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Is Grass-Fed Beef Better For The Environment?

By Megan Tempest in Food on Apr 27, 2010 5:20PM


A few weeks ago we listed the numerous health benefits of eating grass-fed beef over its conventionally-raised counterpart. Lower in saturated fat, rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and higher in multiple micronutrients, it appears grass-fed beef is indeed better for our health. One Chicagoist reader chimed in to suggest that, rather than promote the benefits of grass-fed beef over grain-fed, we’d all be better off simply eating less meat, period. We wholeheartedly agree. However for those of us who nibble on meat as often as several times a week, or as little as a few times per month, choosing grass-fed animal products is the better choice to make. This choice is not a matter of sentimentality, although we admittedly love the image of cows grazing of lush green pastures. Buying grass-fed beef and dairy products supports the practice of raising animals on grasslands and, if we all make this choice, will have a positive impact on our environment.

Certainly not an exhaustive list, here are a few reasons why choosing grass-fed is better.

  1. Grazed lands slow global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the air. Grasslands (like trees) are very efficient in a process known as “carbon sequestration”. Basically, excess carbon dioxide in the air is stored in the soil as carbon, where it may remain for centuries. According to researchers at Duke University, grasslands are more efficient than trees in sequestering carbon, and therefore raising cattle on pastures, and restoring grasslands, will slow the global warming process. The soil of the grazing lands of the Great Planes is said to contain 40 tons of carbon per acre. Cultivated soil contains only about 26 tons. Thanks to efforts by the US government's Conservation Reserve Program, 36 million acres of cultivated land have been converted back to pasture in recent years, resulting in a ½ ton gain of carbon per acre within the first five years after planting. That equates to 18 million tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere each year.
  2. Grazing enhances the quality of our soil. One related project monitored the soil of 6 pasture-based farms in Minnesota for 4 years, and compared it to soil from farms producing soy, corn, oats and hay. They found grazed land has a 53% greater soil stability, 131% more earthworms, significantly more organic matter, less nitrate pollution of ground water, improved stream quality, and a better habitat in which wildlife can thrive. Pastures absorb more rain, reduce water run-off, and provide cleaner water for humans and wildlife. Farming is only sustainable if topsoil is not eroded. Cultivation of soy and corn causes 6 times more soil erosion than pasture. It is estimated that the US loses 3 billion tons of nutrient-rich topsoil every year as a result of conventional farming of corn and soy. Pasture on the other hand reduces soil loss by more than 90 percent. Furthermore, conventional feedlot operations accumulate huge amounts of manure that, rather than put to good use as fertilizer, cause environmental havoc by groundwater contamination and surface runoff. Manure from pasture-raised animals is liberally dropped over wide areas of grassland and thus able to simply nourish the land, naturally.
  3. More pasture-raised cattle mean less greenhouse gasses. Methane gas is a potent by-product of rumen (the first compartment of a cow’s stomach) digestion and is considered a significant contributor to global warming. Methane is said to be more capable than carbon dioxide in trapping solar energy. All ruminants (cattle, sheep, bison, and goats - those creatures that have 4-compartment stomachs) emit large amounts of methane gas by digesting a grass-based diet. However, despite all this methane, the Institute of Environmental Research and Education claims that the potentially negative consequences of all this methane are offset by the fact that the pasture itself reduced greenhouse gasses (again, by carbon sequestration).

Go here for a complete list of suppliers of grass-fed products in Illinois.