Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Cut CO2, Only Less Beef Will

I’ve got some bad news. If you thought avoiding the factory farms gave you a pass on your meat consumption, a new study suggests otherwise.

According to the 127-page report from the Food Climate Research Network, delightfully titled “Grazed and Confused”, grass-fed cattle produce essentially the same effect on the atmosphere as the factory-farmed variety, despite popular belief that more expensively-raised animals in ecosystems designed to mimic their natural habitats might cut total greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from methane.

To be clear, there are plenty of reasons grass-fed free-ranging beef might be an improvement over the other kind.

From a health perspective, the marbling of fat that American meat grading systems have come to expect and convinced us is desirable is actually an artifact of the force-fed, corn-stuffed, hormone-laden beef-production process. Grass-fed beef, along with raised bison/buffalo (also typically free-ranging), and wild meat options like deer, all provide a leaner alternative. While there’s still some uncertainty as to what effect artificial growth hormones in cattle have on the people eating them, if any, that’s one more worry you can tick off your list.

From a public health perspective, free-ranging meat has the advantage of not requiring huge amounts of antibiotics to stave off infection in crowded factory farms, which means we are no longer creating an evolutionary pressure for bacteria to become antibiotic-resistant superbugs and kill thousands or millions of people when one of them finally jumps the species barrier.

From an environmental perspective, a switch-over to free-ranging cattle could mean less overproduction of corn, which exhausts the land and is only made possible through synthetic fertilizers that are made from fossil fuels. It would also cut run-off of which causes algal blooms with cascading environmental effects on waterways, lakes, and oceans.

I talk about a number of these issues in a previous article on food sourcing, sharing the perspectives of food writers like Michael Pollan and ecological farmers like Joel Salatin. And all of these are great reasons to choose grass-fed beef over the factory-farmed variety. One final, obvious point, is that it is a much kinder life for the animals we kill for food, albeit less kind than simply choosing not to eat meat anymore.

But the one thing you can’t say, according to this new study, is that you can eat the amount of meat that North Americans tend to eat and hope to erase your dinner’s carbon footprint simply by switching to grass-fed. Raising and eating beef still contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to a similar degree as the corn-fed stuff. So the only way to cut your effect on the atmosphere and the climate through your eating is to eat LESS meat (including, and especially, beef). This would also be good for most people, since North Americans tend to consume too much meat (and high-fructose corn syrup, though that’s another story).

Having said all that, this comparison assumes the amount of meat consumed does not vary between regular meat eaters and those opting for grass-fed meat. I’ve argued before that eating more expensive, ethically-grown and organically-produced meat might indirectly lower the environmental impact because people can afford to buy it less often. So if you’re already consuming less meat because you pay for this stuff, well, then carry on. I withdraw my objection.

Photo credit: a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattle#/media/File:Cow_female_black_white.jpg">Keither Weller/USDA

94 comments

Melania P
Melania Padilla10 days ago

Of course, they will release CO2, always! Eat less beef/stop eating beef! It is also not good for your health.

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Marie W
Marie W19 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Daniela M
Daniela M2 months ago

I would argue that only less people will...

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natasha p
Past Member 2 months ago

go vegan!

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Chrissie R
Chrissie R3 months ago

Thanks for posting.

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DAVID fleming
DAVID f3 months ago

Thank you

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 months ago

God made the animals and put them here. They are here for us to eat and enjoy.

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Anna R
Anna R4 months ago

Thank you

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Maria R
Maria P4 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jeramie D
Jeramie D5 months ago

Stop eating animals, or eat less. You will be healthier and so will the planet and few animals will suffer.

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