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Grass-fed Animal Products
Good for Animals, People, and the Planet
by Don Matesz
Conscious Choice, November 2001
If you think the title of this article presents a contradiction in terms, please read on with an open mind. Contrary to popular beliefs, not all animal products are harmful to health, and not all animal husbandry is inhumane or un-ecological. The usual arguments against meat, eggs, and milk apply only to products that come from grain-fed animals or that are heavily processed (whether organic or not). Unprocessed products from 100 percent pasture-fed animals can be extremely healthful and humane.

Nature's Way

Up until about seventy-five years ago, almost all food animals were raised entirely on pasture, rather than grains. This method, still practiced by primitive herders such as the African Masai, follows Nature's way. Outside of agriculture, no animal chooses to eat a diet composed primarily of dry grains.

It's a novel idea to most people, but the nutritional composition and health effects of any animal product depends entirely on the animals' diet. None of the animals we raise for meat, eggs, or milk is naturally suited to a diet of corn and soybeans, not to mention the remains of other animals. Cattle are natural ruminants, designed to dine almost exclusively on fresh grass and other leaves; chickens are natural omnivores that thrive on fresh bugs, grubs, seeds, and worms.

Yet almost all animal products available in large markets come from animals fed diets composed largely or entirely of corn, soy, and other dry grains. Some commonly available products brag that the animals were fed unnatural diets -- note the advertisements for corn fed beef or eggs from chickens fed vegetarian diets.

Animals fed inappropriately on dry grain diets suffer from numerous gastrointestinal and other diseases. By definition, then, grain feeding means suffering for the animal. It also can mean suffering for the humans who ingest their meat, eggs, or milk. Grain feeding alters the animals' intestinal flora, increasing opportunities for the growth of pathogens such as E. coli (in cattle) and Salmonella (in poultry). The intestines of cattle fed only grass or hay are free of virulent E. coli, and chickens raised entirely on pasture are free of Salmonella. Mad cow disease is unknown among cattle fed entirely on pasture and hay.

Feedlot animals are typically processed (butchered) in assembly-line-style slaughterhouses by unskilled laborers who endure dangerous working conditions for minimum wages. After being shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, feedlot animals arrive at these facilities covered in manure from other animals. The stomach and intestinal contents from any contaminated animals on the kill line can taint processing equipment, which can spread E. coli throughout the plant. Finally, ground meat (the source of nearly all E. coli outbreaks) from dozens or hundreds of animals is co-mingled, which has the effect of disseminating the bacteria from one animal throughout a large volume of meat.

Meat raised and sold as "grass-fed," on the other hand, comes from animals that are less likely to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. Instead of being herded, terrified, into kill zones, grass-fed cows are butchered on an individual basis by small processors that sterilize their equipment between each animal. When that grass-fed meat is purchased directly from the farmer, by the quarter, side (half), or whole steer, ground meat is not co-mingled; the ground meat from a side of grass-fed beef (that a customer orders) stays with that side of beef.

Although it may sound daunting to buy meat this way, bear in mind that grass-fed animals are often smaller and weigh less than grain-fattened animals; furthermore, they are available on a seasonal basis, like the grass upon which they feed. Supporting grass-fed animal husbandry is very much like supporting CSAs (community supported agriculture); you buy your meat in lots or batches and learn to use the cuts that are available, rather than buying cuts piecemeal.

Meats and milks from grass-fed animals also are nutritionally superior to grain-fed animal products. They contain far less total fat, less saturated fat, less omega-6 fat, and far more vitamins, minerals, and beneficial fats, including omega-3 fats (essential for cardiovascular and nervous system health) and conjugated linoleic acid (which stimulates fat metabolism, supports lean tissue health, and inhibits cancer cell development). Pasture-raised chickens, for example, produce meat and eggs high in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and omega-3 fatty acids but low in undesirable omega-6 fatty acids, whereas chickens fed organic corn and soy meal are comparatively much lower in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and omega-3 fatty acids, but much higher in omega-6 fatty acids.

According to leading experts in human nutrition, the major degenerative diseases in industrialized nations all bear some relationship to overconsumption of foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids and lacking omega-3 fatty acids -- grains, beans, nuts, seeds, oils from these foods, and grain-fed animal products. Though many people with the means and interest live extremely well on vegetarian or vegan diets, experts believe that humans are primarily adapted to a hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural, or paleolithic diet. Extensive research has shown that red meat from free-ranging animals has been a central part of human diets for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the invention of agriculture, and remains so among isolated primitive hunter-gatherers. Wild game makes up 50 percent of the calories in a hunter-gatherer diet, regardless of geographical location.

Leading experts on paleolithic diets, such as S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., author of The Paleolithic Prescription (Harper & Row, 1988), and Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet (J.Wiley & Sons, January 2002) now believe that wild and grass-fed meat contain important nutrients that are not found in plant foods and are necessary for optimum human development and protection against degenerative diseases. Indeed, medical studies have confirmed that these people do not have any of the degenerative diseases (obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, etc.) common among agricultural or civilized people and often blamed on consumption of red meat. Yet Americans, who obtain only about 30 percent of their calories from all animal sources, suffer from unprecedented incidences of these diseases.

