As I am always talking about eating grass-fed or pastured meat I thought I better put something up explaining exactly WHY I feel so strongly about this. Strongly enough that I wont, knowingly, eat meat that comes from large industrial feedlots. And as I am the worlds biggest fusspot when it comes to asking questions about the provenance of what is on my plate (apologies, friends and family, you know its my thing!) I dont eat it unknowingly either.
Aside: To be honest the grain/grass issue is a bigger problem in the US than in the UK. If you buy local meat from a small producer or Farmers Market in the UK you are almost certainly going to be eating grass-fed meat whether you are fussing about it or not! I buy fromLondon Farmers Markets for both taste and reassurance.
Nevertheless, I am still going to explain the several reasons for my exacting standards; some may be more important to you than others. They are all important to me. So, in no particular order, consider the following points.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT, EATS TOO
I first read this phrase, that takes a moment or two to fully comprehend, in Michael Pollans book:
In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating: An Eaters Manifesto
Once the message sinks in it is blindingly obvious that the nutritional profile of an animal is going to be affected by what it eats and in the case of cattle, nature intended this to be grass, not grain. Cows have four parts to their stomach; they are ruminants designed to graze and convert grasses, something we cannot do, into a food we can digest: namely meat.
Even a child at schools learns about a cow and his many stomachs (well, strictly speaking four parts of one stomach) but not one of these parts is designed to digest the highly acid-forming grains industrial beef is fed.
This unnaturally acidic gut environment causes the animal pain and discomfort and weakens his immune system (often necessitating the animal equivalent of antacid tablets and long-term antibiotic use) and can lead to the shocking syndrome known as feedlot bloat. This happens, usually once a cow is taken off grass and put onto corn feed, because on pasture the rumen naturally produces a lot of gas which the animals expels by belching. When the diet contains too much starch, rumination slows down or stops and the gas is trapped beneath a slimy, foamy layer. The rumen then inflates like a balloon and pushes against the cows lungs leaving the animal in real danger of suffocating.
More worryingly still this unnaturally acid gut environment has gradually allowed a super-strain of the food bug e-coli to flourish, one that would not be killed off (as is normally the case) by the acid environment of our own stomachs. So feedlot beef can carry a risk for e-coli that grass-fed beef does not. This unnatural diet understandably has an effect on the nutritional profile of the meat from that animal; and it is not a healthy one.
GRASS-FED MEAT IS HEALTHIER
So, taking to its natural conclusion the point about you being what you eat, eats, there is no doubt that grass-fed meat is healthier, therefore by eating it you will be healthier. In grass-fed meat you will find higher omega-3 levels, higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid and stearic acid (both associated with reduced risk of cancer), higher levels of vitamins A, D and E. The fatty profile is healthier, and indeed there is a lower overall amount of fat in a grass-fed steak. So go ahead and choose the tastiest, most marbled one you can find and enjoy it fat and all. Particularly enjoy the fat, where many of the vitamins in meat are found in their highest concentration. Last, but certainly not least, is remembering what you are NOT getting in your grass-fed meat, namely growth-hormones, antibiotics or GM grain.
For a long and detailed discussion on the changing health benefits as we have moved from grass-fed beef to confinement farming and grain-fed cattle see this piece from theWeston A Price Foundation.
If meat, lamb and pork as well as beef, is so much healthier when it is grass-fed, why doesnt everyone do it, well, economics of course, and the economy of the food you choose to buy doesnt stop at the producer it is relevant to the consumer too. Cattle kept indoors and fed a diet of grain will fatten fast, come up to slaughter weight in half the time of a grass-reared animal and make a tidy profit for their industrial farmer. Or so it seems.
INDUSTRIAL MEAT IS A FALSE ECONOMY
There is a strong argument to be made that industrial meat is a false economy for the farmer. The investment in equipment, labour, drugs, growth-hormones, animal feed, fertilizers, pesticides and vets bills, can outweigh the return a beef farmer gets from getting his meat to market fast; and he can charge less for his meat than a grass farmer can. It may not seem this way to those trapped in the industrial meat chain but a grass farmer like the indomitable Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm has proved that he likes doing it the easy way, and the way that nature intended and he can make a profit from it.
Salatin modestly explains he merely grows the grass, the animals do the rest: they take themselves to grass to feed, trim back the early, nutritious growth then move on to fresh pastures. The animals dont get ill, so dont need expensive medicines, and though they take longer to come to market weight, their meat commands a higher price in the right market and demand is increasing. Dairy farmers are even better off grazing their animals on grass.
