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The Insane War on Grass-Fed Beef

It’s literally mind boggling.  The Veggie/PETA crowd and the conventional mythical wisdom nutritional/medical crowd have joined forces!  As usual most media/Internet outlets embrace their stories (without investigating the allegations) and are enthusiastically spreading their over 100-year-old myths far and wide.  The consequences of their combined misguided efforts will be an acceleration of chronic disease, misery, and suffering for billions of people worldwide along with accelerating the pace of global warming and desertification of the planet.

Is this or is this not total insanity?

The myths they push address two aspects of grass-fed meats.  One states unequivocally that eating red meat causes a whole host of chronic diseases and is cruel to animals.  The other is that raising domestic livestock causes global warming, saps the earth’s diminishing resources, destroys the land, and negatively impacts wildlife.

The recently reignited war against red meat is so relentless and ubiquitous today that nearly everyone hesitates at least a little every time they think of eating meat.  There is no question that these very old bogus concepts are currently influencing the dietary decisions of a couple hundred million consumers here in the USA and maybe a billion or more abroad.

Am I exaggerating the magnitude of this travesty?  I think not.

Myth #1:  Don’t Eat Red Meat Because it Makes You Sick

I can’t fathom why so many people fall for the line that eating grass-fed red meat causes chronic disease.  But it’s all over the place in the mainstream media/Internet which lumps grain-fed with grass-fed for human nutrition and is more critical about grass-fed for being more environmentally abusive.  These few examples are only the tip of the iceberg.

From http://www.webmd.com is this little “Truth About Red Meat” nugget: ... many studies have found similar links.  Another one that followed more than 72,000 women for 18 years found that those who ate a Western-style diet high in red and processed meats, desserts, refined grains, and French fries had an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from other causes.

Listed under a picture of a meat patty sandwiched in-between two big fat fluffy buns http://www.medicaldaily.com provided seven health reasons why you should avoid beef.  They stated that red meat causes Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, mad cow disease, is loaded with hormone and antibiotic residues, and last but not least they say cows are nice so we shouldn’t eat them.  Although, they recommend chicken and turkey as long as they are not fried in oils.  Aren’t chickens and turkeys nice too?

If you view more sites you’ll find many additional reasons for avoiding red meat.  Dr. Oz has one page recommending only four ounces of beef per week!   But who would listen seriously to him anyway?  He recommends anything that pays him and has never let scientific fact or his blatantly contradictory information get in the way of a good show.  The answer to who believes him is that it’s the gullible American public, that’s who.

Myth #2:  Eating Grass-Fed Beef is Bad for the Environment

The other nonsense is that the world’s cattle herd is producing too much methane gas (greenhouse gas), requires too much land, consumes too many resources, drinks too much water, damages the land, pollutes the water ways, destroys the prairies and rangelands, drives out wildlife, uses land that could grow crops, causes deforestation, and therefore is destroying the planet.

From Beef Magazine is this declarationAccording to Jude Capper, if the entire U.S. beef industry was converted to grass-finished beef, we would need an additional 131 million acres of land, and 468 billion gals. of water to produce 26.1 billion lbs. of beef, which would generate an additional 135 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.  Think of the extra resources that such a production scheme would entail to feed the estimated 9 billion people projected as the world population for the year 2050.

Over at http://takeextinctionoffyourplate.com they say Animal agriculture has devastating impacts on wildlife and the environment.  Meat production is one of humanity’s most destructive and least efficient systems, accounting for astounding levels of wildlife losses, land and water pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

While “grass-fed” beef is arguably more humane for the livestock animals and doesn’t produce the concentrated manure and runoff found at factory farms, it isn’t as sustainable for wildlife or the planet as many people believe, especially in the context of a human population of billions that needs to be fed.  By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, livestock grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike — causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

I think you get the point.  But I remind you, those examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the endless tirades!  And to think, the anti-red-meat myths are more than 100-years old and are as mythical as was the 2000-year-old medical practice of bloodletting that was recommended as recently as 1923 in a reprint of Sir William Osler’s book:  The Principles and Practice of Medicine.

