Surprising News About Grass-Finished Beef


The clamor is getting louder: Cows are bad news for the environment. It’s astounding how far we’ve come in a few short years. It all started in spring 2006 with Michael Pollan telling us in The Omnivore’s Dilemma to think about how the animals we eat are raised. Because of the inherent cruelty, and human and environmental health problems associated with factory farming and CAFOs, thoughtful eaters like me, and many of the omnivorous people reading this, started eating pasture raised chickens and eggs, and grass-finished beef. It was more expensive, but I told myself I was facing up to the moral complexities of meat eating and it felt good knowing that the animals and the land were treated better in the production of my food. I embraced this more mindful way of eating and enjoyed treating meat as a special occasion food to be given my utmost respect and attention.

Later that same year, we learned that the food system is responsible for more greenhouse gasses (about one-third) than any other sector, including transportation, and that livestock is responsible for 18% of that. Michael Pollan published another book telling us to eat real food, not too much at that, and mostly plants. More recently Mark Bittman published Food Matters, which is essentially an environmental guide to eating, adopting some of the same principals we learned from Pollan (with recipes). Along the way, Bittman found that eating lower on the food chain more often and cutting out processed food, helped him lose 35 pounds, lower his cholesterol and blood sugar, and vastly improve his health. Then, back in December, here on Civil Eats, Paula Crossfield talked about eating less meat to lower our carbon emissions.

Now I’m going to reveal something that will make conscious, occasional, and passionate meat eaters very sad. While we’ve been enjoying our once or twice a month allotment of grass-finished beef in the form of a small burger, or modest portions of savory stew, or spicy chili, the climate scientists have been doing their work. They’ve recently discovered that, from a global warming perspective, so called sustainable and humanely raised pasture reared beef is no better. In fact, it’s worse.

This story in Science News details the findings revealed during a recent panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia said that greenhouse gas emissions for grass-finished livestock are roughly 50% higher than for grain-finished livestock. Wait, really?

Apparently cows that are fed grass throughout their lives simply eat more. So when you raise cows on pasture, you’re adding more inputs into an already inefficient production system. Pelletier’s research also shows that intensive pasture management, fertilization and renovation cause emissions of their own. And of course, pasture requires more land area (and sometimes deforestation) than CAFOs. I think what we are seeing here is that grass-finished beef is now big business. Due, no doubt, to the demand caused by books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re seeing grass-finished beef that more closely resembles factory farming than either Pollan or the grass farming hero of his book, Joel Salatin, ever intended. Turns out the Sierra Club, in a prescient piece from 2004, asked if grass-fed beef was merely a diversion from the reality that beef production, no matter much we might want it to be different, is the most inefficient way to raise food.

So what’s a conscious eater to do? With this new information chipping away at my meat-eating philosophy, I think I’ll have to take these new thoughts and ponder them carefully over a lunch of lentils and rice (with lots of caramelized onions). For further reading on the subject check out this piece in Living Green Magazine.

Photo: TerData

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  1. Monday, March 2nd, 2009
    So what you're saying is that factory-farm-like grass-finished beef contributes to greenhouse gases and environmental destruction? In part due to "intensive pasture management, fertilization, and renovation"!

    Regardless of the effects, conflating that kind of farming with what Joe Salatin does is incredibly misleading and deceptive. Joe Salatin specifically does not do any of that - his farm is self-contained, and he doesn't ship his food. And you know that, so stop being dishonest.

    I don't disagree that mass-produced meat is harmful to the environment (grass-finished or not). But if you're going to drag Joe Salatin's name into the fray, then make sure the research you quote actually addresses the type of farming he does.

    The world existed just fine for (hundreds of) thousands of years with millions of bison roaming the plains of the US - yet we did not see increases in CO2 levels.

    And, the truth of the matter is that vast areas of the U.S. cannot sustain farming (corn, soy, wheat, etc.) at the levels we have been. What they can sustain is grass. And, when "farmed" like Joe Salatin does, or in the (no longer present) natural balance of grass and bison, soil is rejuvenated over time...

