lead to resistance; resistant microbes that then come and infect [people]” (Pollan, n.d., How does the current… section, para. 1). Large commercial production only aims at producing more beef. Feedlot farms produce meat in the cheapest way they can in order to supply the demand but, by admission, they are reducing the quality of health of the animals. In addition it will become evident that ‘cheapest’ is a term that is skewed and interpreted in the interest of maintaining the corn-fed cattle industry.
Making the (not so drastic) switch to grass-fed beef is important because the initial effects of this shift will create a feedback loop that will affect not only health, but community and economy as well. The world we live in is affected by everything we do, including the food that our food consumes, and it is in human nature to first question how this change will affect us immediately and directly. Consuming beef products sourced from grass-fed cattle provides more health benefits and less health detriments than commercially raised beef cattle. This switch in cattle diet not only increases human health, but also the health and welfare of the animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association (2015) defines animal welfare as “the state of the animal…[An animal with] good state of welfare…is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behavior, and…is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress” (para. 1). Farmers clearly are not starving these cattle raised commercially and they have a balanced diet, but are they provided with a comfortable, safe grazing environment where they can express their natural behaviors? You know the answer. The way feedlots produce cattle, and the corn grown to raise them in such a manner, have adverse impacts on the planet that can be avoided via utilization of grass-fed methods to raise cattle. Commercially farmed beef is detrimental to environmental, animal, and human health, therefore consumers should switch to grass-fed beef.
Impacts of Beef Cattle Diet on the Environment
Knowing the extent of environmental impacts due to feedlot production means understanding the chain of production that forms commercial cattle systems. Each component of the factory farm business model affects nature in its own way. The best place to start this discussion is the production of grains used for cattle feed. Feedlot-raised beef requires the use of commodity crops, primarily corn. Growing these grains leads to an increased dosage of pesticides and fertilizers (Clancy, 2011). Christensen states that, in the U.S., corn grown for feed accounts for over 40% of total commercial fertilizer and herbicide use (as cited in Clancy, 2005, p.13). The petroleum needed to create all the chemical fertilizers applied to the growing crops is incredibly high, with one researcher estimating that a single typical U.S. steer needs 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime (Bassett & Gunther, 2011, p.12). Not only does grain production require oil and energy, but emissions are also released into the atmosphere when grains, like corn, are shipped from fields to feedlots (Basset & Gunther, 2011).
Within commercial beef lots, a common problem is the waste ‘lagoons’ (National Resource Defense Council [NRDC], 2013). This term is given to large man-made water bodies that formed from funneling the waste produced by livestock into large ponds. These cesspools often leak out, possibly contaminating water supplies in neighboring areas. In addition, they produce large amounts of odor, nitrate pollution, and dangerous microbes. Some of the known noxious odors emitted from the lagoons are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane gas. According to California officials “the major source of nitrate pollution in more than 100,000 square miles of polluted groundwater” (NRDC, 2013, Feb. 21, para. 2) is due to cattle from giant livestock farms. For most farms the amount of manure is often overwhelming, so they practice spraying it as a fertilizer for the very crops meant to feed the cattle. While spraying manure is an effective fertilizing technique, fields are frequently over-sprayed, leading to greater runoff. Manure must be carefully applied in moderate amounts, allowing the ground to properly absorb it, instead of dumping large amounts all at once. Responsible manure spraying avoids greater evaporation of emissions into the air while reducing chances of runoff into adjacent areas (NRDC, 2013, Lagoons and Spray Fields section, para. 3).
Pasture-raised beef is a more efficient use of natural resources than commercially raised beef. It is more energy efficient and environmentally sound to utilize the grass in pastures to create the meat products we depend on, instead of mass producing grains. Raising beef cattle on grass increases soil fertility and secures water quality, which is threatened without the pastures that maintain the structure of the soil and prevent erosion and runoff. In addition to greatly reducing greenhouse emissions and decreasing fuel use for tilling and crop production, yet another environmental benefit of grass-fed beef is that it promotes population increases in native mammals and wild birds that rely on pastures for their survival (Clancy, 2005). Nature is providing signs of what we are doing to damage it, in the form of climate change and the permanent damage done to the ecosystem. With that in mind, it is not surprising that the cattle themselves experience great discomfort from this industry as well.