It is worth examining the complex set up of Salatins farm for a greater appreciation of how a pasture-based mixed animal farm can work as a poetic whole, with almost no waste and a wonderful, gentle harnessing of how nature herself likes to work. The single reason it is not more popular is that it so goes against the industrially-driven model of todays food production chain; And maybe perhaps because the innate knowledge required for this kind of farming has been lost as farms have relied on machinery and spreadsheets; watching Salatin talk about his farm and the way it runs you can see he relies on the instinct and knowledge passed down to him through his familys farming generations not a manual.
For more on this read Joel Salatins Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front or look at the movie Food Inc.
Just as industrial meat can turn out to be a false economy for the farmer it is a false economy for the consumer too. It may cost more but it is far less healthy; you will get better nutrition and fewer chemicals, hormones and GM ingredients from a small portion of (admittedly significantly more expensive) pastured meat than you will from a 16oz steak on special offer at the supermarket.
The thing many consumers dont want to hear is that they will have to eat less of it, for every reason. Michael Pollan makes a strong case in his book In Defence of Food for using the meat part of the meal as a condiment to the vegetable portion and if you do this you can afford good meat. He seems unsure as to whether you actually need meat at all, finally deciding there is no good reason to exclude meat from the diet, but doesnt make much of a case for actively including it. I have come to believe that meat, ethically raised and using all parts of the animal as we would traditionally have done, is a tremendously important part of the diet, just in small quantities, particularly for small, growing children. Nutrient-wise you really get your moneys worth from meat.
Aside: Since writing this piece I came across a sentence in a recent NY Times piece by Michael Pollan, that sums my position up nicely:Asmaller-scale, more humane animal agriculture is a goal worth fighting for, and surely more attainable than the abolition of meat eating.
GRASS-FED MEAT IS BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
The above paragraphs should have convinced you by now that grass-fed meat is better for the environment but to spell it out please realise that the feed demand for industrial cattle is vast and grown using fertilizers and pesticides. Growing the chemical fertiliser takes oil. As Pollan puts it: we have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.
Grazed pastures are healthier too. The constant cutting and re-growing stimulates plant growth, improves soil fertility and as the cows walk and spread their manure evenly, nitrogen run-off is reduced.
There is of course the environmentalists point that meat production is very inefficient in terms of feeding large quantities of people (this is certainly true, why do you think population exploded when we hit the Neanderthal period and the Agricultural Revolution? Interestingly although we could feed more people during this time we were overall less healthy, as demonstrated by an evolutionary drop in stature during this period).
The argument goes that much grain that is used to feed animals could be feeding people. This is true, but there is much logic in a counter-argument I have read (though I am certainly no expert in world geography) that there are plenty of rocky outposts in the world, suited to nimble mountain goats and other hardy cattle that would never support a food-providing plant of any consequence.
In fact, I have just come across a Soil Association piece that points out just this fruits, vegetables and grains require high quality cropland, while meat can be produced on lower quality, more widely available pastureland. Grazing livestock in this way, instead of turning it over to crop production, also ensures that carbon locked in the soil stays there. Summed up by the conclusion that a low-meat diet, as opposed to a strict vegetarian diet, is actually the most land-efficient, and therefore the most climate-friendly.
It seems to me that what we really need to address is the expectation, endemic in the West and fast spreading in countries like China and India, that one should be able to eat unlimited quantities of meat. Meat, sadly still equals affluence, yet it is logically impossible for us all to be affluent in this way. By going back to pasture-reared beef there could not even be the illusion of being able to provide unlimited quantities of meat to meet the demand of traditionally low consumers of meat becoming increasingly carnivorous. Education is the key: teach people to eat better quality, less quantity a true demonstration of affluence is buying better, surely?
GRASS-FED MEAT TASTES GOOD!
Having expressed my opinion as eloquently as I know how in the above polemic and yes, I know I am inevitably talking to a minority when it comes to change of this sort here is my last, brief and decidedly un-political reason to eat grass-fed meat.
IT TASTES BETTER than a flavourless, fatty, dubiously-coloured, poorly fibred piece of anonymous creature that has led a sad and sorry life. At least, if you are a carnivore, choose an animal that has had a bit of dignity in his life then celebrate his legacy with an excellent dish of Steak Tartare , Brisket of Beef orBolognese Sauce.