Truth Tells a Different Story

Below are many facts that provide perspective between the commonly accepted myths and fundamental truths.  Accompanying them is a video that is riveting, inspiring, and on target.  Keep in mind that as a professional in agriculture with many decades of living daily in the “wilds” from boy scouting to ranching, I do not have a citified viewpoint.  In fact, over the years there were scores of times I walked on the ranch and imagined what it would have been like to be an Indian and live off the land.  It was always with wonderment because unless the neighboring land was farmed with crops, the only food I could see for miles around, 365 days a year, was an animal.  Sure there were always green plants, but most of them I couldn’t eat.  Seasonally, which meant for only a few weeks a year, there were edible fruit and nuts.

As a rancher my main job is to grow grass and lots of it.  Grass is the least expensive and most nutritious feed for cattle.  The science and art of growing pasture grasses are critical in the economics and sustainability of every cattle operation.  Knowing about plants, the soil, and how cattle interact with nature is fundamental to the cattle business.

Grass-Fed Red Meat is a Nutrient Dense, Health Food

Eating grass-fed meat is very advantageous for health.

A) Grass-fed meats are nutrient dense and nutrient diverse;
B) Grass-fed meats have EFAs ratios between 0.8:1 to 2:1;
C) Grass-fed meats have zero glycemic indexes and loads;
D) Grass-fed meats are easily digested;
E) Grass-fed meats have the same spectrum of nutrients the body requires.

See the Nutritional Composition of Grass-Fed Red Meat.  The nutrients listed in the table are only a partial list.  The complete list contains thousands of elements and compounds.

No other food offers all of the advantages of eating the meat of a grass-fed animal.  Yet for those of you who are still skeptical, consider all the relevant factors. 

The composition of the human body is basically the same as all other mammals.  Man is a red meat animal himself with muscles, bones, nerves, tendons, joints, heart, brain, eyes, spleen, and liver similar to other mammals.  All animals require basically the same balance of nutrients for optimal brain and body function.  In all cases of the animal kingdom, the green leafy plant is the foundation food for life itself.  The body of an animal that eats a varied diet of green leafy plants (or other animals that have the green leaf at the bottom of their food chain) will have all of the nutrients required by man in almost perfect balance

Man’s stomach is an acid bath which is better suited for digesting meat than grain, vegetables, fruit, and nuts.  Stomach acid breaks down the meat into its various nutrients, and many nutrients are absorbed in the stomach and the remainder are absorbed in the small intestine.  However, it takes bacteria to break down fiber from plants.  Therefore plant material is broken down by bacteria by literally rotting in the colon similar to how a cow’s rumen functions.

Blood clots, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (all chronic diseases) are primarily the body’s reaction to a poor diet.  These chronic diseases are always associated with highly skewed EFAs (high levels of Omega-6 versus Omega-3) and high glycemic foods (sugar).  Cancer and fungi infestations require sugar to live and grow.  High Omega-6 levels accelerate cancer growth.  High levels of Omega-6 versus Omega-3 are inflammatory and cause autoimmune disorders.  Sugar causes fungi to spew out mycotoxins that damage body function.  (See Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Health and Disease and in Growth and Development and Fungus.)

Grass-fed red meats of all kinds have properly balanced EFAs and zero glycemic levels.  They build heart health, strong immune systems, and all around mental and physical health.  Of course, when foods such as grass-fed beef with properly balanced EFAs are mixed with foods that are highly skewed, little benefit is gained.  The benefit comes from eating only proper foods not just some proper foods now and then.  (Take note that the sites quoted above showed buns with meat and one featured a study where the participants ate a steady diet of desserts, refined grains, and french fries.  Grains and high glycemic foods with highly skewed EFAs are in no way similar to grass-fed meat.  Only bad science lumps them together.)

It is a fact that grain-fed deli meats, especially those cured with sugar, can contribute to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other maladies because they have highly skewed EFAs and are high glycemic.  Also, any meat that is charred is carcinogenic.  This is why we do not recommend the searing of meat or the overcooking of it with high heat.  It’s also why we do not cure our deli meats with sugar.

