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Another livestock industry propaganda piece recently appeared in Time Magazine by Lisa Abend titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet.” The basic premise of the article is that factory farming is bad, so grass-fed or free-range beef is good for the planet and even human health. Grass-fed beef is the latest fad with people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements. While there are some livestock operators who are promoting grass-fed beef, many of the advocates are well meaning people who are vulnerable to anything that have the word “natural” in it. Just because raising cows in factory farms on grains is bad for the Earth, does not mean that cows grazing on pasture or hay are better for the Earth.

Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Save the Planet

Another livestock industry propaganda piece recently appeared in Time Magazine by Lisa Abend titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet.” The basic premise of the article is that factory farming is bad, so grass-fed or free-range beef is good for the planet and even human health. Grass-fed beef is the latest fad with people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements.

While there are some livestock operators who are promoting grass-fed beef, many of the advocates are well meaning people who are vulnerable to anything that have the word “natural” in it. Just because raising cows in factory farms on grains is bad for the Earth, does not mean that cows grazing on pasture or hay are better for the Earth.

The assumption of many people is that less industrialized makes it better to consume. Some of the “natural” folks eschew city water treated with chemicals, for instance, and prefer “natural” water sources. Yet many natural water sources have many unhealthy things in them. Arsenic, for instance, is often found at naturally high levels in water at levels that are a health risk to drink. One needs to be careful about assuming that anything more “natural” is automatically safer, healthier, and better for humans and the planet.

I do not want to contend that industrialized livestock production is good. There are huge problems with factory-raised meat. Cattle raised on grain tend to be given more hormones, and grain production generally requires heavy pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as fossil fuels to operate machinery. But just because a cow grazes in a pasture, does not mean it is “green” or that eating grass-fed beef is environmentally beneficial.

Indeed, as a generalization, almost all the negatives associated with Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) exist with grass-fed beef. And grass-fed livestock has many unique impacts not shared by their factory-raised counterparts that may be more environmentally destructive. The assumption that grass-fed beef is “healthier” is based more upon wishful thinking than reality.

One of the presumed benefits of grass-fed meat is the idea that somehow livestock fed grass reduces global warming gases. Research suggests that livestock, particularly cows, are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the planet. One recent UN report finds that as much as 18% of the GHG are from livestock—more than all transportation and/or industry sources of GHG. Others put the figure even higher. No matter which studies are used, there is little dispute that cattle are a major contributor to global warming.

Fermentation in the animal’s rumen generates huge quantities of gas—between 30-50 liters per hour in adult cattle. So those proponents of grass-fed beef start with the simplistic assumption that since cattle evolved to eat grass, such a diet must be superior to grain-fed factory raised animals. Yet grass is a poor substitute for grains in terms of caloric energy per pound of feed. As a consequence, a grass-fed cow’s rumen bacteria must work longer breaking down and digesting grass in order to extract the same energy content found in grain—all the while the bacteria in its rumen are emitting great quantities of methane.

Researcher, Nathan Pelletier of Nova Scotia has found that GHG are 50 percent higher in grass-fed beef. If somehow magically we could convert all factory grown cattle to free range grass-fed animals, our global warming situation would be greatly accelerated.

Beyond the GHG issue, free ranging cattle present other problems that CAFO raised animals do not. For instance, one of the major consequences of having cattle roaming the range is soil compaction. There’s not a single study that demonstrates that having a thousand pound cow trample soil is good for the land.

Soil compaction reduces water penetration, creating more run-off and erosion. Because water cannot percolate into the soil easily, soil compaction from cattle creates more arid conditions—a significant problem in the already arid West, but also an issue in the East since the soils are often moister for a longer period of time. Moist soils are more easily compacted.

Sometimes the influence of pasture grazing is long lasting. One study in North Carolina found that stream insect biota were still significantly different in streams heavily impacted by agriculture 50 years after agricultural use had ceased compared to control streams. Soil compaction also reduces the space in the top active layer of soil where most soil microbes live, reducing soil fertility.

