Thursday, February 4, 2010

Save the Planet - Eat Beef!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but since it’s all over the press lately (and repetition encourages retention), I have to mention it again. Grass fed meat and dairy products are better for your health, the environment, and the animals (as long as we assume that the animal in question is headed for slaughter one way or another) than grain fed products. So you’re saying to yourself, “OK, maybe the health factor, and sure, the animals are happier outside than inside, but the environment? How do you figure? How can grass fed beef be good for the environment?”

A few years ago studies came out saying cow farts were much worse for the atmosphere than all our cars spewing exhaust. (I’m paraphrasing.) That got all the vegetarians going, but most of the rest of the people, just responded with a collective, “Huh.” We weren’t ready to give up our cars or our cheeseburgers. But new research is showing that grass-fed animals can actually be a net-gain for the environment. Here’s why – Grass fed animals eat grass, poop all over a field, then trample that poop in to the ground. That’s all they do. They don’t stand in a feedlot on top of their own poop, require lots of antibiotics, and eat thousands of pounds of feed. They do fart more though, which any honest vegetarian will admit is the result of a plant based diet. I know you’re doubting me now if you’re a big believer in the cow-emissions-are-increasing-global-warming-so-we-shouldn’t-eat-cows movement, so let me explain in a little more detail.

A grass-fed animal, we’re going to go with cows here because they seem to take most of the blame for the air pollutant theory, lives outside in a pasture. The farmer rotates the cows from pasture to pasture allowing the cows to eat the grass, which triggers grass to grow (as anyone who owns a lawnmower can attest to) creating more grass. They add fertilizer to the equation in the form of manure that is trampled in to the ground. This manure actually feeds the soil and makes it healthier which keeps the carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere. Less carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere = a good thing. Pretty neat system, wonder who thought of it.

A grain-fed cow raised in a feed lot (like 99% of all the beef cattle raised in the US) on the other hand, does not distribute his manure far and wide, rather he stands in it. Periodically the farmer must redistribute these vast amounts of manure somewhere else which when dumped in such large quantities, poisons the land and creates “dead zones” in the nearby waters. Ask any community living amongst a factory farm operation or two and they’ll tell you the real problem with feedlot operations isn’t the antibiotics they pump in to the cows threatening our health, it’s the poop. What to do with the poop.

Add to the poop issue, the cost to our environment of feeding large numbers of feedlot animals. This requires vast amounts of corn, grain, and soybeans. (We grow a heck of a lot more corn and soybeans for animals than we do for people.) How do you suppose grain and soybeans are raised? By clearing enormous parcels of land and forest to grow these crops which must then be planted, tilled, fertilized, pesticided, harvested, and transported to a feed company. Then they must be treated, hulled, cleaned, bagged, and transported again. That’s a lot of energy expenditure and pollution production. What do the grass-fed cows eat again? Oh yeah, grass made by the rain and the sun and the cow’s own poop.

So now, hopefully I have you on board in regards to grass-fed products being better for the environment. Let’s turn to how grass-fed products are better for your health. Three big reasons stand out for me:

1) Grass fed meats have significantly less saturated fat and are higher in omega-3’s, a heart-healthy fat you’ve probably heard a lot about lately. Omega 3’s are good for your heart and essential for your brain’s health, helping to ward off depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s. Fewer trans fats also means fewer calories, always a plus!

2) Grass fed meat has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C also. There’s just a lot more power in their punch than grain-fed beef.

3) Maybe the most powerful argument for the health benefits of grass-fed meat and dairy products is that they are high in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). CLA is a powerful anti-carcinogen which also has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and fight inflammation. The Journal of Dairy Science states that grass fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than grain fed animals. (In checking my facts on CLA, I came across this gem: Kangaroo meat has the highest concentration of CLA. Just thought you’d want to know in case it ever comes up on Jeopardy.)

So grass fed meat and dairy products are much healthier for your body, helping you fight cancer, heart disease, and a whole host of other ailments. I can also tell you from experience that grass-fed, dry aged beef is delicious. I promise once you try it, you’ll have a hard time eating a piece of meat out of the case at Walmart. There’s just no comparison. Same goes for milk and cheese from grass fed cows - the flavor will make a believer out of you. Forget all the save the planet stuff, taste alone makes me a believer.

I don’t think I need to argue the case for grass-fed being a better situation for animals. (If you’re in doubt, check out the movie, Food Inc. or read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). If you don’t eat meat on principle, that’s one thing, but if the reason you don’t eat meat is because of the living conditions of so many factory-farm animals it’s time you put the power of your wallet to good use. We pay more for grass-fed meat for many reasons, but to me it’s worth it. Grass fed meats and dairy products do require larger amounts of land (although possibly less if you consider the land you don’t need to grow feed you won’t need), longer growth time (you can fatten up a cow on grain in half the time it takes to raise a grass fed cow for market), and they necessitate smaller farms. But if consumers demand and are willing to pay for grass-fed products, the market will respond and soon it’ll be the factory farms and not the family farms that are going out of business. And we might even need cowboys again to round up all those grass-fed cows! Bring on the cowboys!

There is the argument that we can’t afford to feed the country on grass-fed beef. There won’t be enough to go around and most people can’t afford it. Maybe. But I’m not the kind of person who accepts that defeatist attitude. I believe we can do anything if we lay aside our self-serving ways and open our minds to new (or old) ways of doing things. Economics 101 taught me that increased demand will increase supply and increased supply will lower prices. Maybe we all need to eat less and waste less. Seems to me as I learn more and more about eating healthier, I’m learning that we need to go back to the way we fed ourselves a century ago. All this progress has made us fatter and sicker. I’m no scientist, but I can see a clear correlation between the increase in heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, mental conditions, and obesity and the way we raise our food animals and process our food. Animals were not designed to stand in feed lots and our bodies were not designed to eat food that has already been processed.

I’ll get off my soapbox now and just implore you to read the packages and buy meats and dairy products from grass-fed cows. Not only will buying grass-fed products make an economic statement, improve your health, and taste better, but it just might help save the planet!

If you need help finding grass-fed products or want more information, check out the website www.eatwild.com.

(Cue the Kiwis to tell us that all the meat raised in New Zealand is grass fed!)

2 comments:

  1. Here's a good video on the subject: http://meat.org

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  2. Cara...between the poop and the cowboys, I was cracking up!! And, I think I learned a thing or two, also! You have such a refreshing way of explaining things!

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