Organic Is Not Good Enough

There is a vast difference between "organic" animal products, and grass-fed animal products. The label "organic" on an animal product means that the animals were raised without use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or herbicides. Yet organically raised animals still may be fed dry grain diets, resulting in increased risk of transmissible gastrointestinal disease, unnatural fatty acid composition, and lower total nutrient value.

Organic grain-fed animal products just are not as nutritionally valuable as 100 percent grass-fed animal products. Further, since grain-feeding animals is not as ecological as grass-feeding them (see below), grass-fed products are environmentally preferable to organic grain fed products -- even if they are not certified organic.

The Ecological Question

Some people suggest that animal products themselves are ecologically unsound. They argue that, for humans, a grain-based diet is more friendly to the earth; that raising food animals is a misuse of land; that enormous herds assist the process of global warming, groundwater loss and pollution, loss of species diversity, and depletion of fossil fuels.

This is certainly true when animals are fed a diet of grain. Grass feeding, however, does not impose row-cropping on the earth. Pasture land is naturally occurring, often in areas that are not suitable for food production. Only about one-third of the usable land on Earth (that is, about one-ninth of the total land mass) is suitable for growing crops. This amount is predicted to shrink, largely due to the fact that row-cropping almost invariably causes serious soil erosion. The remaining two-thirds of usable land supports growth only of plants that are not edible for humans, though they are edible for ruminants such as bison, cattle, deer, elk, zebra, eland, sheep, and goats.

Grazing ruminants do release methane into the atmosphere, and methane is one of the two major elements that contribute to global warming. Yet the grassy pastures on which they roam are 50 percent more effective than cultivated soils at removing carbon -- the other element of global warming -- from the atmosphere. The USDA Conservation Reserve Program has shown that when cultivated soils are returned to pasture, they gain an average of one-half ton of carbon per acre per year for the first five years after grassland restoration. As we combat global warming, it might actually be beneficial to return lands currently used for row-cropping to pasture!

Compared to cultivated lands, properly managed pasture lands make practically no contribution to soil erosion, ground water loss, or water pollution. They produce dense root structures that prevent erosion, enable the soil to retain water, refill subterranean aquifers, and protect surface waterways. In fact, incorporating grazing land into a farm is one of the most effective ways for a farmer to reduce erosion and water pollution (as well as diversify sources of income for more economic security).

Properly managed grazing also results in naturally dispersed distribution and incorporation of fertilizer, in contrast to confinement animal operations, which result in concentration of wastes that can pollute our water. Fortunately, wastes from confinement operations can be successfully incorporated into pasture lands to ameliorate the pollution problem.

Some have claimed that grazing ruminants damage range lands. And it's true that introduced species have sometimes played havoc with local ecologies. However, several studies have shown that grazing by native ruminant animal herds is essential for healthy grassland ecology. One study showed that properly managing cattle grazing so that it mimics natural patterns of native ungulates (deer, elk, bison, etc.) increases the number and vigor of native plants, improves the vegetative cover of stream banks, hastens manure decomposition, extends the growing season of grassland, and increases the percentage of perennial grasses while reducing weed species.

According to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, excluding grazing animals from pasture lands actually results in loss of native plant species diversity, increased weed growth, and reduction of carbon storage in the soil and degradation of the pasture-land. Pasture plants, ruminant animals, and predators are interdependent by nature's design, each helping the other to thrive.

Energy Efficiency

Raising animals entirely on pasture is probably the most energy efficient of all food production methods. In general, grazing produces two calories of energy profit (food, fertilizer, and fiber) for every one calorie of fossil fuel invested. In contrast, to raise row crops, we commonly invest five to ten calories of fossil fuel input (recall the large machinery used for tilling, planting, and harvesting) for each calorie of food harvested. In other words, it is ten to twenty times more energy efficient to raise food animals entirely on grass than to raise row crops for human consumption.

Support Local Family Farms

Best of all, perhaps, pasture-based animal husbandry is best suited for small family farms as opposed to large-scale, transcontinental agribusiness. Because fresh meat, eggs, and milk from pasture raised animals are perishable, they are best obtained locally, from someone you can visit yourself. And small, organic, family farms become more ecological and economically viable if their production is diversified to include animals. In fact, animals are essential to a truly sustainable farm design. Sheep and goats browse on noxious weeds and brush, eliminating the need for chemical herbicides. An organic farmer I know says that the most effective way to control slugs in a garden is to raise chickens there.

Pasture-based food, then, is not merely defensible, but positive for the planet. It is not simply acceptable, but positively healthful for human beings. It is a way to eat well, support local farming, and live in closer harmony with nature. Give up some of your assumptions, and give it a try!

Don Matesz, M.A., dipl. Nutrition, C.R.T., resides in Toledo, Ohio, with his wife Rachel. They are currently working on a book, tentatively titled The Paleo Diet Cookbook, which they hope to see released in late 2002. Don may be reached at 419-476-2967.

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