As more information is uncovered about the harmful health effects of eating meat and the damaging impact of intensive farming to our health, the environment and animal welfare, many people are seeking alternatives that are healthier and sustainable. Claims have been made for the advantages of eating grass-fed meat over the meat products coming from feedlots and factory farms. But is this true?
GRASS-FED MEAT IN CANADA
Let’s start out with what grass-fed really means within the meat industry.
For many decades the term “grass-fed” has not been regulated. Labels claiming “grass-fed” were indeed being used but, with no guidelines behind them, their claims were unclear.
In 2013 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved the first certification label in Canada for “grass-fed meat”. This label identified the meat as “Certified Grassfed – AWA”, later changed to “Certified Grassfed-AGW”. The certification is administered by A Greener World (AGW), an organization who oversees such certification in the US. The placement of this label on a meat product guarantees that it comes from an animal raised entirely outdoors on pasture and fed a 100% grass and forage diet. Producers authorized to use the label are inspected yearly to ensure compliance. However such certification is not required in Canada (1).
Regrettably only a handful of Canadian producers have actually become “Certified Grassfed” under the AGW. Consequently, labels declaring simply “grass-fed” continue to appear on meat products with no defined regulations backing them up. The grass-fed labelled meat can come from animals raised under a wide range of treatments, from cattle with access to grass for only short periods of their lives with the balance spent eating grain in a feedlot, to cattle who were completely grass-fed throughout their lives.
Thus discerning consumers desiring grass-fed meat are required to do their homework before purchasing by contacting farm owners or visiting farms that supply such meat to find out exactly what grass-fed means to each business. Questions must be asked, for example, “Where do your animals graze?” and “How are your animals fed at each stage of their life?” (2). Only in this way can it be ensured that the meat is truly grass-fed.
IS GRASS-FED MEAT HEALTHIER?
Once it is ascertained that a meat supplier is actually supplying meat raised completely on grass, the next question is whether grass-fed meat is really healthier than grain-fed meat.
Canada Beef is an organization that promotes Canadian beef and strives to present current and authentic information about beef farming practices and the nutrition of beef produced in Canada. In a 2016 information sheet written and distributed by CanadaBeef.ca, the topic of the differences between grass-fed beef and grain-finished beef is discussed (3). They cite a recent study which had the following results (4).
Grass-fed beef is slightly leaner than grain-finished beef by about 2 to 4 grams per 100 grams of trimmed meat.
No differences were found in cholesterol levels between the two.
Both the grass-fed and the grain-finished beef contribute modest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to the consumer, mostly in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid that can be converted in the body to the more active, long-chain omega-3 forms, EPA and DHA.
Although there were slight differences in Vitamin B, calcium and potassium levels, they were not significant.
Dieticians consulted by Canada Beef agreed that, in practical terms, these variations are nutritionally small and not meaningful, especially when considered in the context of total fat consumed in a typical daily diet (4).
Another study, performed at Texas A and M University in 2014, compared the fat content of grass-fed beef with that of feedlot beef. Here are the results (5);
Ground beef from grass-fed cattle contains about three times as much omega-3 fatty acids as does ground beef from grain-fed cattle.
The main omega-3 fatty acid in beef is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (5).
A four-ounce ground meat patty containing 15% total fat and 85% lean meat provides …
55 mg of ALA if it comes from a grass-fed bovine
20 mg of ALA if it comes from a feedlot bovine
The meat from grass-fed cattle is higher in saturated and trans-fat than that of grain-fed cattle.
A four-ounce ground meat patty containing 15% total fat and 85% lean meat provides …
9.8 gm of total saturated and trans-fats if it comes from a grass-fed bovine
8.2 gm of total saturated and trans-fats if it comes from a feedlot bovine
Putting this into perspective;
A daily serving (2 tablespoonsful) of chia seeds provides;
4915 mg ALA, 0.9 gm of saturated fat and 0 trans-fat (6).
So you can see that even though the grass-fed meat contains almost three times as much healthy omega-3 fatty acids as the feedlot meat, both of their contributions to the diet are almost negligible. Moreover the grass-fed meat contains more of the unhealthy saturated and trans-fats than does the feedlot meat.
The conclusion of the researchers was the following, “At this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle.” (5).
IS GRASS-FED MEAT BETTER FOR THE PLANET?
Carbon capture and production of methane gas
In 2017 the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) released a report. FCRN, based at the University of Oxford in the UK, provides impartial knowledge for sustainable food systems. Their 2017 report examined the impact of grazing livestock on greenhouse gas production and whether or not grazing livestock on grasslands can promote the storage of carbon in the soil. Though they found that “well managed grazing in some contexts can cause carbon to be sequestered in the soil”, this can only occur in extremely well-managed pasturing situations. Continuous grazing and trampling of the land severely limits any long-term storage of carbon in the soil. Additionally, this factor is outweighed by the need to limit the amount of atmosphere-damaging methane gas produced by beef animals. Feeding energy-dense foods such as grain or soy-based diets brings the cattle to their “finished” slaughter weight much sooner and significantly decreases the amount of methane that they produce. The FCRN report concluded that there is no evidence that grazing cattle will solve global warming and the climate change problem (7).
Methane gas is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Alarmingly, methane has a global warming potential that is 28 to 36 times that of carbon dioxide (8). It has been recognized from the early 1990s that cattle eating low-quality, high-fiber diets derived from forage produce about four times more methane than cattle eating diets high in grain (9). On top of this, a study from 2017 revealed that global methane production by livestock is actually 11% to 15% higher than previous already worrisome estimates. Researchers suggested the adoption of prompt reductions in meat and dairy production to help to slow the disturbing rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of the earth (10).
When looking at increasing the availability of grass-fed meat from cattle, the land requirements to do so must be considered. In 2018 a model was created to examine the effects of a nationwide transition in the US from grain- to grass-feeding for meat cattle (11). This model determined that, in order to produce the same quantity of beef as presently being consumed, a fully grass-fed US beef cattle population would have to increase by 30%, from 77 to 100 million cattle. This increase is due to two reasons;
Cattle on pasture fatten more slowly than cattle fed grain in feedlots
Cattle fed on grass reach smaller maximum weights and so they provide less meat per animal
Currently 41% of land in the US excluding Alaska and Hawaii is used as pasture and cropland to produce livestock feed (20).
Current US pastureland can support only 27 million cattle.
If supplemental forage such as alfalfa or hay is used to sustain the cattle during cold or dry weather, an additional 34 million cattle could be supported, bringing total beef supply up to 61% of the current amount.
67% of the total US landmass would be required to feed these 61 million cattle.
Supplemental animal feed crops would compete for land with human food crops and could lead to food shortages.
If no supplemental forage crops are used, 152% of the total US landmass would be required to feed the cattle being raised for meat, a physical impossibility.
Remember that these land-use requirements still only provide about two-thirds of the meat demand.
Other predicted consequences of such a change in method for beef production include (11,12);
Increasing methane emissions from beef by about 43% due to slower growth rates of the cattle
Raising the US total methane emissions by about 8%
Increasing soil erosion, land degradation and loss of plant species due to trampling from grazing cattle
Increasing pollution of water with manure from grazing cattle resulting in reductions in water quality and habitat loss for native animal and plant species
Shortage of land for growing human food crops
Clearly land requirements for a large increase in grass-fed beef make this step untenable.
Efficiency of land use
Human carrying capacity is the number of human beings that can be supported under specified environmental conditions (13). In 2016 a study looked at the human carrying capacity of ten diet scenarios. These included two reference diets based on contemporary North American diets (standard Western-type diets) and eight “healthy” diets that complied with nutritional recommendations but varied in their levels of meat content. The study considered land base in the US and took into account land productivity, suitability of land for crops or grazing and livestock feed needs. Results show that a vegan diet requires the least amount of land at 0.13 hectares per person per year. Compare that with the requirements of the standard Western diet of eight times more land, about 1.08 hectares per person per year. Omnivorous diets varied from 0.93 to 0.25 hectares per person per year with the amount of land required decreasing as intake of meat decreased. The three diets that excluded meat (ovo-lacto vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian and vegan) were between 7.5 and 8.3 times more efficient in land use and between 1.8 and 2 times more effective in the number of persons that they could feed than the contemporary US diets. The study conclusions found the three meatless diets to be at least 77% more efficient than the best-performing diet containing meat. (14)
From this discussion it seems clear that….
Eating grass-fed beef is not a healthier choice for humans compared to eating grain-fed beef
Producing grass-fed beef is not a better environmental choice for our planet compared to producing grain-fed beef
Diets that do not contain any meat at all result in much more efficient use of land for food
In addition there are still more factors to consider when making the choice between grass-fed or feedlot meat such as ….
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), red meats such as beef, lamb and pork are classified as Group 2A carcinogens, meaning that their ingestion probably causes cancer (15).
All meat is high in cholesterol, saturated fat and animal protein. These constituents are associated with increased risks of devastating chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers (16,17,18).
Meat is low in healthful nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients (19).
Meat provides no nutrients that cannot be obtained through healthier plant-based foods.
Perhaps the most pertinent question at this point is not whether to eat grass-fed meat or grain-fed meat but whether or not to eat meat at all.
4 Van Elswyk, M.E., McNeill, S.H. Impact of Grass/Forage Feeding versus Grain Finishing on Beef Nutrients and Sensory Quality: The U.S. Experience. Meat Sci 2014; 96(1):535-540
5 Smith, S.B. Texas A & M University. Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Ground Beef – No difference in Healthfulness. Beef Magazine. March 24, 2014.
9 Harper, L.A., Denmead, O.T., Freney, J.R., Byers, F.M. Direct measurements of methane emissions from grazing and feedlot cattle. Journal of Animal Science. June 1999; 77(6): 1392–1401.
10 Wolf, J., Asrar, G.R., West, T.O. Revised methane emissions factors and spatially distributed annual carbon fluxes for global livestock. Carbon Balance and Management. September, 2017; 12:16.
11 Hayek, M.N., Garrett, R.D. Nationwide shift to grass-fed beef requires larger cattle population. Environmental Research Letters. July 5, 2018. Volume 13, Number 8.
14 Peters, C.J., Picardy, J., Darrouzet-Nardi, A.F., Wilkins, J.L., Griffin, T.S., Fick, G.W. Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios. Elem Sci Anth. 2016; 4: 000116.
16 Esselstyn, C.B., Gendy, G., Doyle, J., Golubic, M., Roizen, M.F. A Way to Reverse CAD? J Fam Pract. 2014 Jul; 63(7):356-364b.
17 Qi, J., You, T., Li, J., Pan, T., Xiang, L., Han, Y., Zhu, L. Circulating trimethylamine N-oxide and the risk of cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 11 prospective cohort studies. J Cell Mol Med. 2018 Jan; 22(1):185-194.
18 Sieri, S., Chiodini, P., Agnoli, C., et al. Dietary Fat Intake and Development of Specific Breast Cancer Subtypes. J Natl Cancer Inst 2014 Apr 9;106(5). pii: dju068.
19 Boeing, H., Bechthold, A., Bub, A., Ellinger, S., Haller, D., et al. Critical review: vegetables and fruit in the prevention of chronic diseases. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51: 637-663.