Why Go Organic, Grass-Fed and Pasture-Raised?
A considerable number of studies show that grass-fed beef has less fat and more nutrients than far more common and less expensive grain-fed beef (Duckett 1993, 2009; Rule 2002; UCS 2006). A 2009 study comparing both types found that grass-fed beef had lower total saturated and mono-unsaturated fat, more heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a lower (and healthier) ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, and higher levels of vitamin E, beta-carotene and B-vitamins (Duckett 2009). Choosing certified organic and/or grass-fed products reduces your exposure to traces of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and artificial hormones that are given to conventionally raised animals. Going organic also reduces exposure to toxins from pesticides that might accumulate in animal fat.
Lower Risk of Disease
- President’s Cancer Panel, Annual Report 2008-09.
Food from free-range, pasture-raised animals may also reduce the risk of bacterial contamination. A 2007 study found that the prevalence of fecal salmonella in open-pasture chicken farms was about half that of conventional farms (16 percent versus 30 percent) (Siemon 2007). Other studies have found that grass-fed cattle carry less E. coli overall than grain-fed, confined animals (Russell 2000, Bailey 2003). Organically raised meat may also be safer. A recent USDA-funded study found that salmonella prevalence in fecal samples from organic poultry farms was significantly lower than in samples from conventional farms (6 percent versus 39 percent). Similarly, only 5 percent of organic feed samples were contaminated with salmonella, versus 28 percent of conventional feed samples (Alal 2010).
Well-managed grazing and grass-fed operations are better for the environment. They use fewer energy-intensive inputs and, by regularly moving animals to fresh pasture and keeping them away from streambeds, they spread the manure more evenly and improve the quality and quantity of forage growth. This helps to conserve soil, reduce erosion and water pollution, increase carbon sequestration and preserve biodiversity and wildlife (Johnson 2002, FAO 2009, Pelletier 2010). Organic feed production and grazing practices are also better for the environment. They reduce fertilizer and pesticide runoff into waterways, and the use of compost, cover-cropping and rotational grazing helps build healthy, productive and water-conserving soils. Organic methods also enhance pest and weed resistance without the use of chemicals and ultimately foster greater resiliency in the face of extreme weather and climate change.
There are few definitive studies of the net amount of greenhouse gas emissions from grass-fed versus confined-feedlot, grain-fed meat. Since pasture-raised cattle gain weight more slowly than grain-fed animals (an average of 25 percent slower in one recent study (Gurian-Sherman 2011), those animals take longer to reach slaughter weight and consequently emit more methane and nitrous oxide. Confined cattle gain weight much more quickly on their high-starch corn feed.
These higher emissions may be offset, however, by the carbon sequestration benefits that well-managed pasture systems can provide (Pelletier 2010). Rotational grazing and the application of organic soil treatments can have a significant impact on building up soil carbon in pastureland (Follet 2001, Conant 2001). Far fewer energy-intensive inputs are used in grass-fed beef production.
The climate impact of grass-fed animals depends on factors that vary greatly from one production system to another. They include: average weight gain and quality of forage (the slower the animals gain weight, the more methane they emit); the rate of soil carbon sequestration; and crowding (greater density of animals means more concentrated manure deposits and higher methane and nitrous oxide emissions).
Much more research is needed to determine the comparative climate impact of pasture-based versus confined feedlot systems.