Animal Health and Welfare
The majority of beef are currently raised in a factory-farming manner, and therefore being fed high grain diets. In order to maximize growth and weight gain cattle are fed a grain-based diet, which allows the animals to be slaughtered younger (Bassett & Gunther, 2011). Animals that are fed this form of diet have issues with their digestion, decreased welfare, and higher incidences of illness.
There are multiple ways that being fed high grain diets can detrimentally harm beef cattle. One of these illnesses is called ‘feedlot bloat’ because the grain diets that are the primary feed method in large factory farms and feedlots cause this disease. According to Bassett and Gunther (2011) cattle who consume large amounts of grain suffer from acidosis and other serious diet and digestion-related ailments, including the aforementioned ‘feedlot bloat’. The mortality rate caused by this disease is 3%, causing multiple thousands of deaths per year (Bassett & Gunther, 2011, p. 10). This is because as a cattle ruminates normally they release gas, however when eating high starch diets, corn and high grain, they are unable to release this gas. Retaining gas within their multi-chambered stomach causes it to lethally expand, or bloat (Bassett & Gunther, 2011). While this disease is a major danger for animals raised in the same conditions, it is not the only illness caused from these high grain diets.
Another common ailment on feedlots, the development of liver abscesses, affects a minimum of 30% of cattle (Bassett & Gunther, 2011, p. 10). This is a large portion of animals becoming ill due to their diet, yet their diet has not changed to prevent it in the future. Liver abscesses are caused from cattle eating too much corn in a short period of time and ulcers developing. When an ulcer develops in the stomach it causes ruptures through which bacteria (which digests food in the rumen) can escape, enter the bloodstream and wind up in the liver, forming abscesses (Pollan, n.d., para. 14). In order to lower the number of liver abscess incidences, farmers control the bacteria populations by adding antibiotics to their high grain diets. This means that even though animals will develop such abscesses they will have antibiotics available immediately so that they can survive the infection (Bassett & Gunther, 2011). This is a definite welfare concern because animals are still subjected to such painful ailments when there is a way to decrease the number of abscesses formed.
Cows are evolutionarily designed to eat grass due to their special digestive system, the rumen. Corn and other high grain diets are actually too rich and starchy for this highly developed system, and can cause major digestive problems (Pollan, n.d.). In order to feed these types of food to animals, farmers must teach them how to adjust and eat corn. The solution—pump them full of antibiotics. These diets are abnormal to them, causing them to be more apt to getting many diseases, so they need the antibiotics to help stave off lethal infections. Different diseases often call for different antibiotics, and so along with the antibiotic for liver abscess, more antibiotics are added to animal feed (Pollan, n.d.). In general, consumers are against antibiotics in their meat, and an increased there is now an increased amount of “antibiotic free” products available. However, the above research shows that the diet of these animals has not changed, indicating that these animals are without antibiotics and still suffering with food-related ailments. People desire beef without antibiotics, and animals with better welfare. Therefore cattle diet should be altered from high concentrate diets toward grass-fed diets that do not require the use of antibiotics, and naturally provide nutrients needed for a healthy digestive system.
Animal welfare concerns center on this decrease in animal health. If the animal is not healthy then it inherently cannot have good welfare. If one can change for the better, then the other will as well. Unhealthy animals, become unhealthy meat products, which becomes unhealthy food for human consumption, as will be discussed later. Today’s farms aim at producing meat as quickly as possible, currently slaughtering at 14 months, a number which is quickly decreasing to 11 (Pollan, n.d., para. 6). This forces cattle to grow faster through dietary changes. This is unnatural. Not only are animals being raised at an incredibly fast rate, they are being fed foods with large nutritional downfalls in order to do so. Sometimes when considering the animal it is important to consider oneself: when a human is sick we give them medicine, when populations of humans are sick we solve the problem causing the illness. So why doesn’t this transfer over to cattle and other forms of livestock? When the animal is ill we give them medicine, and when the entire herd is getting ill from the same thing (high grain diets) we give them more medication and continue to keep the production system the same. If it is clear for humans, why isn’t it clear for cattle: “just as it’s unadvisable for us to make cake and ice cream our sole ration, cattle shouldn’t be eating only grain” (Haspel, 2015, para. 2).
