Responding to the Grass-fed Carbon Controversy | Civil Eats

Responding to the Grass-fed Carbon Controversy


So we can just never eat meat again? Is that what all the science is telling us? Before you start gagging down fake bacon or eating your al pastor tacos behind a garbage bin on the other side of town out of sustainable food shame, let’s talk about the real problem.

Yes, beef is a hog when it comes to energy. And the Science News report correctly points out that it takes more energy input to output one pound of pasture-raised beef than it does a pound of feedlot CAFO Schwarzen-burger. Yes, the developing world is getting a taste for the cow, like blue jeans or Michael Jackson before, which could catapult the problem.

Don’t get hysterical! I just can’t blame those adorable sad-eyed critters. It isn’t the cow we need to nix. It is our centralized, monolithic, soulless food system. Sure, it takes a larger patch of earth and more calories to raise an animal on pasture. However, there are some benefits to many grass-fed operations that are more long-term, like biodiversity and sustainability. I know many ranchers that don’t fertilize with anything besides good old, nutrient rich poop.

The real energy suck in the beef industry is transportation, processing and packaging. If you want to save some carbon, help develop a local food system where animals travel relatively short distances to slaughter and then to butcher and then to consumer. Start a meat CSA! Buy a whole animal and start a garden and don’t drive to the grocery store so much, where you’ll be tempted to purchase other carbon-licious snacks.

And another thing: there ARE other animals to eat. As Science News mentioned, pigs are more efficient on feed and in breeding. They also yield more edible meat from the carcass. Eat some lardo, save the ozone. But there are also lambs and goats and chickens. According the USDA, Americans ate 28.1 billion pounds of beef in 2007.We eat about 100th of that amount of lamb every year. If we diversify our meat choices, we would choose animals that are naturally less energy intensive and destructive than the Almighty Cow.

When I worry about the Third World being as gluttonous as us, it isn’t ribeyes that dance in my mind, it is factory farms and processing plants the size of small cities. The ‘blanding’ of our taste away from meat with any flavor is part of the institutionalization of a food system where everything comes from some other place. A place where styrofoam gently encases every machine-cut morsel.

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Of course, it is crucial that everyone, from policy makers to home cooks, thinks about the implications of our food choices. That is a bedrock of the sustainability movement. And I encourage the discussion of whether, on a commercial scale, grass-fed beef is viable.

In the end, though, I think we tend to worry so much that a good idea isn’t perfect, in the meantime continuing to do something we know is bad. On my ethical calculator, I end up with the following equation: buy local from someone you trust who treats their animal with respect + cook all parts of the animal to value it’s contribution to your well-being = a hell of a lot better choice than anything from a feedlot.

Diversity is health, in living things and in solutions. Grass fed practices may not be the only right solution for a hungry world, but are one part of a better world.

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Marissa Guggiana is President of Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats since 2005. She is also a co-founder of Secret Eating Society, a leader in Slow Food Russian River and an editor with Meatpaper Magazine. Read more >

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  1. Amerigo
    Thank you for addressing some for the big issues surrounding beef.

    Just one thing: Even if grass-fed beef takes more energy, it's SOLAR energy. Most grass-fed beef producers don't use petro-fertilizer, they spread manure, or simply let pasture rest. Done properly, it is completely sustainable.

    Grain-fed might use less energy, but it's all non-renewable. So, comparing the energy inputs is very misleading.

