Organic Meat- Better for the Environment?
Organic farms and ranches utilize far more natural means of raising cattle and poultry. This means not loading animals with artificial hormones to bring them to market size 4-5 times faster, or cramming hundreds or thousands of animals together in unconscionably tight quarters, or feeding them things they were never meant to consume (like other cows, for example.)
It costs more to buy pasture raised beef than grain-finished. This is due to two factors. First, finishing a cattle on grain and hormones significantly reduces the amount of time it takes to bulk up a cow for slaughter- possibly by over a year! That’s a lot less money that a rancher has tied up into taking care of this animal. Second, the economy of scale of having a huge number of animals crowded into a single feedlot allows for much higher yield in a certain amount of space. This doesn’t, however, take into account the actual cost of feeding them. Luckily for large meat producers, corn and soy (the primary grains in feed,) are among the most highly subsidized crops in our country. So while it is less efficient to feed a cow grain compared to grass, there just aren’t the government subsidies available for pasture land.
Is it better for the environment?
When properly managed, raising animals on pasture is far more sustainable than in “factory farms.” First off, grazing requires little to no fossil fuels, whereas bringing in soy and corn is highly fuel consumptive. Speaking of grain feed, petroleum based fertilizers are commonly used to grow feed crops. Grazing cattle fertilize their own crops! Grass covers the ground year-round, reducing heat buildup. One fact stood out to me- grazed pasture removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more effectively than any land use, including forestland and ungrazed prairie, which helps slow global warming.
Speaking of fertilizer, the way in which feedlots handle manure is a huge ecological problem. Manure is often trucked to dump areas, where ammonia and other toxic gasses are released into the environment. Excess nitrogen and will then pollute the soil, run-off destroys rivers and groundwater leading to fish kills and “dead zones.”
On the other hand, pasture-raised cattle distribute their own fertilizer, encouraging growth not only in the grasses they’ll later eat, but in the entire ecosystem.
While feedlot beef and dairy undoubtedly create massive greenhouse gas emissions and cause a great deal of ecological damage, choosing pasture-raised, grass-fed meat and dairy minimize impact, and help us “fit in” with our planet a little better.
What’s the difference on the plate?
Grass-fed beef is going to be more expensive than grain-fed. That being said, eating less of high quality meat is probably better for most of us anyway. In many cultures, meat is an accompaniment, a small portion of the overall meal. Not only are we opening our plates to greater variety if we take this approach
For more information and documentation, please check out http://www.eatwild.com/environment.html