Cattle Diet and its Impacts on Human Health
So if we want to have our cattle and eat it too, we must also consider our own health by analyzing the components of the beef we eat. To truly understand and compare the health implications of eating pasture-raised beef instead of grain-fed cattle, we must first understand the nutrients found in beef and their roles in human health and disease. Beef is made up of water, protein and fat; along with some vitamins and minerals. These components occur in varying concentrations depending on the animal’s diet and age, the season or climate, the cut of meat and the specific breed (Leheska et al., 2008). Although water, protein, vitamin and mineral content are all very important for human health, the main concern with beef is fat content. Not only does fat aid in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and provide both of the essential fatty acids, it is also the densest supply of energy in our diet, providing 37 kJ or 9 kcal of energy per gram (Wyness, 2011, pp. 6-7). Furthermore, grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef show very significant differences in fat content (Daley, Abbott, Doyle, Nader, & Larson, 2010).
As reported by Leheska et al. (2008), the locations of fat storage in and around muscle each contain different combinations of the individual types of fats, which varies between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle, namely with cholesterol levels. Intermuscular fat and is more easily cut away than the marbled fat deposits (Wyness, 2011). Thus, the type and quantity of marbling compared across different feeding regimens is of greater concern because it cannot be cut away before consumption. Leheska et al. (2008) report that grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed beef, the marked difference being a greater concentration of marbled fat in grain-fed cattle. As shown in multiple studies, leaner beef reduces LDL cholesterol levels in humans, implying that it may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (Daley et al., 2010). Since leaner beef is an indication of lower cholesterol, a diet consisting of leaner, pasture-raised beef has positive health benefits. With cardiovascular disease accounting for a quarter of deaths in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015, para. 1), a shift in consumption to leaner, grass-fed beef suggests that an improvement in the nation’s health will follow.
However, not all fats have poor health implications. Beef contains several specific types of lipids in the form of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) called omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. Alpha linolenic acid (ALNA), an omega-3 fatty acid, plays a key role in helping to prevent heart attack, stroke, atherosclerosis, cancer and inflammation. ALNA also improves conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia (Wyness, 2011, p. 9). Although the suggested ratio of consumption of omega-6’s to omega-3’s is roughly 3 to 1, the modern American consumes 11 to 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats. Inflammatory disorders are linked to improperly balanced consumption of omega fatty acids (Daley et al., 2010, p. 5). Thus, there is a need for humans to increase their intake of omega-3s and decrease their intake of omega-6 fatty acids. This shift can be achieved through consuming grass-fed beef, which has more omega 3’s than grain-fed cattle and a more desirable omega 3 to 6 ratio (Daley et al., 2010, p. 6). Furthermore, the type of feed upon which animals are raised directly affects the concentration of PUFAs in meat, and ruminants fed grass year-round have higher concentrations of PUFAs (Wyness, 2011, p. 10). Since PUFAs are linked to health benefits, and grass-fed ruminant meat contains a higher concentration of PUFAs, then eating pasture-raised beef is clearly more beneficial to your health than consuming feedlot-raised beef.
The Little People vs. Big Business
Making better choices not only achieves increased human health, but also a greater availability of healthier, grass-fed beef. It is a common belief that one person cannot make a difference, but that is not true. Society runs on a system of cascades, one person influences the next, each of whom influences two more and so forth. One person at a time, the system can be changed. For many, the belief is that in order to change the food industry, large companies must force this change. However, companies run on a system of supply and demand, something students are taught starting in elementary school. Companies supply what is demanded and will choose to produce the product with the best profit margins. Pollan (n.d.) said that cattle consume corn diets because it is the cheapest feed option. No one ever demanded better. However, a change is needed and we, the people, can incite this change towards grass-fed beef.
Recently a large corporation has proven that the consumer is in control. In an interview with Kim (2015), McDonald’s said, “Our customers want food that they feel great about eating — all the way from the farm to the restaurant — and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations” (para. 7), in reference to their change in chicken products. Growing concern about the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to animals being fed antibiotics caused McDonald’s to set up a two year plan to phase out chicken products with these antibiotics used in production (Kim, 2015). This is only the beginning, but it is exactly the beginning we need. Consumer concerns have forced a major international corporation to change their products which, through a cascade effect, has incited a change in the production of chicken. There are more animals out there, and concerns, but this effort shows that consumer demand is capable of driving the market toward production of more grass-fed cattle and fewer feedlots.