    But you know this, so why are you writing such a crummy article?

    What would be more informative is the study you mentioned, along with the idea that much of the grass-fed beef you see in stores now is raised in factory-like settings, and in South America where rainforest is continuing to be plowed under.

    What would be more informative would be to point out that it is possible in many places, to buy directly from small-scale beef farmers who do not use artificial fertilizers...

    Do you care about educating us?

    Or do you just want to have tabloid headlines?
  2. Amerigo
    Monday, March 2nd, 2009
    Beef has long been known to be the most inefficient protein producer, and many sustainability advocates have pointed out for a long time we need to eat less beef. Beef's great advantage, of course, is that it can produce that protein from 100% cellulose (grass); even grass from marginal, agriculturally undesirable, land. The semi-arid southern great plains built generations of wealth off of grazing marginal land with virtually no inputs. (They then overgrazed and abused their resource, and now have feedlots that guzzle inputs).

    None of this is news, however. What is interesting is this quote from the Science News story: “It’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions.” He added that most pastures were highly managed, and subject to “periodic renovations and also fertilization.” Finally, with grass-fed cattle “there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that [GHG] difference.”

    Now I know that grass-fed beef takes almost twice as long to reach slaughter weight than grain fed, but grass SEQUESTERS CARBON! (Unless you use petro-fertilizer, which they apparently assumed in this study, and cancel out that advantage.) Corn sequesters carbon, but then consumes carbon at the rate of about 200 lbs/acre of petro-fertilizer. Throw in all the pesticide used and the energy used to handle the massive amounts of manure from the feedlots, and you have a pretty big carbon footprint. Then there's the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the nutrient runoff from all the manure and petro fertilizer adds to the footprint. Oh, and the gratuitous use of antibiotics and estrogen hormones on the feedlot cattle adds to the public health footprint, if not also the carbon one.

    But a steer living on organically maintained grass for 8 or 10 months longer than its feedlot brother produces enough methane and N2O to have a bigger carbon footprint? Maybe. I would be interested to see all the variables they did, and did not consider. But in the meantime, I will continue to pay extra, once or twice a month, to eat organic beef raised on the very food it was intended to eat: grass.
  3. Monday, March 2nd, 2009
    The study does not compare like for like.

    Factory farming on grass is not the same as eating local organic beef.

    Although this does raise an important issue. how do you go scale up the small scale?
  4. Kirsten
    Monday, March 2nd, 2009
    This is a very provacative article, and in some ways disappointing. The tone is not only alarmist and tut-tuting, but it's not wholly accurate. I agree with much which is posted above. I am not writing to justify more beef eating, but the article the author links to has more complexity than she alludes to (as well as not enough details to satisfy the average inquirer about the merits of the argument). For one thing, there are lots of pasture raised cattle that are dairy cattle, not beef cattle. Does that mean we should stop eating pastured dairy products? I hope there's some sort of follow up to this article. It's very dissatisfying for me as a consumer seeking knowledge and very close to the line of irresponsible journalism.
  5. Anna
    Monday, March 2nd, 2009
    I'm glad Vanessa brings this other perspective to light. It's a complicated issue that requires in depth analysis from the top scientists in the world. For a 600 word blog, it does what it's intended to do -- get us talking and reminds us that there are no easy solutions.
  6. Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
    Just wanted to add my voice to the chorus on how dismayed I was with this article. In fact, I was embarrassed to read it, since the data pulled is from what SystemicPlural accurately calls Factory Farming and fits right in there with the rest of the bad guys of unsustainable agriculture. As others have commented, Joel Salatin deserves mention because he has shown that livestock can be healthful to the environment and climate. And he is not the only one, there are a group of ranchers in Marin, California who are exploring using more natural grazing patterns to restore abundance in the ecosystem and sequester carbon. Because of the perennial and quick growing nature of pasture grasses, grass feeding cattle in a prairie-like system may in fact turn out to be one of the most efficient ways to sequester carbon, right up there with healthy, diverse forests. Time will tell of course, but I think our earth's millions-of-years old technologies will prove to be the most efficient, and it would do us best to mimic them as much as possible. Does that mean we produce less livestock per acre of land? Probably, but our children and our children's children will be the better off for it.
  7. Andrew
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
    this study reminds me of the one showing how eating locally causes global warming - if you eat tomatoes grown in a greenhouse in the dead of winter. eating grass-fed beef causes global warming too - if you pour fossil-fuel based fertilizers on the grass, rip it up every couple of years, and repeat. absolutely anything can be done wrong. that's why it's so important not to shop for labels like "grass-fed" and "organic," but instead to go down to the farm and see it with your own eyes.
  8. Wednesday, March 4th, 2009
    I agree with Andrew. When trying to understand the benefit of an new or alternative practice in place of something that doesn't work or is causing problems, I think it is necessary to look at scale.

