Ask Farm Aid | October 22, 2012

The other day, I came across “grassfed beef” in the supermarket. Aren’t all beef cattle fed grass? If not, what do they eat? Is this something I should feed my family?

Hey Farm Aid,

Recently I started taking on more of the grocery shopping for our household. The other day, I came across “grassfed beef” in the supermarket. Aren’t all beef cattle fed grass? If not, what do they eat? Is this something I should feed my family?

Help a clueless dad out. Thanks!

Marshfield, MA

As the Good Food Movement grows and farmers work to supply expanding consumer demand for good food from family farms, a slew of new labels are hitting our grocery aisles. And that means a lot more work for us shoppers. How our livestock animals are raised and cared for represents just one of many areas where products are being differentiated through labeling.

So how do you know the meat you purchase is supporting family farmers and in line with your values? Is grassfed the answer?

Not your average burger

When it comes to this hot topic, there are actually two kinds of labels in question: grassfed and pasture-raised. Both get our vote of approval.

Grassfed meat comes from herbivorous animals (like cows, sheep and goats) who are raised on pasture or forage all of their lives. Even during colder months, when they are brought indoors, farmers feed them hay or some sort of forage. Pasture-raised animals, on the other hand, are omnivores (like pigs and chickens) who can’t survive on grass alone. While they are kept on pasture through their lives, their diet is supplemented with grain.

Your average burger is a far cry from grassfed. In fact, much of the meat, poultry, eggs and dairy we consume come from animals raised on grain, usually in confinement on operations called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or factory farms. These operations are focused on productivity and feed-efficiency. Animals stay indoors for the bulk of their lives and are frequently given antibiotics, growth hormones and other feed additives to bulk up the per-animal output. While CAFOs have undoubtedly bolstered U.S. meat production and lowered the cost of meat to consumers, they have come under fire for animal welfare concerns, corporate power issues, pollution and environmental degradation and even public health scares.

What’s so important about grass?

Put simply: cows and grass are made for each other. Built with four-compartment stomachs, the bovine digestive system can convert grasses, legumes and herbaceous plants into protein – a key skill. They do this by chewing and softening their food in the first compartment of their stomachs, then regurgitating the “cud” and chewing it again. That may not sound too appetizing, but this characteristic is special and places them in a class of animals called ruminants, a status shared by sheep, goats, bison and deer. For the ruminants that frequently grace our dinner plates, grass is truly their natural diet. It keeps them healthy and – dare we say – pretty tasty.

The case is similar for pasture-raised meats. When pigs, chickens and other omnivores are allowed to forage on pasture, they can freely follow their natural instincts to root, graze, hunt insects and generally receive variety in their diet in a low-stress environment. In many CAFOs, by contrast, chickens and pigs might not have enough room to move around, lie down or fully stretch their limbs, and they can’t socialize, hunt or root as they would naturally.

The difference shows up in the nutritional profile of meats. In general, grassfed and pasture-raised meats are leaner than their grain-fed counterparts. The meat from pasture-raised cattle, for example, is noticeably less marbled, with fewer saturated fats and calories than grain-fed beef. Grassfed meats tend to have more nutrients as well. Just as freshly picked produce delivers the greatest density of nutrients possible, animals eating fresh pasture enjoy higher amounts of vitamins and minerals that are more readily available in grass than in other kinds of feed. As such, grassfed beef and lamb tend to have a better ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and a higher amount of cancer-fighting CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids). Pasture-raised eggs are likewise higher in folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin E and beta-carotene. There’s also some evidence that grain-fed and confined animals are more likely to contain food-borne illnesses like E.coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter, antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains and other pathogens.

Green(er) eggs and ham?

What about the environment? Livestock production leaves a sizable footprint on our planet, but do grassfed systems trek a lighter trail?

Globally, livestock animals account for about 20 percent of all the methane – a potent greenhouse gas that plays an important role in climate change – released in the atmosphere. Part of the deal of having that special stomach that can convert plants to protein is a notable emission of methane via – ahem – flatulence and manure.

Manure production wasn’t much of an issue back when farmers had modest-sized herds. But as livestock farms grow in scale, packing several thousand or even tens of thousands of animals indoors onto small parcels of land, manure becomes a formidable problem. It’s fairly standard for CAFOs to store manure in large lagoons for weeks or months at a time, sometimes piping it to neighboring fields to serve as a fertilizer. That often saturates farm fields with nitrogen that it can’t handle, causing serious soil fertility and runoff problems. Meanwhile, lagoons themselves release various gases and toxins into the air (including methane) and can pollute neighboring waterways through groundwater and directly if they leak.

In pasture systems, like the one employed by this month’s Farmer Heroes, livestock enhance soil health over time by eating grasses and stimulating fresh growth, as well as contributing nutrients to the soil more rapidly via their manure. Pasture also takes carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil—leaving many pasture systems carbon-neutral. In addition, sound pasture management decreases runoff and maintains soil quality, making pastures more drought resistant and flood resilient. Pasture fields often boost biodiversity on and near the farm and can help protect a watershed by preserving soil integrity. Researchers are also finding that we can reduce methane emissions by feeding livestock a greater variety of nutrients, something offered by a pasture-based system.

Critics of grassfed and pasture-raised systems say they’re impractical on a large scale because they would require too much land to satisfy human demand for meat products. But the reality is more of a trade off. Right now, the majority of U.S. farmland devoted to corn and soy production – 95 million acres for corn and 75 million acres for soybeans – goes to feed livestock animals. Calorie for calorie, it’s not a very efficient system, especially considering how energy intensive corn and soybean production have become. The conventional production of these crops requires millions of tons of synthetic fertilizer annually, which in turn requires a significant amount of natural gas to produce. Corn and soy production also require chemical pesticides and harvesting these crops releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere. In sum, if we converted some of our grain acreage to pasture for livestock, we could actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the label

Remember: things can get murky in the marketplace. The line between grass-fed and factory-bred isn’t always so clear.

Our recommendation? Know your farmer and ask questions! But if you can’t know the person who raised the meat gracing your dinner plate, look for third-party certified products. Programs like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Biodynamic, and the American Grassfed Association label are strong on ensuring that livestock animals are truly raised in grassfed or pasture-raised systems. Many certified organic farms also employ these practices, but while the organic standards cover a great deal, they don’t require animals to be raised on pasture their entire lives.

Be sure to check out our Food Labeling page for more information and visit Eat Wild to find grassfed and pasture-raised meats in your area.

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