    The extra land grass-fed needs makes it more expensive, which should reduce our consumption, and therfore the number of cows emitting methane. Our diets and our environment will be much better off, which will make my (occasional) steak dinner taste all the better.
  2. I like Amerigo's point about the price of beef - if we all switch to grass-fed local beef it's going to cost more, and that means we'll eat beef less in general. Most of us would frown at this - pay more, get less? no way! - but it's a good thing. Americans have to get over our "more is better" mentality, and realize that a 10-pound "value pack" of burger from Costco is really a lot less valuable than a single pound of local, grass-fed chuck.
  3. 'Gagging' down fake bacon? Some of us don't eat meat because no animal deserves to die simply because their muscle tissue tastes good. Grass-fed cow may indeed be more sustainable than factory farms, but in the long-term, large-scale, this meaty utopia is a fantasy. We can't feed the world with animal flesh. Cut out the middle man and get your nutrients from plants.
  4. Eating less meat is a good idea, too.
  5. Lena
    Thanks Marissa for this thoughtful distillation of the issue! Though you did not say this explicitly, I imagine that one of the keys to sustainability with meat production is for us to be eating far less of it altogether. then, if the remaining meat we do eat is pasture-raised, we will be in FAR better shape than we currently are under our industrialized mega-farm system. the argument of energy input feels specious and narrow-minded to me, as it conveniently ignores the life cycle perspective.
  6. Andrew
    thank you for a more balanced take on grass-fed cows. but i really hope you understand that pasturing cattle BUILDS soil (and sequesters carbon in the process) better than just about anything else. that's why wendell berry, among many others, thinks that sustainable agriculture needs (a href="" title="more grazing animals," not fewer. look up allan savory or joel salatin for more information.
  7. Frances Chapman
    New to your blog, I appreciated this article. I rarely eat beef (a pet bull in my childhood, Rosario's Pride) and I consider my own meat eating (sausage is my downfall, and chicken my default choice) a true vice.

    On a public level, the methane emitted by huge herds does seem to be a true green issue, and I think we all need to reduce meat consumption. We need numbers not just for conventionally raised cattle, but for grass-fed organic cattle. (One job market that would boom under carbon caps is that of carbon footprint analyst.)

    There is a good deal of evasion on this issue. One advocate of local meat actually argued that soy was a greater evil. We have to tease out the part of soy production that goes to animal feed to address this issue. (Big soy producers are throwing peasants off their land in developing economics.) I predict that meat eating will one day be seen as criminal and disgusting, but that is not the case now. As a society, we need to be honest about the environmental and moral costs of meat eating and reduce meat consumption as much as possible, and eliminate factory farming of meat.
  8. It isn't news that grass-fed cows emit more methane. That's been known for more than a decade. But that's only part of the story. Grazed pastureland turns out to be the best carbon sink known, even better than forest land and natural (ungrazed) prairie grasses. Dr. Rita Schenck of the Institute for Environmental Research and Education has run the nunbers and determined that, all in all, raising cattle in a feedlot is a net contributor to greenhouse warming while raising them on well-managed pasture (and that's the key) results in a net decline. For the details, go to

    Jo Robinson
  9. Thank you Amerigo and Jo.
    I was missing a perspective in the article which went beyond energy. Unfortunately, the controversy between grass fed and CAFO has been reduced to (just) this. While I agree, that we consume far too much meat in our Western society, the answer cannot be to cut out meat at all, as some vegetarians promote.
    As Amerigo brought in an excellent perspective on the different source of energy between the two systems and Jo about the benefits of pasture, I would like to through in another one: Soil-fertility.
    Ask any organic farmer or vegetable grower and they are able to comment on the benefits of cow manure as a vital ingredient for making decent compost. So much so, that even conventional growers have rediscovered the benefits of compost to their operation, particularly as the price of petro-chemical fertilizers increases.
    As humans, we seem to be so self centered that we only look towards the end of the supply chain: cows, we eat. How about looking towards the beginning of the supply chain: cows as producers of compost ingredients?
    Now some of you may argue that chicken and other manure are far better, because higher in nitrogen. As far as I am concerned, that argument is as good as promoting steroids. Having observed cow and chicken manure in composts myself, I can say that cow manure is much more gentle and benign, while chicken manure can do real damage, when not handled correctly. But scientists like Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and others can probably say more about this. Moreover, I can only encourage people to really think 'cow', instead of just steak or burger.
  10. Unfortunately the research on greenhouse gasses and animals combines the CAFO / grain-fed practice with true pastured livestock and it seems to only focus on beef.

    Pigs can also be raised on pasture without any grain. We do it on our farm. >90% of our pigs' diet is pasture/hay. Local waste whey and dairy brings it up to 97%. The remaining <3% of their diet is other good stuff like pumpkins, beets and turnips we grow no-till, apple pomace from a local cider mill and such. I calculated our pig's carbon foot-print and it came out negative. Imagine that - green ham! How Seussian...

    The real issue is moderation. Same as with home size, number of cars and everything else people are consuming.


    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont

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