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.

5 responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Gina. The EWG study is being “sound-bited” around alot, and not helping make the point that the main study rankings are based on conventional, horrible practices. That only hurts the farmers we need to support.

    1. If people listen to EWG recommendation of not eating hard cheeses on Monday, it will inflict maximum pain on America’s dairy farmers. The price of hard cheeses on the Chicago Mercantile exchange sets the base price for milk. A drop of a penny per pound results in a drop to farmers of 10 cents/hundred pounds of milk. In 2009, we experienced a milk price crash when the price of milk dropped from roughly $17/hundred pounds of milk to $9/hundred pounds of milk. Farmers begged, groveled and cried out for help, some committed suicide, many sold out. Groups that purport to care about the average farmers sat in silence.
      In the Northeast area, we have roughly 13,000 dairy farms, averaring 100 cows. Only a tiny percent of the farms are certified organic (what EWG suggests you buy if you buy dairy at all). Dairy farmers face a highly concentrated market structure with few options other than large processors. Given the financial position of most of us who are trying to get “out of the hole”, please don’t tell us we should build milk processing plants, Many of us are just trying to get health insurance or dental care for our kids in 2011.
      Here in the Northeast farms often represent the last unfragmented habitat, open space for grassland species. Multiple dairy farms make for healthy little rural communities. Producing milk for our NYC milkshed gives a sense of pride, a product produced, love of cattle and the land.
      Its the price of milk that sculpts the working countryside. Drop the price of milk and more farms will crash, goodbye to the working countryside and HELLO SPRAWL! Thanks for nothing EWG.

  2. Reading your article there are two things that strike me.
    Firstly, that it is not just a case of sending the grain currently used for stock feed to provide more carbohydrates for humans (think the obese humans of the west and indeed parts of Asia); as much of the grain grown is not of suitable quality for human food. Besides, most beef animals are reared on grass for the first year of their life and then ‘finished’ on a mixture of grain and grass for the final 6 months. Ofcourse Barley is better than Wheat for finishing stock; but then, if one plants wheat in a good year, it may just make the grade for human consumption for which the monetary returns are much better.

    So, if this grain can not be used to ‘finish’ stock for the human protein market, then it would simply be returned to grass. Grass fed beef is excellent, but it does take at least 30 – 36 months before being ready for human consumption. Therefore, if all the land that currently produces grain for stock feed, were sown down to grass of any mixture, it would take longer to get that protein to the table; or one would have to accept that it would be able to feed fewer people (lower population?).

    Secondly, with the exception of Peas, Beans, most of the protein rich crops – Soya (the only one that contains enough Lysine for humans), Chickpeas, Black-eyed beans, lentils etc. – are not suited to the temperate areas of the world. So, if we don’t use the poorer quality land to produce feedstock grains to in turn produce meat protein, then we cannot simply change to suitable protein rich crops to feed vegetarians. It is also worth noting that the land used for wheat that will go for stock feed is not the top Yield Class land that is suitable for market gardening.

    Personally, I think that each country should be able to grow enough food to feed its own population; and then swop produce with other countries to provide extra variety for all. If a country, can no longer do this e.g. the UK, then perhaps it should realize that its population is too big; rather than blame it’s farmers for not providing enough food or producing enough wildlife habitat.

    I will now go and read the report which I should perhaps have read first.

  3. I see that the report goes into the water balance between meat and the pulses. The one fact that no-one seems to take into account is that whereas it is easy to measure the amount of water used in meat production from birth to table, it is not so easy for field crops. Even if not irrigated, plants move water from the soil to the air continuously by the process known as transpiration. Pulses are then dried, and must be soaked in water, and drained before cooking with more water before they can be eaten. Plus the transport miles – not forgetting the fuel used – is huge compared to that needed for the majority of meat.

    Finally meat comes with its own juices, so can be cooked and eaten with no further use of water. It should also be noted that whereas now-a-days we waste a lot of each animal, this is not necessary. As late as the 1960s, all of the animal was used for something, and any scraps after cooking were fed either to the chickens or the pig(s). Note that towns are always built on the best farmland, thus further reducing our ability to feed ourselves.

    1. Good points… though I wouldn’t say “Note that towns are always built on the best farmland, thus further reducing our ability to feed ourselves”

      Towns are hardly being build any more. I think you’re referring to suburban sprawl!

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