I’m finally looking at the peer reviewed edition of an article I wrote for Today’s Dietitian last year, making it a bit out of date before it’s published despite some earnest tweaking. The subject? The role of meat on the menu, with a special twist. I expanded the discussion beyond the conventional discourse of food and nutrition, and stepped into the world of agriculture and environmental science.
BEEF: GOOD, BAD, or NOT THE ISSUE?
If anything opinions have become more polarized since I started writing. A quick scan of the press reveals everything from vilification of meat in the diet to coronation. Paleo and low carb enthusiasts celebrate eating red meat (albeit mostly grass fed sources) while many health advocates–not just vegans and vegetarians–warn of increased risk of disease and destruction of the planet.
I’m convinced that grazing animals, as well as eating animal products, are not problematic for our health or the planet’s. But why is feeding animals grain such a problem? I was asked this question recently, and want to share my thoughts to help others sort through the issue on their own.
As a dietitian it is easy to focus on the food and nutrition issues. Feeding herbivores grain changes the fatty acid composition of the meat and all dairy products. The more time cows feed on grain the less omega three and the higher the omega six content of the beef as well as the milk, cheese and butter. Excessive omega 6 and inadequate omega 3 fatty acid in the diet is linked to inflammation.
Inflammation is considered the fulcrum of most chronic disease, and Americans are known to consume excessive omega 6 in the diet, with an estimated ratio as high as 20:1. Most health advocates suggest a ratio no greater than 4:1 and maybe as low as 1:1.
Most omega three advocates continue to push for eating more salmon, but our oceans are already over fished. It seems rather irresponsible to recommend eating more salmon just for omega three. Grass fed meat and dairy products offer a viable alternative mostly because we already eat more beef and dairy than fish in this country–a lot more. We could benefit like Australians who consume almost 50% of the omega three in their diet from grass fed animal meat and dairy without overwhelming our fisheries.
FEEDING ANIMALS GRAIN: BEYOND FOOD AND NUTRITION
I’ve evolved as a dietitian, recognizing that what I purchase at the supermarket influences far more than my nutritional status. Currently I talk about “environmental nutrition” in order to address the cumulative impact of food choices on the health of the planet as well. I appreciate that this approach inherently makes the question of what to eat more complicated. However, the environment and our health suffers the most from the consequences of feeding cows grain.
Consumers at least deserve a chance to make an informed decision. So, here’s the lowdown:
1. Cows are herbivores and their natural diet is grass. Feeding grain compromises their digestion and leads to liver damage. Additional concerns regard feeding animals genetically modified soy and corn. (Currently between 80-90% of all corn and soy is grown from GMO seed)
I often wonder if cattle suffer a bovine version of fatty liver disease. Despite increasing concerns about animal feed, too many conventional animal scientists don’t link the dots. I was once told that feeding animals grain isn’t a problem because they love it. I responded that kids like candy, too, but that doesn’t make it good for them.
2. Cattle and dairy cows residing in CAFOs are more susceptible to disease because their grain based diet is inflammatory. In addition, crowded and unsanitary living conditions have lead to prophylactic use of antibiotics in feed to prevent disease–and more insidiously to promote growth. The practice is linked to the evolution of antibiotic resistant microbes present in our food and greater antibiotic resistance in medicine.
3. While CAFO conditions vary greatly, separating the cows from grasslands divides the exquisite balance of nutrient cycling found in nature and on more biodynamic farms into two significant problems: the need to add nutrients to soil and the need to discard waste from feed lots. The fallout from these practices is even worse.
4. All animals (including man) emit green house gases (think carbon dioxide and methane) but anti-meat crusaders rarely mention that grazing animals significantly contribute to sequestering carbon in soil as well. The organic matter of cow pies and urine feed a rich ecosystem underground allowing microbes and fungi to enhance soil fertility, root health and plant yields, along with a greater capacity to hold onto water. Win, win, win, and win…especially during times of drought.
5. Conventional mono-crop farming hinges on massively more industrial inputs such as pesticides and petroleum based fertilizer, creating havoc in waterways and the soil. Run off from conventional farms located in the Mississippi valley watershed increases soil erosion, contamination of waterways, and flooding, and ultimately creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every year.
EATING BETTER SAVES THE PLANET
Since the 1950’s Americans have enjoyed an increasingly abundant and low cost food supply, but we are only now waking up to the enormous costs of cheap food. What we choose to eat intimately impacts our personal health, the health of our environment and the planet, and will ultimately compromise our ability to continue to feed ourselves.
Eating grass fed animal products allows every consumer enhance their own health and to address climate change. Paying more for grass fed animal products seems a small price to pay to save the planet.