In some studies protein is associated with calcium loss.  BUT, all red meats have the 20 essential nutrients for proper bone growth.  Many animals that are exclusive meat eaters have extremely strong bones and teeth.  Long-term studies on meat eating show that a high protein intake is linked to improved bone density and a lower risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Man can live without eating grass-fed meat, but it is more difficult to gain optimal health and brain function when limiting the diet to green leafy plants.  It is true that green leafy plants are the world’s only sustainable life form and they are usually nutrient dense, have properly balanced EFAs, and are low glycemic sources for 100% of the nutrient requirements of man.  But because grass-fed meat with all the nutrients that come from green plants is easier to digest, all of its nutrients are readily available to man.  Because the green leaf is at the bottom of the food chain man can live on grass-fed meat exclusively and still exhibit optimal physical and mental heath.

Grass-Fed Meat is a super brain food because:
•    Grass-fed meats (and also fish) provide healthy balances of Omega-6 to Omega-3 acids which are critical for proper functioning of the brain, nerves, and immune systems.  Vegetarians with their diets of grain, nuts, and fruit are often deficient in Omega-3.
•    Vitamin B12, primarily found in animal foods, is critical for the health of the brain and nervous system.
•    Quite often vegetarians have a Creatine deficiency that adversely impacts their muscle and brain function.  The human body produces Creatine from three amino acids -- arginine, glycine and methionine and stores it in the muscles.  But body production is not as efficient as getting it from grass-fed meat.  Once acquired and stored, Creatine can be converted into phosphocreatine and used for energy.  The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s energy therefore a proper Creatine supply is required for optimal brain function.
•    A Vitamin D3 deficiency can cause depression and other diseases.  Vitamin D3 is only found in animal foods or absorbed into the body by exposure to the sun.
•    Carnosine is found only in animal tissues.  It reduces damage caused by elevated blood glucose and is thought to be a natural anti-aging nutrient.

How Sustainable are Crops?

Beef Magazine says that as a food source grain-fed cattle are more efficient than grass-fed cattle.  But during the 160 days grain-fed cattle spend in a feedlot, 80% of the feed they eat is mostly corn (or another grain), which is farmed.  In terms of environmental impact, farming the land is the harsh opposite of the natural act of grazing cattle on pastures.

In this link the National Geographic says “We pay a steep price for our reliance on grains.”  The roots of annual grass plants (grains are large seeds of annual grasses) do not penetrate laterally or as deep into the soil as perennial plants.  Annual grain plants require more fertilizer and herbicides to maintain high yields.  Tillage leaves the ground bare much of the year.  Plowing erodes the soil.  “Unless this disease on the land (growing of grain with annual plants) is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop.”

Typical Corn Field in the Winter -- No Cover

This is a typical corn field in March.  It has been bare for months.

About 45.1% of our nation’s corn crop goes to livestock feed and residual use, 43% to ethanol, and 11.8% for human food, seed, and industrial uses.  Ethanol is an unsustainable fuel in that it exists only because it is subsidized by taxpayers

In the USA 90 million acres are devoted to growing corn.  The soil fertility (productivity) of farmland is generally far superior compared to pasture and rangeland.  Very conservatively speaking, the 90 million acres of land used for growing corn may be equal to 270 million acres of what is now pasture and rangeland.  It may be equivalent to many more acres.  It takes two feet of water to raise a corn crop.  That’s 650,000 gallons of water per acre.  Ninety million acres of corn requires 58,500,000,000,000 gallons of water.  That’s 58.5 trillion gallons of water during just the 140-day growing season plus a lot of farming.  Corn requires 125 times more water on its 90 million acres than Beef Magazine’s theoretical “extras” of 468 billion gallons of water on 131 million acres for grass-fed cattle.