Perhaps one of the most profound understandings that could drive consumer preference towards pasture-raised cattle, is that feedlots are a major driving force of a corrupt monoculture that relies on taxpayer dollars. Corn is the primary diet of commercially raised beef cattle and costs $2.25 to grow 50 lbs, making it the cheapest feed option for farmers (Pallon, n.d., para. 23). However, feeding cows corn doesn’t actually influence our economy positively. It costs $3.00 to grow 50 lbs of corn, with the difference made up in federal subsidy, coming from taxes (Pollan, n.d., para. 23). In the 1990s an acre of farmland could produce 138 bushels of corn, up from 20 bushels in the 1900s (Pollan, n.d., para. 27). Doing the calculations, 138 bushels at $3.00/bushel costs $414. However that same amount is only sold for $310.50, and the remaining approximately $103.50 per acre is paid for by the taxes collected by the government. In reality, the governmental subsidy is likely more than the $0.75 or else large companies would not be receiving profit. While this data comes from the 1990s, current corn costs continue to be artificially decreased through government subsidies (Haspel, 2014). Due to the fact that corn is subsidized and paid for with taxes, when we choose to feed cattle corn rather than a more natural grass diet, the cost to the consumer adds up. Therefore corn-fed beef may seem the cheapest upfront, but the facts say otherwise.
If consumers demand a change, the question remains: Can cattle be raised on pasture efficiently enough to produce an ample and affordable supply of food for a growing population? To answer this, we must first consider the amount of land used to grow animal feed in each situation and the land upon which the cattle live. Numerous variations in the cost to finish a cow in a feedlot versus on pasture makes accurate comparison of the two difficult, if not impossible. Utilizing 2015 cost estimates from Iowa State University for corn production in Iowa and feedlot finishing costs, it can be estimated that to produce one finished beef cow on corn costs about $114.00 (Plastina, 2015, p.2; Lawrence & Ellis, 2008, pp. 2-3; Coffey, 2015, para. 2). Utilizing the same Iowa State university cost estimator for pasture production and West Virginia State’s pasture management information on carrying capacity of pasture in the North East, the estimated cost to pasture-finish a beef cow is about $146.00 (Plastina, 2015, p. 11; Coffey, 2015, para. 4; Rayburn, 2005, Seasonal growth rate of pasture forage section, para. 1). However, this does not take into consideration the costs to human, animal or environmental health, or the federal subsidy that makes corn-finished beef appear even cheaper, as outlined in the previous paragraphs.
With many variables in play, it is important to note that proper pasture management in an intensive grazing situation can increase carrying capacity of a pasture by 4 times (Chapman, 2014, p. B2). With advancements in breeding and pasture management triggered by an increasing interest in grass-fed livestock, that number could increase even more. If federal subsidy went towards pastured cattle, the cost would be decreased even further. Also, grass-fed cattle operations eliminate the costs of transporting grains from the corn belt to the feedlots. In addition, as supply of grass-fed beef increases to meet demand, cost to the customer will fall. Furthermore, land that is not well suited for growing corn or other crops, such as hillsides where there are rocky outcroppings, could be utilized for grazing, because both grasses and cattle are well adapted to those conditions (Kitteredge, 2014). Thus, pasture-raising cattle can lead to more efficient utilization of the limited space available within which food is produced, and allow a more effective harvest of the free energy source of sunshine. If just a fraction of the energy, money, and time spent on fast-growing corn and cattle was spent on improving pastures, it stands to reason that the result would be a conservation of natural resources, happier cows and healthier beef for human consumption, with the side effect of an improved economy through pasture-raised beef.
In conclusion, grass-fed beef is better for human, animal, and environmental health, and offers a potentially revolutionary platform by which the monoculture of corn can be challenged by consumers demanding healthier options. The management intensive systems of pasture-raised cattle can provide jobs while repairing the land and improving our health. Land improvements from grazing cattle rotationally will propagate a system that works together synergistically to repair the damage done to our bodies and our planet. Restoring balance is the key to maintaining a symbiotic relationship between all the players in the game, from soil and sun, to cows and people. The scales are teetering precariously, and it is every person’s responsibility to make the right choice for our planet and our future. So, go ahead and lose your marbles in favor of a healthier choice: grass-fed beef. After all, when it comes to what you are putting in your body, you are playing for keeps and choosing good health is your best bet.
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