Grass fed–better for the environment?

When I have told environmentally conscious friends and acquaintances about our move to a plant based diet for environmental reasons, a response I often hear is along the  lines of “well, I worry about the environment too, but have switched to pastured raised/grass fed meat and dairy.” I have noticed if meat promoting articles recognize an environmental problem at all (most don’t), there will be one sentence with similar advice. And the last few years our family was eating meat and dairy, I also made a commitment to buy from farmers who pasture raised and grass fed their livestock. I thought, as many do, that this was a good choice for the environment in addition to the better quality for health reasons.

But is it true?

As we have investigated this issue, we have found that the answer is pretty complicated. It is true that grass fed/pasture raised animal products are probably better for our health just for that fact that they are usually raised without hormones or antibiotics and may use fewer pesticides for the feed. Beyond that, however, it is a bit murky.

Most cattle raised for dairy and meat are in produced in factory farms, and some have argued that the process is more efficient and actually produces less greenhouse gasses than grass fed operations. This is because grass fed/free range animals take longer to grow since they are not given hormones and feed lot grains. The longer growth adds to the amount of energy needed and a higher methane gas release. And water consumption is about the same whether pasture raised or in factory farms. Conversely, the Environmental Working Group actually has a meat eater’s guide that concludes – after a lifecycle analysis of beef and other meats – that grass fed beef is better for the environment. An article from the Washington Post and one from Oregon Public Radio both consider both sides of the debate.

In my view, the problem with this debate somehow fails to consider one very important factor:  Grass fed, pasture raised animals cannot possibly meet the demand of our current appetite for dairy, beef, chicken and other livestock. Consider:

Cattle. We raise and slaughter 95-100 million cattle per year and globally there are 1.4 billion cattle that are raised for meat and dairy. In the US, only about 3 to 6% of the market comes from grass fed farms.

Poultry. In a tiny part of my little state of Maryland on the Eastern Shore, 12 million chickens are processed every week.  In all of the US to fed our current appetite for poultry, we process nearly 9 billion chickens, and globally more than 20 billion chickens live on our planet at any given moment, almost 3 for every human.

Add in pigs, lambs and turkeys and you get the picture.

If we were to try move all those animals over to a grass fed operations, would that be the best use of our land? Each grass fed cow needs 1-2 acres of land to graze and one acre can only sustainably support about 50 chickens. We would need astronomically more land than actually exists to pasture even half of the chickens and cattle on the planet. Regardless of production type, only 400-480 pounds of meat can be produced on one acre of land. Compare that to 20,000 pounds of plant foods that could be grown on the same plot, feeding many more people.

Furthermore, in the past 50 or 60 years our appetite for meat has drastically changed the way we farm and what we grow. For example, in the 1950s, Iowa grew more than 25 different commodities such as potatoes, cherries, oats and plums. Today Iowa is reduced to essentially four: hogs, cattle, corn and soybeans, (two crops that mostly go to feed animals). Losing a diversity of commodities has led to monocropping which brings many environmental hazards. Focusing on grass fed sources of the same commodities does not help that situation.

I came to the conclusion that increasing our demand for grass fed/raw milk/cage free/pasture raised livestock is not really a good option for our future and for a growing population. It may be a healthier choice for people like me who are educated, have the resources to get these products and most of all, can afford them as the prices are higher than factory farmed animal products.  But we can never feed our current national or global appetite for animal products this way, meaning that only the privileged few can make this healthier choice. Pasture raised livestock cannot feed the world; meanwhile millions go hungry or eat unhealthy diets.

Bottom line: If you are interested in my advice, it is this:  if you keep meat, eggs, dairy in your diet, then yes, choose grass fed, pasture raised animal products. But EAT LESS of it!  

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