Ever since Frances Moore Lappe authored Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971, some folks have been down on beef. The premise of that early work was that the solution to feeding everyone was to eliminate one of the foods that people love most — beef. It’s a compelling argument for vegetarians. The amount of land it takes to produce a steak is orders of magnitude larger than what it takes to produce the equivalent number of calories of edible vegetables. In addition to the efficiency argument, there was the health issue. In 1971 it was clear — fat is evil, especially animal fat, therefor, beef is the devil’s food. It’s killing us and taking up too much space.
Raising cows in CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — provided beef production with the illusion of increased efficiency; more cows crammed into much smaller area. Problem solved until you look at how much space it takes to grow the corn to feed wall-to-wall cattle. Not to mention the other side effects of grain-fed beef — health and environmental. Forty years down the path we also now know that not all fat is bad. The fat from grass-fed animals might actually be good for us. So now the swing is back to raising animals on pasture. For this I am glad because I like meat. I’m not ready to be a vegetarian yet, and grass-fed makes me feel a lot better about it.
The result is that we’ve circled back on a version of the original question — is animal production bad for the planet? If so, which is worse, grass-fed or grain-fed animal protein? According to Brian Palmer in the Washington Post this week, we really don’t know. He peruses some of the recent research on both sides and concludes there’s no clear answer.
From a strictly environmental perspective the answer is obvious — grass-fed wins! On a properly managed grass-based system, the land improves (soil quality, soil conservation, species diversity, water quality, etc.). The animals are healthier, and the system is easily sustained, because it takes a lot fewer external inputs to maintain. And animals such as cows can be raised on land that is of marginal quality, leaving the better land for growing higher yields of crops, including vegetables.
The trade-offs are that it takes longer to raise beef on a pure grass system. Ultimately, that results in a higher price for consumers. But within that higher costs, consumers are paying for environmental protection they are not getting from CAFO-raised beef.
Bottom line: eat grass-fed beef (and hogs and chickens and dairy). Go one better and buy these products directly from a local farmer. Doing so will help keep him/her in business and support the protection of the local environment.