    The corn ethanol example is a good one. We just replaced one input with another without addressing the excessive demand or inefficient technologies. The same goes for beef. If large scale production CAFO beef isn't working we can't just change the input of grass from corn (although that does help the health of the cow to start) but we must address the scale of production and the scale of the demand.

    For most of the country, meat is the center of the meal, when it could be an ingredient. It is the scale which needs to be addressed and in many ways this can be done by limits to the production process. If all cattle had to be raised in the Salatin way then all beef would be expensive and therefore less central. At some point demand just has to be told "sorry, we can only make so much using the right techniques"

    The only problem with the information raised by posts like these is that they give some people the incentive to pay less than the true cost of food and to choose the alternative that is harmful to the animals they are relying on because the other alternative (that is at least letting the cow exhibit its cow-ness) is not perfect. This is not the right approach.
  9. Friday, March 6th, 2009
    One scientific study does not make something a fact, as you inaccurately portray in this article.

    Grassfed cattle are really good at converting sunlight into food, while increasing soil carbon and fertilizing the range with their own dung and urine. Can food crops do that? No. They require massive tillage, fertility that comes from somewhere else, and can't increase soil carbon unless they are perennial systems that don't require much tillage. Plus food crops require lots of irrigation, whereas rain-fed rangeland only requires the clouds to let loose.

    Although this is trivial, carmelizing onions is a huge waste of fuel since it takes so long. Also, where were the lentils and rice grown and what fuel and fertilizer was used in their production and transport?
  10. Saturday, March 7th, 2009
    Grass vs. grain is an interesting and extremely complicated subject, so I appreciate you posting about it. But because it is so complicated, it's important to consult the actual research document(s) and see how they did the analysis. Some of the big questions that are unanswered by the statement in the Science News article include "Did the researchers consider only the cow's emissions, or did it include emissions from all of the feed inputs too?", "How common is it for a grass-fed operation to rely on synthetic fertilizers?", "How was carbon uptake by the growing grass and corn modeled?" One could easily come up with a grass-fed cattle system that is very carbon intensive, as Andrew proposes above in comment 7.

    I have seen the "grass-fed cattle emit more greenhouse gases than corn-fed cattle" line in other places (in New Scientist and Living on Earth). In the New Scientist article, the reason given for higher methane emissions from grass fed cattle was the fiber content of the feed, which lead to more activity by the methane producing bacteria. But neither source considered the entire lifecycle of the animal, such as the nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer applied to corn fields, or the fuel used to manage the corn fields, or the fuel used to transport the corn to the farm.
  11. Steve
    Sunday, March 8th, 2009
    The post is a bit better than most attempted arguments about this subject, but it's still really an apples vs. oranges one. Industrial anything can screw a lot of things up; raising cattle correctly for one's own (or as a local food source for people in one's community) doesn't hurt much of anything if anything at all. At its best, grass-fed beef is being fed something that humans don't eat: native grasses. What can be more efficient than that?