Free ranging cattle trample riparian areas, the thin green lines where 70-80% of all western wildlife utilize for homes and food. According to the EPA livestock is the major source of pollution and riparian damage in the West. But that doesn’t let eastern cows off the hook since trampling of riparian areas also occurs in the East, though with less biological impact since fewer species are solely dependent on this habitat.

Cattle, of course, release a lot of manure on the soil. A typical 1,100 pound cow releases 92 pounds of manure a day as compared to a typical person a pound of feces Most of that excrement is left on the land where it washes into streams and adds to nutrient loading as well as the spread of disease like E coli bacteria. In fact, livestock manure is a major source of water-borne disease and pollution throughout the country.

To put this into perspective, consider that state of Vermont has approximately 150,000 cows, most of whom excrete their waste either directly on pastures or if collected from barns it is later spread on fields. In either case, most of this waste winds up on the land without further treatment. This is the same as permitting a city of nearly 14 million people to spread their human waste on the land!

It has been asserted without good evidence that grass-fed beef cattle produce less E-coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens. Yet all of these diseases have been repeatedly isolated from both grass and grain-fed livestock.

Outbreaks of diseases like E coli have been traced back to pastured animals. Notably, the E. coli spinach outbreak in California in 2006 was isolated from pastured cattle. And there are other examples.

By contrast CAFO operations, because of their scale and ability to collect and process manure in a treatment plant, can potentially be less polluting overall compared to grass-fed beef—though admittedly this is not common practice as yet.

There are disease issues for wildlife as well. For example, grass-fed animals carry disease that can harm native species. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Mad Cow disease is thought to have originated with domestic livestock and later transferred to elk and deer. And foot and mouth disease transmitted from cattle has been shown to infect bison. Brucellosis, another disease originating with domestic cattle, has created a huge controversy in Montana, where bison infected with the disease are killed when they wander from Yellowstone National Park.

Free range cattle are also problematic for other reasons as well. Take predators. Most grass-fed cattle are vulnerable to predators, and it is the presence of “free range livestock” that leads to conflicts and the eventual slaughter of everything from wolves to coyotes both as preventative or in retaliation for predation.
On western rangelands where livestock are often let loose on public lands, even the mere presence of cows socially displaces native herbivores like elk that simply won’t graze in the same place as cows. Since there are no empty niches, these native herbivores are displaced into lower quality habitat. Thus even “predator friendly” beef is more hype than reality.

One of the big problems with grain-fed livestock operations is the huge amount of land that is used to produce grain. Approximately 80-90 million acres of land in the US are used to grow corn alone. That is 80-90 million acres of once native prairie that is now growing a mono crop at a tremendous loss of biodiversity.

As bad as that plant community conversion may be for natural process, and native species, grass-fed beef generally dine on either pasture or hay—both of which consist of exotic grasses that are planted at the expense of native plants. In most states, the biggest single factor in the destruction of native plant communities has been their conversion to hay or pasture. Indeed, across the country more than 130 million acres have been converted to hay and pasture. To put this into perspective, the entire footprint of all urbanization and developed land in the entire US is about 60 million acres. In a sense one could argue that grass-fed cows have destroyed far more of the native plant cover than all the cities, highways, factories, Wal-Mart parking lots, etc. combined. No small impact. Whatever the exact figure may be, there is no denying that a lot of native plant communities have been converted to hay or pasture.

Keep in mind also that in the West, much of the pasture and hay is created by irrigation thus water withdrawals from streams and rivers. In most of the western United States, the majority of water consumed is not for domestic or industrial uses, but for agriculture, and the prime agricultural product produced is hay and/or irrigated pasture. As a consequence, aquatic ecosystems are fragmented, destroying fisheries, degrading riparian areas (water withdrawals affects water available for streamside vegetation), and increasing the effects of pollution (because toxins become more concentrated).

Even cattle grazing on native grasslands are not immune from judgment. One can’t be putting the majority of native grasses into the belly of exotic animals like cattle which are then exported from the system without impacting the ecosystem. Every blade of grass going into a cow’s belly is that much less forage for native animals, from grasshoppers to elk.

There are far more ecological problems I could list for grass-fed beef, but suffice to say cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.
The further irony of grass-fed beef is that consumption of beef products is not healthy despite claims to the contrary. There may be less fat in grass-fed beef, but the differences are not significant enough to warrant the claim that beef consumption is “healthy.” There is a huge body of literature about the contribution of red meat to major health problems including breast, colon, stomach, bladder, and prostate cancer. The other dietary related malady is the strong link between red meat consumption and heart disease.

Another health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats which are considered important for lowering health attack risks. However, the different between grain-fed and grass-fed is so small as to be insignificant, not to mention there are many other non-beef sources for this. Fish, walnuts, beans, flaxseeds, winter squash and olive oil are only some of the foods that l provide concentrated sources of omega-3 fats. Arguing that eating grass-fed beef is necessary or healthier grain-fed beef is like claiming it is better to smoke a filtered cigarette instead of a non-filtered one. The health benefits are minor if they make a difference at all.

There may be ethical reasons to prefer grass-fed animals over the often inhumane treatment given to factory-farmed animals. But even that rationale seems hollow to me. If one is that concerned with ethical issues, one should consider whether keeping any animals captive for slaughter is really ethical.

Beef consumption, whether grass-fed or grain-fed animals is neither healthy for the planet nor for humans. Reducing or eliminating red meat—whether grass or grain fed—from one’s diet is one of the easiest way to “save” the planet.

George Wuerthner is the editor of Welfare Ranching—The Subsidized Destruction of the American West as well as a contributor to Fatal Harvest about Industrialized Agriculture, and a soon to be published book on Factory Farming.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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The Great Sandpoint Fish Flop Flap

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30 comments

  1. Thanks Bill that is a useful reference. I had read it before, but it’s good to get it up here as well.

  2. Cowpoke-pattycake: a term to define the collusion, confusion, illusion, corruption and/or ignorance attributable to the ridiculous support of the cattle industry in the U.S. by powerful, dysfunctional agencies, politicians and countless people. Few activities that create so many tragedies at earth, air, and health levels would be allowed to continue. Most of them are already illegal.

    Nothing less than the complete and permanent end of cattle ranching on public lands.

  3. George, you have the facts wrong, both pro and con, in so many respects–from biology to ecology to ethics to carbon to human health to animal health to the economics of cattle production. You con’t know what you are talking about. And you have the audacity to complain about “people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements.”

    However, at least you flirt with these facts:

    -We eat too way more than our share of red meat, to the detriment of ouselves and our world
    -Factory farming is dispicable in many ways, and we need a better alternative
    -Grass fed beef that truly is grass fed, though it is not the answer, is a small part of the solution

  4. Thank you, George, for responding to that dangerous Time Magazine article with this new essay about the problems with grass-fed beef. It’s disturbing that people are all too willing to jump on a new bandwagon rather than learn the facts and do the right thing to address problems with land and human health, as well as global warming, and many other related issues.

    And I’m also with Tim Lengerich: “Nothing less than the complete and permanent end of cattle ranching on public lands.” It sounds like, surely, that is your position as well.

  5. Zeto

    Grass fed is not part of the answer. That is like saying that burning low sulphur coal is the way to deal with air pollution compared to high sulphur coal. Burning coal is bad news–and the less of it we burn, the better. The less beef we eat the better.

    I don’t start with the assumption that we “need” to eat beef. If that is the starting point, than perhaps you’re correct. But there are plenty of other alternatives, just as there are alternatives to burning coal if we put our minds to it.

  6. Excellent piece, well-written and very timely. There are so many people around who would go to any length in their thinking so long as it allows them to continue doing whatever it was they were doing. I saw a great bumper sticker that said, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” And so it is with grass fed beef. We need to eat lower on the food chain and we need to live more simply, so that others may simply live. Or how ’bout this one … work on cutting the number of humans on the planet?

  7. Neither will hybrid cars, recycled outdoor clothing nor taking your own shopping bag to the grocery store. These are all largely “feel good” steps.

    For some reason, discussions of overpopulation, and what to do about it, have been completely scrubbed from most environmental conversations. And you certainly don’t hear any enviro org’s talking about it anymore. I realize the reasons behind this – it’s a very touchy and difficult subject for a lot of people. But it’s the elephant in the room in terms of all of our environmental problems, and we would do well to face that fact, instead of getting hung up on what are ultimately trivialities such as, “paper or plastic?” “grass-fed or grain?”

  8. Smithhammer

    You’re absolutely correct about population growth. No matter what is done to increase efficiency, promote conservation, etc. it’s all for naught if population continues to grow. Most people are not going to ratchet down their life styles and there’s a lot of poor people who want to improve their own lives, and who can blame them. So that doesn’t leave very many options other than a gradual population reduction. There is substitution, new technologies, and so forth, that may delay the day of reckoning but in the end, they can’t make a finite world, infinite.

  9. Excellent piece, George. You are a hero in my book. Thank you. Your work is so important and your courage inspirational.

  10. In the long run, neither of these options are feasible. During these debates, people seem to overlook how mind-blowingly unnatural it is to crank cows out of a factory. I admit, in order to sustain the vast number of meat eaters in this country who dine at fast-food restaurants 4 times per week on low-quality meat, the only option is factory farming. But here’s the thing, factory farming is unethical, inhumane, and unnatural. And it’s incredibly depressing that more Americans don’t respect themselves enough to put healthy, natural food into their bodies. So the solution here is to eat less meat.

    Reduce meat consumption – do we really, seriously, need to be consuming so much meat? So much low-quality, hormone-laden mystery meat?

    End factory farming. Just because we CAN raise animals for slaughter in massive numbers doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Grass-fed cattle in numbers that won’t harm the environment and guess what, this meat will be taxed. And that’s right, not everyone will be able to eat meat. It’s time people monetarily pay for the cost of being environmentally reckless.

  11. I love all the informed responses to an incredibly detailed, researched and intelligent post. How could anybody dispute an article with 40 references and the background reflected here. Anybody who refuses to believe this is obviously praying to the meat gods and afraid of losing their flesh idols.

  12. George,

    This is an excellent article and thank you very much for writing it.

    Smithhammer – you are 100% correct about the need to discuss overpopulation in the world.

  13. George, I was going to add a few facts that I have learned in my experiences running cows but decided there are very few people who want facts. Everybody wants to hear information that concurs with their opinion. I think it would be a waste of time.
    If you enjoy beef, try both grass and grain fed. Eat your preference. If you are a vegan, enjoy that. Just a thought, if there were 100,000,000 buffalo in pioneer days, how much gas did they release into the atmosphere?

  14. Floyd:

    The difference is there were not 7 Billion People in the world devouring unlimited amounts of meat. We live in a very different world where human population has exploded and continues to exponentially expand thereby destroying the natural world.

    We simply can not think or eat the same as we did with millions not billions of people on the planet who eat as if there is unlimited resources and as if animals are not sentient beings but are rather commodities to be enslaved for human progress.

    Humanity needs to wake up to a higher consciousness and consider this planet as a whole organism.

  15. On further consideration, I can’t believe how distorted the discussion here happens to be. Photo caption of cows “destroying riparian zone.” That’s agenda-driven, period — par for the Geo course.
    Bill’s posting about E 157 is kind of interesting, but so what? COOK your supper and you’ll be fine. If it scares you, don’t buy it, don’t cook it, and hope your raw veggies aren’t fertilized organically, right? Or maybe grow and slaughter your own darn cow?
    Wonders never cease.

  16. I love beef. I love Montana. I will always support Montana ranchers.

  17. I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me you’re missing some important points.

    First, many grass-fed beef proponents do support the removal of cattle from public lands, and many of us are supporters of the return of bison on a large scale to the Great Plains. Provided they are stocked at appropriate levels, bison have actually been shown to *improve* range land and habitat quality.

    Second, you’re overlooking the importance of perennial grasslands for carbon sequestration. When you’re calculating the carbon footprint of grain fed cattle, you need to calculate not only the methane they produce, but also the carbon that goes into manufacturing and transporting the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that go into producing the grain, the carbon released by tilling, the carbon used to transport the grain to the cows, and more. Pastures require significantly fewer chemical inputs, if any, are rarely or never tilled, and don’t require any transport to get the grass from the field to the cow. Additionally, perennial grasslands are arguably the best carbon sequestration ecosystems in the world. Trees absorb more, but they are carbon-neutral over their lifetimes, while grasses store the carbon in the soil, where it can only be released by tilling. I have yet to see a feedlot or factory farm with enough green to sequester anything.

    Finally, grass fed beef is more expensive than grain fed beef, so encouraging families to switch to grass fed beef by definition encourages them to eat less beef. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone suggest that we can sustain our current level of meat consumption by switching to grass-fed instead of grain-fed meat, or that it would be a good thing if we did. Grass fed proponents tend to value quality over quantity.

  18. There seem to me to be a lot of blindnesses in this discussion.

    You think eating vegetable foods doesn’t destroy animal habitats, doesn’t damage our environment? You think people don’t need to eat at least some form of animal-based foods to be healthy? Think again. We evolved eating animal-based foods, in addition to plant-based foods. We need animal foods to be truly healthy.

    Anybody here taken the time to read Lierre Keith’s new book, The Vegetarian Myth? Powerful, mind-blowing stuff for those who are prejudiced against eating animal foods. And right on!

    And as for the question of overpopulation, is anybody on this list volunteering to give up his or her life, or voluntarily having no children? This is not an easy question!!

  19. I don’t see much blindness on this forum. I do see comments from very informed people on this subject, though.

    As far as eating animal-based foods, avoiding beef, particularly if it comes from the arid lands of the west, is highly advisable. But eating far more vegetables and fruits and far less meat would serve us better. Billions of people eat very little or no beef. It is far healthier for the planet.

    I know scores of people who purposely and happily choose not to have children; myself included. It is a great way to honor the earth. Choosing adoption is a wonderful option as well.

  20. I’m afraid that I see a lot of selective blindness, on all sides here. The truths are that we are a disgustingly obese country that eats way too much beef and the most of the beef that we eat comes from disgusting syntho-breeds and ends coming out of the feedlots as more chemical stew than actual meat; but, although range raised and grass fed is certainly not going to “save” us or the planet, it’s better than the nightmare of industrialized syntho-breeds and feedlot beef. I’m in favor of reducing our excessive meat consumption and public lands grazing; but, I also know that we need to pick our battles and it’s counterproductive to make the perfect into the enemy of the good.

  21. As this discussion reverberates from grass fed beef vs feedlot beef to earth worship to no grazing on the so called arid lands of the west, you soon realize that even in this day of great strides in research and technology we have those who still have their collective heads in the sand. I think we all need to be good stewards of the land but leave their personal ideologies and agenda’s in the sand as well.

  22. Oh great, I conjured up a demon.

  23. Grass fed beef tastes awsome!

  24. Chocolate, in any form, also tastes AWESOME but how many of us want to over indulge that craving???

    Google the documentries Earthlings, Food, Inc., The Cove and Pig Business, just to name a few “time to wake up people” films out there dedicated to what’s really happening in the “food processing” industry here and in other countries by a very few, powerful corporations, who are now, pretty much in control of most of the food WE consume.

    They don’t give a crap about the health of humans (look at all the recalls over the past few years) let alone the humane treatment of the animals that spend weeks sitting in filth and then rushed thru their slaughterhouses at an alarming rate, some “not quite dead yet” and suffering, as they dangle by a leg, awaiting the next step of the process.

  25. Thanks to everyone who has posted their ideas so far.

    I would like to ask for your help. I want to learn more about this issue. If anyone has some research/evidence about grass-fed beef, I would appreciate it.

    I want to get to the bottom of this, and not just hear opinion. Most of what I can find written on this subject seems to be based on studies/research purposely hidden.

    Again, thank you to everyone who wrote their ideas.
    Sincerely Garrett

  26. grass-fed-all-the-way

    so we have another nut case paid by the factory farm corporations spewing their brand of propaganda to disuade people from eating meat that is raised the way it was intended to be raised. think about it people, a cow is designed to eat grass. pure and simple. it is not designed to eat grain, or scraps from the twizzler factory, or any of that crap(yes thats right, factory farms will feed the cattle any high calorie junk they can get their hands on), it is designed to eat grass. as for the B.S. about free range cattle causing more pollution from manure, obviously this crackpot doesn’t want to tell you what factory farms do with the tons of manure they deal with daily, and believe me they DO NOT run it through any kind of processing plant.
    I hope he got paid plenty from the factory farm corporations to write this drivel because the only part of it that is anywhere near the truth is possibly his name (unless he had enough self respect to use a false one). Enjoy your 30 pieces of silver George or whatever your name is

  27. If you think that grass fed animals will not save the world then you are only a little correct, but lets be honest if you want to be at all healthy while eating meat then grass fed is the only way to go! It is a well known fact that corn based diets in cattle is not only unnatural, but it is toxic and you are going to be eating toxic beef.
    So when I say that you are only a little correct I am simply saying that the idiots of the world that are killing the world anyway are eating corn fed beef.
    Think!

  28. I stumbled upon this article considerably late but… hate reading it.

    I think Kerry has got the right idea. Grass fed is better. However current levels of consumption are way too high, no doubt.

    Noting that beef is bad for you is utter nonsense in that you have not accounted for the differences between people. Statistically only 10-15% of cardiac patients benefit from a change in diet away from red meat and fats. The rest are induced by stress and being overweight leading too fatty acids being released into the blood from the fat deposits in the now overweight stomach. Stress comes from a multitude of things like fructose problems, nitric oxide imbalance, many things.

    However what is fascinating is that if statistically the average American eats around 200lbs of meat a year, that is oh say 60,000,000,000 lbs a year. Now lets apply some science that you say we are unaware of….

    Around 46% of people have the A antigen in their blood. All of them that secrete their antigen suffer from a lack of intestinal alkaline phosphate. Lets give them an allotment of 1lb per week total meat including poultry and fish which lack the saturated fat associated with heart risk. (IAP digests saturated fat in the intestines, so if you can not digest it there it goes into the blood and becomes the problem known as high cholesterol). That is about 52lbs a year, and given that people may eat less than a lb a week on occasion, and children may eat less, lets give it a 46lb a year (because it is funny too). 46% of the population is 138,000,000, times 46lbs is 6,348,000,000. Next we have 54% of the population left. Lets give them 2.5lbs a week, or 130lbs a year. We get about 21,060,000,000 lbs. So now with generous amounts of meat in every persons diet adjust for who can benefit from it, we now have 27,408,000,000 lbs a year. That is over half the amount currently being consumed. Oh and a lot gets wasted currently. We could, with science, reduce meat consumption appropriately by at least 54.3%, if not closer to 60% estimated by current waste production – or more.

    Plus we could consume a lot more lamb and bison. Lamb’s impact is much less than beef or bison. It takes one person to raise an army of lamb. It takes an army to raise an army of beef.

    Science rocks, indeed.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16412386
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_type

    (there is extensive amount of information about the ABO blood group and response to food all over pubmed, books, etc, but it get called suedo-science due to lack of money involved in healthy people, and genetic qualities that override some of the research in small amounts)

  29. Ooops I mean the 27,408,000,000 is less than half of what we consume per year.

  30. To say that Americans are way too obese because they eat way too much beef is in part ignorant. The reason why America is morbidly obese is because of the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates that are consumed. My husband and I have lost over 50 pounds each on a diet rich in fish, grass fed beef, gluten free products and tons of veggies. My IBS is totally under control and my husbands Ankylosing Sponylitis is too. On some occasions he has consumed grain fed beef and in less than an hour there is inflammation and stiffness of his joints. I dont thint that grass fed beef is in any way more environmentally safe that grain fed but I can say that I have noticed way too many health benefits of grass fed beef. This is my opinion. Everybody has an opinion….. I just hate that these subjects always become debates. Everybody wants to be right. And its a shame. We should respect each others point of view.