Why Grass Fed Beef Isn’t Just Healthier

Organic produce and pasture based meat and dairy have less of an environmental impact than their conventionally produced counterparts, a recently released report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found. Titled A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, the report includes lifecycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat, dairy and vegetable proteins. The cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm is included in the assessments.

The life cycle assessments are based on conventionally produced meat and not pasture-based or organically produced. “We focused on conventionally produced, grain-fed meat because that is mostly what Americans eat,” the report states. However, the report does assess environmental impacts of organic and pasture based meat and dairy.

“Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging (although a few studies of the impact on climate show mixed results for grass-fed versus confined-feedlot meat,” according to the report. “Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices.”

“Well-managed grazing and grass-fed operations are better for the environment…Organic feed production and grazing practices are also better for the environment.”

Producing the grain fed to livestock takes lots of cropland, pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer to produce. Grain production takes 149 million acres of cropland, 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to produce. When nitrogen fertilizer is applied to soil it generates nitrous oxide, which has a warming effect 300 times that of carbon. Feed production also costs taxpayers as feed crops are “heavily subsidized” by taxpayers through the Farm Bill. Taxpayer subsidies for feed crops cost taxpayers $45 billion over the last decade.

The report also found that buying locally can significantly reduce the climate impact of vegetable production (10-30 percent). For example, transporting to retail generates 30 percent of tomatoes footprint, 23 percent of broccoli’s, 15 percent of lentils’ and tofu’s, 12 percent of nuts’, nine percent of potatoes’ and seven percent of eggs, and 10 percent for meat.

Mario Batali, chef, restaurateur, author, and television personality, pointed out that supporting “the farmers who raise their animals humanely and sustainably” is important.

“Choosing healthier, pasture-raised meats can also help improve people’s health and reduce the environmental damage associated with meat consumption,” said Kari Hamerschlag, EWG senior analyst and author of the report.

Photo: Julie Brown

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.