If people do not eat meat, they eat crops.  There is no other option.  The crops are mostly grain, followed by vegetables, fruit, nuts, and cotton.  Nearly all crops, other than orchard crops (nuts and some fruit), require intensive farming practices.  Vegetables, cotton, rice, and grains are the most intensively farmed crops.  Intensive farming means fields are disced up and laid bare without any plant life for extended periods of time.  Plowing turns over the soil and aggressively aerates it causing extreme carbon loss into the atmosphere.  Erosion of plowed fields releases nitrogen into the downstream flow of water that eventually ends up in lakes and oceans.  In contrast, because green plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere when they breathe, permanent pasture and rangeland grasses are carbon sinks that resist erosion.

How much water does it take to grow vegetables?  I would think any serious environmentalist or vegan would want to know.  But they never seem to ask that question about the most nutritious food they should eat.  How about an inch of water a week!  An acre inch of water is 27,154 gallons times 52 weeks is 1.4 million gallons.  In the USA there is slightly less than two million acres planted to fresh vegetable production every year.  These crops may require up to 2.8 trillion gallons of water.  Vegetable production requires six times more water on two million acres than cattle require on Beef Magazine’s theoretical 131 million acres.  The only good news is that even though it drinks a lot of water, lettuce is a perfect food for man whereby corn is famous for causing chronic disease because it is high glycemic, low in overall nutrients, and has a very skewed EFA profile.  In other words, vast resources of our country are devoted to growing vegan-recommended crops that are known to be detrimental for not only human but animal health!

How Sustainable Are Livestock?

Just how much water do cattle drink?  Mature beef cattle drink about 16 gallons a day on average.  More in the summer and less in the winter.  In its feces and urine a cow will produce eight gallons of water that is put back on the pasture as fertilizer and water for the pasture grasses.  In pastures with average soils, the stocking rate is about one cow to two acres.  On rangeland it might be one cow for 20 or even 40 acres.  Many ranchers dig ponds that gather rainfall runoff to provide drinking water for their cattle.  If the rainfall is 30 inches per year, that is 814,627 gallons of water on one acre and 1.63 million gallons on two acres.  In more arid areas the rainfall may be only 10 inches per year.  In Nevada and similar areas the rainfall is five inches per year.  One cow on two acres drinks about 5,840 gallons of water a year.

Obviously ruminant livestock, just like all the wild game animals of yesteryear, are quite sustainable in terms of water consumption and in giving back to the land.  Unless cattle are mismanaged, they never overgraze the land.  They require far less water than crops.  Animals breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  Ruminants eat grass and recycle the nutrients in the form of organic matter that feeds soil bacteria forming a natural symbiotic relationship between ruminants, pasture grasses, and soil bacteria.  In terms of water consumption ruminants are very thrifty, especially when compared with crops.  Because of their unique rumens (stomachs) they eat grasses, forbs, and leaves of trees; food stuffs man cannot digest.  Therefore for the benefit of man livestock eat inedible food and become a perfect food.

Cattle Grazing Pastures in the Winter

Cattle grazing in fall pasture as summer grasses go dormant following a frost.  Then the winter grasses take over.

Is Methane from Livestock a Problem?

Many people complain about methane gas from livestock.  You can find details on the sources of methane here.  Yes, ruminants such as cattle have been producing methane gas since long before man existed.  My guess is that the quantity of methane produced from livestock and wild animals today is probably less than it was a million years ago from wild animals.  Another significant historical source of methane is natural wetlands which have been relatively constant over time.  Other natural sources that are minor in comparison include termites, oceans, sediments, volcanoes, and wildfires.  Most of the other major methane sources are new because they are manmade!  There are wetlands (rice farming), reservoirs, petroleum production, landfills, coal mining, and the plowing (incorporating) of crop residue into the soil and leaving it bare.

When vegetation rots down into organic matter methane gas is released.  When dams are built the flooded plant material rots in an anaerobic conditions producing methane gas.  Rice production creates methane gas.  Bacteria in the soil or any decaying matter in an anaerobic condition buried in the soil produces methane gas.  When ruminant animals digest grass, it’s in an anaerobic condition (in the stomach) therefore methane gas is produced.  When farmers plow the ground the bare soil releases gases (carbon dioxide and methane).  Vegetable farming requires considerable bare soil in order to optimize vegetable production.  Grain farming requires soils to be barren for several months of the year.

