Of all the animals that humans eat, none are held more responsible for climate change than cows. Cows not only consume more energy-intensive feed than other livestock, they also produce more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
But grass-fed cows may have the opposite effect.
Grass is a perennial. If cattle and other ruminants are rotated across pastures full of it, the animals' grazing will cut the blades, spurring new growth, while their trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.
Currently, 99 percent of U.S. beef cattle live out their last months on feedlots, where they are stuffed with corn and soybeans. Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed the animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and transportation.
Even though grass-fed cattle produce more methane than conventional ones (high-fiber plants are harder to digest than cereals), their net emissions are lower because they help the soil sequester carbon.
Although this Time magazine article goes into some of the details about how cows may be partly responsible for global warming, I think the MAIN point here is the very real difference between conventionally-raised, grain-fed livestock, and organically-raised, grass-fed cows as it pertains to both your health, and the health of the planet as a whole.
The differences between the two are so vast; you’re really talking about two different animals, and two separate industries with entirely different farming practices and environmental impact.
As reported in Time magazine above, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a report in 2006 entitled Livestock’s Role in Climate Change and Air Pollution. In it, they estimate that 18 percent of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by livestock. This information was heralded by vegetarians and environmentalists alike as proof that eating meat was bad not only for you, but for the entire planet.
But, it’s important to realize that this detrimental effect comes from modern farming practices, not from cows being raised naturally as they were designed to be.
The carbon footprint of conventional farming is mainly due to the unnatural feed that these animals are given, which requires lots of fossil fuels. Many don’t think about this, but fossil fuels are used in everything from the fertilizers and pesticides that are sprayed onto the crop to the transportation of the feed.
Grass does not require fossil fuels to grow (rotating pastures does the job instead), and other health harming practices, such as injecting the livestock with hormones and antibiotics, are also not allowed in organic farming.
This equates to healthier meat, a healthier you, and benefits to the planet.
Open Your Eyes With this Movie
If you prefer to be passively educated and enjoy watching videos, then I would highly recommend you view Food, Inc
I personally had not had a chance to view this movie until it was released on Netflix. You can actually stream it for free if you have a Netflix account and you don’t even have to order the DVD.
The full 90-minute movie highlights two of the most prominent investigative journalists in the industry, Michal Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), providing a very graphic and powerful reinforcement of the material presented in this article.
I highly encourage you to view this film as it will empower you and your family to make changes. Collectively we can have a very profound impact.
Why Grass-Fed Only Beef?
If you’re not already convinced that grass-fed beef is healthier for you, I highly recommend you take a look at the evidence. There’s quite a bit of support in the scientific literature, a few of which can be found at this reference link.
Some people are still confused on the issue of grass-fed as all cattle are initially raised on grass. Conventionally-raised cattle, however, are then shipped off to feed lots where they gain their last several hundred pounds of weight. They’re also typically treated with growth hormones to pack on the pounds faster, which cuts down on the cost of production.
It is this feeding phase that causes most of the problems and increases the risk of disease and contamination, both in the cattle, and in you.
The feedlot is a completely unnatural environment for the cattle, and this is also one of the reasons they’re put on so many antibiotics.
You know, the rationale behind my nutritional guidelines really boils down to one thing: Common sense. My recommendations stem largely from what scientific research has determined are the types of foods that humans are naturally designed to eat.
Health problems invariably surface the further you stray from eating such foods. Another way to say this would be that your body's biochemical make-up is adversely affected if you eat things that aren't right for it. One result of this is that your body's composition will inevitably change.
And why would things be any different for a cow?
When you think of a cow in its natural environment, doing what it naturally does, you likely will picture it grazing. Is it grazing on stalks of corn? Never! It's grazing on GRASS.
Grass is a cow's natural food. Corn and other grains are not.
When cows eat grains their body composition changes. Most importantly for you, these changes include an alteration in the balance of essential fats.
Grass-Fed Cows have Radically Different Nutritional Benefits
Previous studies have found that grass-fed beef not only has less fat, but also higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef, indicating grass-fed may be an all-around healthier choice.
In addition, a previous study by North Dakota State University on the nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed bison found that grass-fed bison had omega-6 to omega-3 ratios of 4 to 1, whereas the grain-fed bison had ratios of 21 to 1. Additional studies by others clearly show that the longer cattle are fed grain, the greater the fatty acid imbalance.
As you may remember, the ideal ratio between these two fats is 1 to 1, so clearly, the grass-fed variety is far closer to the ideal.
Additionally, since grass-fed beef has been raised sans unnecessary antibiotics and growth hormones, they also have other added health benefits.
Grass-Fed Animal Products are a Natural, Healthy Source of CLA
For example, meat from grass-fed animals contains three to five times more CLA than meat from grain-fed animals.
CLA has previously been deemed a potential weapon against cancer, which spurred its popularity as a dietary supplement. In fact, CLA is so potent a cancer fighter that animal studies show as little as 0.5 percent CLA in the diet could reduce tumors by over 50 percent.
It’s worth noting here, however, that I do not recommend that you take CLA supplements in any form.
As with all nutrients, you’re better off getting them from food than from synthetic supplements. Natural CLA found in foods such as organic grass-fed beef is far superior to a man-made version in pill form--not to mention that CLA supplements are outrageously expensive. Other natural sources include dairy products from grass-fed cows like raw milk, raw butter and raw milk cheese.
Another health benefit of CLA – and hence grass-fed beef and dairy, as a main source of it – is that it can inhibit the formation of body fat while preserving muscle tissue. This is why it’s also popular among body builders.
And, as detailed by Mary Shomon in an About.com article from 2003, studies suggest that CLA:
- Increases metabolic rate
- Decreases abdominal fat
- Enhances muscle growth
- Lowers cholesterol and triglycerides
- Lowers insulin resistance
- Reduces food-induced allergic reactions
- Enhances your immune system
This is in stark contrast to the findings from another study, which found that the type of CLA used in supplements has been associated with an array of negative side effects, such as:
- Promoting insulin resistance
- Raising glucose levels
- Reducing HDL (good cholesterol)
- Stomach upset
Clearly, getting your CLA from a natural source like grass-fed beef is the logical choice when faced with such findings!
Where’s the Beef?
Americans as a whole wrongly shunned many animal products when the "fear of fat" mentality swept across the nation.
The fact is that animal products can significantly benefit your health, IF you choose them wisely. That means avoiding conventionally-farmed and processed meat, dairy and egg products, opting for organically-raised and farmed varieties.
Keep in mind that you are what you eat. So if you’re just eating the commercially raised meat available in most grocery stores, your health will not benefit because those animals were not fed a healthy diet.
It’s important to understand that once cows and other grass-eating animals are fed grains, they stop producing CLA. So the ideal source of natural CLA is from 100 percent, exclusively grass-fed animals. The least expensive way to obtain grass-fed beef would be from a local farmer, to avoid high shipping fees. I also carry 100 percent grass-fed beef in my store, if you don’t have access to more local sources.
The more we return to traditional farming practices, the more nutritious our food will be and the lesser the environmental impact of our agricultural industry. So, whenever possible, support your own health and the livelihood of the farmers out there who are trying to do things the right way.
For more information about the farming practices used to raise most commercial beef, I highly recommend reading this previous article series by Michael Pollan called Discover How Your Beef is Really Raised. It’s an eye-opener.