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The environmental consequences of beef are finally starting to become common knowledge, but instead of reducing or eliminating it from their diets many people (commonly known as hipsters) are seeking out small-scale, “sustainably raised” grass-fed beef. In comparison to the greenhouse-gas spewing factory farm beef which comes from grain-fed cows, grass-fed grazing operations have been posited as the more “eco-friendly” option for meat-eaters. Research has shown that producing two pounds of regular, grain-fed beef creates more greenhouse gas than driving 155 miles, so surely a grass-fed burger must produce less.

Unfortunately for those chowing down on an artisanal grass-fed burger on a whole-grain ciabatta bun, there is no evidence that grass-fed beef is better for the environment. This is particularly true if that burger is not labeled organic, because grass-fed or not it is likely to contain antibiotics and hormones. The sad reality is, grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef are equally terrible in their own, unique ways.

The Basics

The diversion of grass-fed and grain-fed beef occurs when the cows are “finished,” which is a term for the time before they are sent to slaughter. This can last anywhere from two months to a year. Before this time, all cows raised in U.S. start off eating grass. When they reach an age where they are sent to be “fattened” up to reach market weight, they are divided into grass-finished and grain-finished.

During this time conventional, or grain-fed, cows are kept in crowded pens and fed mainly grains—about 90 percent—along with corn, straw, alfalfa, soy, and fruit. They are also given a healthy dose of hormones and antibiotics to complete their diet and fatten them up even quicker.

Grass-fed cows, on the other hand, can only be fed what is known as “forage.” Forage refers to grass as well as a variety of vegetables and leaves. In addition, they must also be able to access a pasture to graze. This system of raising animals is more akin to the way farms used to look, but it is also highly inefficient in the eyes of the meat industry. Cows raised on factory farm feedlots are able to reach market weight in three to six months (cattle are usually around one year old when they enter feedlots). Grass-fed cattle (the more “sustainable” option) require several years of foraging to reach similar weights.

The Reality of the Situation

There are a lot of factors to consider when trying to decide whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef is better for the environment. One is the use of resources, specifically land and water. A grain-fed cow will require three acres of land, while a grass-fed cow requires nine acres. Ultimately, a grass-fed cow will use 35 percent more water and 30 percent more land than a conventional, grain-fed cow. The fact is that grain-fed cows are simply more efficient purely from a resource perspective.

Another debate centers on greenhouse gases, where once again grass-fed beef fails to win the environmental argument. In fact, each pound of grass-fed beef produces 500 percent more greenhouse gases than grain-fed. Grain-fed cows also produce one-third the methane of grass-fed, partially due to their shorter life span, though both contribute to methane and nitrous oxide emissions. There is a common argument, though, that the grazing cows help produce more grass and improve the soil, which sequesters carbon dioxide underground. The validity of this argument isn’t proven, but it likely doesn’t make up for the negative impacts.

Impacts of Beef

There is no debate that grass-fed beef is much more popular than it once was. Ten years ago there were about 50 suppliers of it, but now there are thousands. Even if people choose to ignore that it’s just as bad for the environment as grain-fed, they reality is grass-fed beef is produced too inefficiently to feed the world. That simple fact is reason enough not to eat them, but even if it’s not at least the hipsters have been put on notice that no matter where their burgers came from or how fancy a bun they’re served on, they certainly can’t up their “eco-conscious” cred. If they’re really concerned about looking “cool,” they should really opt for something like this plant-based Korean Kimchi BBQ Burger—looks pretty hip to us!

Image source: Micolo J/Flickr

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134 comments on “Here’s Why Grass-Fed Beef is Just as Bad for the Environment as Grain-Fed”

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James Tiberius
3 Months Ago

What about all the crops that must be grown to feed grain-fed cows? That\'s a lot of land, water, and other resources.

9 Months Ago

We simply don\'t have enough prime farming land to feed a planet of Vegans.

9 Months Ago

I want my beef to be carbon neutral at the very least - if not carbon negative. This means that in the production more carbon is sequestered than actually used. Many people don\'t understand this - which is why I\'m commenting. Carbon neutral simply means that as much carbon is removed from the atmosphere as is released into it. Where things get confusing is when someone like the writer equates carbon used to pollution.
Cows do breathe out CO2 - no question. They obtain the carbon from their food source which in turn (if it\'s grass) removes it from the atmosphere. Without chemical fertilizers, transporting cattle and feed, this process is carbon neutral at worst. Because of how cows graze however, they actually sequester more carbon in the topsoil, increase biodiversity, microorganisms and insect life, feeding other smaller but numerous life-cycles which could be as much as a few hundred pounds in total per cow at any given moment - that\'s also removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Yes, add the bugs, the birds, the bees, the bacteria, the poop, the grasses trampled into the topsoil, the increased growth rate of the grass,worms, bugs, the moles, the mice, the rabbits, the foxes, wolves, eagles... the list goes on.
Compare that with a mono culture with pesticides, herbicides, soil erosion, etc and the carbon balance shifts quite dramatically the other way. I suspect that if one were to farm with topsoil quality as the primary objective instead of quick profits, agriculture would be almost carbon neutral and with very few external inputs, could feed the planet - if we stopped wasting as much food as our forefathers did. Eat seasonal, local and responsible.

john pasqua
1 Years Ago

plant based food for the future.

HeyBuddy UpYours
1 Years Ago

I forgot to mention: look up the Confirmation Bias.

HeyBuddy UpYours
1 Years Ago

Oh I finally realized why you spewed as much misinformation within a single article as conventional feedlots pump out pollution: The author is a vegan and animal activist, therefore she will only accept evidence that suits her personal belief system while rejecting all contradictory evidence. Your bias is atrocious.

Go take a critical thinking class at a community college, it would help you separate fact from fiction.

HeyBuddy UpYours
1 Years Ago

I appreciate your interest in educating people on health-conscious choices, and in reducing pollution. Both are vitally important in maintaining health in our society. I have, however, found discrepancies In your article you may not be aware of yet.

You accuse grass-fed beef as being inefficient, and it is in the eyes of those commercial farmlots pumping out conventional beef. We all know how inefficient those farmlots are, and how they pollute our waterways, breed disease and significantly contribute to pollution.

You assume there isn\'t any evidence for grass-fed beef reducing the carbon footprint and neglect to cite any legitimate sources throughout your article, choosing to cite blogs that are just as poorly researched as yours.

I will cite one article that dismisses many of your claims, and cites its sources. The article can be found at:

You have accused health-conscious and environmentally intelligent people that they are simply being "hipsters" trying to "look cool" by eating grass-fed beef. Don\'t you think people are more concerned about their health than "looking cool?"

Please do your research prior to spewing misinformation, because it looks like you are trying to look cool with your shock-&-awe campaign and your money-making website.

Christine Stewart
1 Years Ago

I am vegetarian and mostly vegan- I dislike grass fed almost as much as factory farmed beef because of all the wildlife that are slaughtered! Wolves/ coyotes are of course killed because they MAY prey on cattle; bison, wild horses/burros, and even prairie dogs are killed because they compete with cattle for forage.

J Stover
1 Years Ago

When I read about the dangers to the environment in grassfed beef I\'m glad that we killed all those millions of bison with all there pollution .just think how bad climate change would have been if we had left such a large herd alive.?

1 Years Ago

I wish I could follow your links into sources (about water) at Penn State, but they require a password.


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