    If you properly rotate your cattle so they don't overgraze land, they won't do any damage to that land; there's no plowing, tilling, etc. for a "natural" pasture; the manure goes back into the land and fertilizes the pasture, and doesn't create toxic fecal pools; fuel isn't needed to haul in inputs (like corn for instance; was this even considered in the report?); if you're using old pasture or previously-farmed land, there's no need to clear any wooded areas; cattle don't need big combines and etc. to 'harvest' them; etc., etc.

    I'd like to one day see a report or a study that looks at someone like Joel Salatin, whose cattle (from what I understand) are raised humanely and sustainably and supplied locally, and compares his beef to industrially-produced (whether industrial organic, grass-finished, or etc.) beef.
  12. Luke
    Monday, March 16th, 2009
    It seems like the "farm ecosystem" concept of Salatin's farm within The Omnivore's Dilemma has been overlooked in this article. The way he rotates his cows to new pasture and carefully monitors the growth of new grass on an individual paddock basis helps keep the systems in check with regard to grass fed cows. Then there are the other sub-systems operating on his farm that have direct and indirect effects on each other.

    For one, the science is deeply rooted in reductionist. It's simply not fair journalism to compare large grass-fed operations with Joel Salatin's farm. I'd like to see the "climate scientists" study the overall carbon emissions from Salatin's farm then report on the carbon impact of this sort of grass-fed beef production. After all, a study would HAVE to be done on the whole farm because of the nature of Salatin's farming methods. Factory farmed grass fed beef produces more CO2 emissions?...quite likely, but when is mass producing food using ANY agricultural method ever going to work. Isn't that one of the biggest lessons from Michael's book?

    We will never be able to "scale up" farms like Salatin's. I thought that was the whole point. Let's just get responsible for sourcing our food from small, caring farms (and grow what we can ourselves). That means building relationships ie getting to know the farm and farmer. It's not always easy but we need to leave behind the convenience and false price tag associated with food produced via factory farms and get personal!

    Yes, we need to be conscious of how much beef we eat but investing our time in finding and purchasing it from farms such as Salatin's at the REAL price of producing sustainable food will naturally limit what we can afford. In some ways it feels like a return to the simpler, more connected ways of our past generations.
  13. Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
    It seems to me that the author's point is to get us all to stop eating meat, and I beg to disagree. Joel Salatin is a true American hero; I've been to his farm and seen how it works and there can be no comparison made with corporate "grass fed" operations. For the author of this blog to have made that comparison demonstrates her actual agenda. Omnivores UNITE!
  14. Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
    Call me a heretic, but I don't trust everything the scientists say. Propaganda abounds.

    Local, sustainably managed food systems inherently have a smaller environmental footprint. Isn't that undeniable by now?

    You can fudge the numbers to say anything.
    I fear for us when we leave it to 'the experts'
    to think for us.
  15. Saturday, March 21st, 2009
    Wait a minute. 2nd paragraph. You have misquoted the FAO report. They said livestock represents 18%, not 33%, of the CO2 equivelant (includes methane, etc). That's almost half as much as you're basing your argument on. More over that includes factory farms with their huge grain inputs. Grazed livestock is only a small portion of that total. There is a mention deeper in the article about 30% and 37% but don't confuse the numbers. You're creating misinformation like the old game of telephone. I'm seeing this spread all over the internet.

    Please use correct, scientific citations and numbers. Otherwise your whole argument falls apart, becomes propaganda and nobody is going to take you seriously.

    It is also important to realize that meat is a part of a healthy diet, in moderation. Going vegan is also very destructive to the planet. All that mechanization on huge fields of carrots and broccoli fertilized with chemicals, managed with herbicides and pesticides, harvested by big machinery... That's all very destructive to animal and plant life. Pastured livestock can utilize otherwise uncrop-able lands, turning sunlight into high quality protein and lipids.