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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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john pasqua
2 Months Ago

plant based food for the future.

HeyBuddy UpYours
3 Months Ago

I forgot to mention: look up the Confirmation Bias.

HeyBuddy UpYours
3 Months 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
3 Months 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
7 Months 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
7 Months 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.?

8 Months Ago

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

9 Months Ago

What is best for the environment is what utilizes resources that are plentiful or even a waste resource in your area. I\'m surrounded by green grass prairie land in southwestern washington. We don\'t have to irrigate because we get so much rain and we can\'t plow easily because this soil is incredibly rocky. In other words, the only thing to do with this land is graze livestock. The other option would be to not do anything with the grass. That\'s fine, if you don\'t want food. But if you wanted to put the land around me to best use it actually would be lightly grazing animals of some kind - cattle, sheep, etc. I think in my case eating a cow from my neighbor\'s pasture would actually be a lot better for the environment than buying a bag of quinoa or even wheat flour at the store.

Daniel Trueman
10 Months Ago

also taking into account the need to grow the grain and soy which takes an unholy amount of chemicals which poison ground water, takes huge lots of land which have been cleared destroying all bio diversity they can't even use the cow shit as fertiliser because it has too many antibiotics and hormones in it. so raising cows on grain will eventually lead to desertification which is a side effect of first; deforestation, terrible water management, ground water poisening, loss of nutrition through flooding and eventually you have another dust bole or middle East.

13 Mar 2017

When we take into account todays farming practices. The growing of food for animals, chemcals, fossil fuels,etc. many
Many grain farmer burn the stuble after the grain has been harvested puting the carbon the air. To say that there is no difference between grass or grain fed livestock, as far as harming the enviorment is concerned is rubish. The production, transportation,proccessing, and local feeding of livestock put much more carbon into the air then the grazing of animals.

Carl Schneider
11 Months Ago

who ever wrote this flimsy waste of time piece should do something else. It only states grass fed beef use 30% more water and 30% more land and might not help grow new grass,what a non argument.


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