I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn that Al Gore has gone vegan. I don’t begrudge his right to do so, of course, and I don’t know his specific reason for the switch, though the article I read suggested it was a variation on the “red meat is bad for the planet” argument that ones hears all the time. This was disappointing because there is an alternate take on the meat question that too often gets lost in the news. It’s called grassfed beef. Here’s a profile I wrote recently as part of my 2% Solutions series:
“Eat less red meat” is the most frequent response I hear at conferences when a distraught member of the audience asks a presenter “What’s the one thing I can do for the planet?” What the presenter should have said is “Eat less feedlot meat.” A lot less, in fact.
Actually, the correct answer is “Eat grassfed meat.” It’s the only type of meat to eat – for our health, for the welfare of livestock and for the well-being of the planet.
That’s what Joe Morris has been doing since 1991, when he became one of the first ranchers in California to offer grassfed beef to customers, predating the recent boom in grassfed production by a dozen years. Born and raised in San Francisco, Joe was inspired to give ranching a go by his grandfather, who owned and ran a ranch near San Juan Bautista, south of San Jose. Equally inspired by the writings of Wendell Berry, Joe decided to reject the industrial model of livestock production for a type of agriculture that worked with nature’s principles. When he discovered the holistic grazing practices pioneered by Allan Savory, everything fell into place.
Producing grassfed beef was an easy choice for Joe because it squared with his values. By definition, grassfed means an animal has spent its entire life on grass or other green plants, from birth to death. This contrasts with the feedlot model in which an animal finishes its life in confinement, fattened on grain and assorted agricultural byproducts and pumped full of medication and other chemicals.
For Joe, grassfed was best initially because he knew that (1) cattle were designed by nature to eat grass, not grain, and had merely been doing so for millions of years, and (2) humans were designed by nature to eat grassfed meat, not grain-fed animals, and had merely been doing so millions of years. If nature knew best, then why raise livestock unnaturally?
However, when Joe and his wife Julie founded Morris Grassfed Beef in 1991, a big question on their minds was this: would they have any customers? The answer, as it turned out, was “Yes” – because people wanted a local source of humanely raised beef produced by a good steward of the land. Grassfed fit the bill.
Then came the science. Thanks to a lot of digging in the scientific literature by Jo Robinson, an independent researcher, the health benefits of grassfed over feedlot meat became widely known. They include:
- More omega-3 fatty acids (“good” fats) and fewer omega-6 (“bad” fats).
- Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease.
- Much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer fighter.
- Much more Vitamin A.
- Much more vitamin E.
- Higher in beta-carotene.
- Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.
- Higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium.
- Enhanced immunity, increased bone density, and suppression of cancer cells.
- Does not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.
As Jo Robinson likes to say “If it’s in their feed, it’s in our food” – which means it’s in us. This is an important reason why grassfed is best. As for eating less meat, Jo said recently, “I’m not one of those who think that eating less meat is good. I think eating less of the wrong kind of meat is very good and very important. I think we can have up to 40% of our calories from meat, and that’s fine as long as it’s healthy meat.”
For more Jo, visit her web site: www.eatwild.com
In 2002, the case for grassfed expanded again when The New York Times Magazine published Michael Pollan’s expose on the sins of our industrial food system in an article titled “Power Steer.” By following a steer (“#534”) from a ranch to the feedlot to slaughter, Pollan discovered a disturbing list of industrial troubles, including:
- Animal confinement, stress and abuse.
- Air, land and water pollution.
- The deleterious use of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs.
- Low-paid, stressful feedlot work.
- Food with less nutritional value.
- The invisible costs – antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease, E. coli poisoning, corn subsidies, imported oil and so on.
The only big advantage of feedlot beef, said Pollan, is that it’s “remarkably cheap.” While that makes economic sense – sort of – it makes no ecological sense. Pollan voted for grassfed beef. He concluded “Eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and light is something I’m happy to do and defend.”
In the past few years, another important advantage of grassfed has emerged: it has a smaller carbon footprint. By some estimates, meat from grassfed animals requires only one calorie of fossil fuel to produce two calories of food. In contrast, feedlot beef requires five to ten calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food produced. The big differences include the fertilizer used to grow the corn feed and the amount of transportation involved in placing feedlot beef in supermarkets across the nation.
The carbon footprint advantage has been challenged by some experts, however, who claim that methane emissions are higher with grassfed livestock, and the overall impacts on land health and water quality (due to overgrazing) are fewer with feedlots.
Disagreeing with these experts, a report by The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) claimed that the overall greenhouse gas impact of grassfed is positive. Well-maintained pastures and careful management of grazing animals can draw greenhouse gasses out of the air and store them in the soil, where they fuel plant growth. Feedlots have no living plants, the UCS noted, just bare dirt and manure. Instead of absorbing greenhouse gasses, as healthy grasslands do, they emit them.
It’s a point that Joe Morris has been making lately with his customers. He also points out that conscientious stewardship has additional benefits:
- Well-managed pasture absorbs far more rain water than most other land uses.
- Well-managed grazing lands provide much needed habit for wildlife and more abundant water for wildlife.
- Grazing lands are among our most picturesque landscapes.
- Holistic management encourages deep-rooted perennial plants which improves nutrient and carbon cycling.
For those who ask “What’s the one thing I can do for the planet?” the answer is clear: if you eat meat, grassfed is best.
For more about Morris Grassfed Beef see: www.morrisgrassfed.com
Here is a picture of grassfed cattle (compare to below):
One of the main criticisms of eating meat is that all cattle, grassfed or not, produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as part of their digestive process (called eutrophic emissions), mostly by belching. Lots of cattle, say critics, equal a lot of methane. Reduce the number of livestock, they continue and the global warming situation improves. They’re not necessarily wrong, but here are some important points to keep in mind when singling out cattle as a significant “cause” of global warming:
- When we dig up fossil fuels, including methane (as natural gas), and burn them we are adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere that hasn’t been there for 300 million years. It’s like turning on an extra tap when filling your bathtub. When we exhale carbon dioxide or belch methane or eat grassfed beef we are in essence recycling carbon that already exists in the system. It is the additional carbon created by fossil fuels that is the main problem today, not cow belches.
- The largest single source of methane worldwide is wetlands (22%), followed by coal, oil and natural gas production (19%), livestock (16%), rice cultivation (12%), with burning, landfill, sewage, manure and releases from the ocean making up the remaining 31%. We’re not going to backfill wetlands, of course, to stop them from producing methane, but is anyone seriously suggesting that we halt rice production? Should we try to bully the Chinese into eating less rice?
- Methane is also produced by rainforests, whales, termites, bison, reindeer, camels, giraffes and many other animals, and has most of it has been in circulation in the atmosphere for millions of years.
- The methane we should really be worried about is the type found in frozen beds of methane hydrates, located below permafrost layers and shallow seabeds, which when melted will release very significant amounts of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
- The main problem with industrial agriculture is that it is drenched in fossil fuels.
Author Michael Pollan put this last point this way: “We transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”
The answer, Pollan says, is to “resolarize” the American economy – which means weaning Americans off their heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put them back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. “If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized,” Pollan writes, “surely it is food.”
It’s another reason why grassfed is best. Here’s one more: