Grass-fed beef has become popular among meat eaters these days, who believe that eating grass-fed cows is not only healthier, but better for the environment than livestock raised on factory farms.
The issue was recently spotlighted after Oscar-winning director James Cameron announced that he had switched to a vegan diet because he believes eating meat destroys the planet.
However, some environmental specialists say grass-fed meat isn’t much more eco-friendly than factory-farmed livestock. Grass-fed cows emit up to 400% more methane than grain-fed cows, according to Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist with the World Bank’s IFC Environment and Social Development Dept.
They also take up much more land and water because they take longer to grow. Anhang also takes issue with claims made by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that 18% of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions comes from livestock production.
In reality, that figure is closer to 51%, according to Anhang and his colleague, Robert Goodland, who retired as lead environmental adviser at the World Bank after 23 years.
“FAO’s new partners include the International Meat Secretariat and International Dairy Federation,” said Goodland. “Their stated objective is to ‘assess the environmental performance of the livestock sector’ and ‘to improve that performance.’ “
Interestingly, Henning Steinfeld and Pierre Gerber, lead author and a co-author of the FAO’s 18% estimate, actually prescribe more factory farming — not less — and no limit on meat consumption. It bears noting that Steinfeld and Gerber are livestock specialists, not environmental experts.
Others insist the myth of the eco-friendly, grass-fed cow is misleading at best and a sham at worst. According to Dr. Jude Capper, an assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, grass-fed beef does as much harm to the Earth as factory-farmed cows.
“There’s a perception that grass-fed animals are frolicking in the sunshine, kicking their heels up full of joy and pleasure,” Capper told Fox News. “What we actually found was from the land-use basis, from the energy, from water — and particularly, based on the carbon footprints — grass-fed is far worse than corn-fed.”
This is because raising grass-fed cows is inefficient and results in more water and land usage and produces more waste in the long haul.
“They have a far lower efficiency, far lower productivity,” she said. “The animals take 23 months to grow (versus 15 for corn-fed cattle). That’s an extra eight extra months of feed, of water, land use, and also an awful lot of waste.
“If we have a grass-fed animal, compared to a corn-fed animal, that’s like adding almost one car to the road for every single animal. That’s a huge increase in carbon footprints.”
In response, grass-fed beef proponents have slammed grain/corn-fed advocates for failing to mention the massive amounts of fossil fuels required to produce factory-farmed meat, including:
- preparing farm land for corn production;
- creating the chemical fertilizers & pesticides used in corn production;
- harvesting, drying and storing the corn;
- transporting the bulk corn (via rail, sea & road);
- processing the corn: milling, mixing, extruding, pelletizing;
- distributing the corn to individual farms.
While the grass-fed-versus-factory-farmed debate rages on, one thing is clear, say some experts: Raising livestock for food is environmentally costly, and a plant-based diet is far better for the environment than a meat-centric one. Marc Reisner, former staff writer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, summed it up best when he wrote:
“In California, the single biggest consumer of water is not Los Angeles. It is not the oil and chemicals or defense industries. Nor is it the fields of grapes and tomatoes. It is irrigated pasture: grass grown in a near-desert climate for cows.
“The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up in a single word: livestock.”