What if there were no cattle or wild livestock?  If livestock did not eat most of the grass, after the grass matured it would die back lodged in a heap and the dead grass on the bottom of the pile would rot in an anaerobic condition creating methane gas.  Seasonally that might be less than the same amount of methane gas livestock belch up.  But when cattle graze the grass it starts growing back instead of rotting down which kills new shoots that are trying to grow and replace the dead plant material.  Growing grasses absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Emissions and Trends

Methane does not hold a candle to carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on the planet.  For more about this go here.

Because scientists know which wavelengths of energy each greenhouse gas absorbs, and the concentration of the gases in the atmosphere, they can calculate how much each gas contributes to warming the planet. Carbon dioxide causes about 20 percent of Earth’s greenhouse effect; water vapor accounts for about 50 percent; and clouds account for 25 percent.  The rest is caused by small particles (aerosols) and minor greenhouse gases like methane.

In spite of methane not being the huge problem some claim, additional discussion of methane and cattle is in order.  In the animal kingdom ruminates produce the most methane gas during the digestion process.  But even nonruminants such as horses, pigs, elephants, and people can produce some methane gas.  About 10% of the gas produced by human digestion is methane.

There are 164 living species of ruminants in the world.  They range from musk deer, deer, giraffes, cattle, antelopes, sheep, goats, camels and on and on.  Before the colonization of America there were probably more than 250 million ruminants of various species roaming all of North America.

In 1500 there were 30 million deer, 50 million pronghorn antelope, 10 million elk, and about 60 million Bison grazing the prairies of the US.  By 1900 the deer, bison, elk, moose, and antelope populations had been nearly totally wiped out.  Due to proper hunting management the population of deer in the US is back up to 30 million.  Elk, bison, moose, and antelope populations are all much higher than in 1900 and are being actively hunted today.  Not counting calves the domestic cattle population was 53 million in 1900.  Today’s US cattle herd is approximately 90 million.  The US population in 1900 was 76.2 million.  Today it is 318.9 million.

Since 1900 the increasing number of domesticated livestock has gone hand in hand with increasing numbers of elk, deer, bison, and antelope.  Pastures and rangelands have actually improved with modern livestock management methodology.  This has improved the habitat for wildlife and those trends are continuing.  The increasing wildlife numbers occurred in spite of a tremendous increase in farming, real estate development on prime land, and greater numbers of grazing cattle.

Strangely, most folks want to protect the horse population.  Most horses are domestic livestock no different than cows, sheep, goats, etc.  There are 50,000 wild horses and 10.1 million domestic horses in the US and no one is allowed to eat them.  They are more protected than the wildlife yet they eat the same food as the wildlife.

A Crucial Educational Video

The TED Talk Alan Savory video is a must see explanation of livestock sustainability and why.  Alan Savory is a biologist from South Africa who is founder of the Savory Institute.  His story is riveting.  See video NOW.

The anti-grass-fed red meat myths are just what they are – myths.  The facts are just the opposite of what the vegans and environmentalists claim.

Grass-fed meat is a super health food.
Grass-fed meat does not cause chronic disease.
Grass-fed meat will sustain a healthy life when eaten exclusive of all other foods.
Livestock have a symbiotic relationship with soils and plants which when properly managed prevents desertification.
Livestock requires far fewer resources for sustainable production than do crops.
Wildlife thrives when domestic livestock are used to manage pastures and rangelands.
Methane gas emissions from domestic livestock today is probably less than was produced by all wildlife 500 years ago.
Farming of crops is detrimental to the health of soils and causes greenhouse gas emissions.
Farming consumes huge resources and is less sustainable than raising livestock on grasslands.
Most of the farmed crops are detrimental to the health of those who eat them.

Ted Slanker
February 4, 2015

Additional commentary on the Red Meat War can be found HERE.