A lot of us are horrified by how animals are treated in feedlots and as a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals. The newly-instated Grass-fed Association of South Africa, with its aim to establish an environmentally friendly and economically viable grass-fed meat industry, bears testimony to this.
There are many reasons why grass-fed is indeed better, not the least of which the fact that putting beef cattle into feedlots and feeding them grains, goes completely “against the grain” for these animals. Grazing animals such as cattle, sheep and buck are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats. They are, on the other hand, very inefficient at converting corn and other grains, so we have to do this feedlot thing on a massive scale to feed all the meat-eaters of the world. However, it’s still cheaper and faster, so our meat supply is now almost all feedlot meat.
But the unnaturally fast weight gain of animals in feedlots could not be achieved without enormous quantities of corn, soy-based (read GM) protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones. Apparently up to 70% of all antibiotic use around the world is on animals. This leads directly to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria with new “superbugs” increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
We are brainwashed into believing that “grain-fed” beef is nutritionally superior, but is it? Producers are even rewarded higher grades for well-marbled flesh which is what you will get in grain-fed beef, however is this better for us? Marbled flesh is simply fat that can’t be trimmed off, as it lies within the flesh. A sirloin steak from grass-fed beef may have as little as half the fat of a steak from feedlot beef. However what’s even more important is the kind of fat. The high, imbalanced levels of omega-6 fat in grain and corn-fed animals tends to promote inflammatory processes, insulin resistance and interference with omega-3 fat metabolism. The fat in grass-fed meat is rich in desirable omega-3 fats, also found in coldwater fish, flaxseeds and walnuts. A grass-fed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grain-fed steak. Sadly though, when cattle are taken off grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. Meat from pastured cattle may also be up to four times higher in vitamin E than feedlot meat, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
There are also environmental benefits to grass-fed beef – it is far less polluting, with their droppings becoming nutrients for the next pasture. Grain we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy and vast quantities of chemical fertilizer. So grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. Most of us eat far too much meat anyway!
Meatless Mondays? What a brilliant idea!
Grassfed vs Organic vs Natural
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grass-fed. You may find organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free but the animals still spent their lives in a feedlot simply eating organically grown grain.
What about the “natural” label? All that usually means is that the animal was raised in a feedlot but without growth hormones and antibiotics added to their non-organic feed. There can still be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 350 to 600kgs, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.