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How a Good Steak Can Restore the Environment

Posted Jul 08 2009 11:44am

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Just 150 years ago, much of the Great Midwest was still covered with prairie grassland. This grassland provided valuable grazing land and habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, including elk, bison and deer. Grassland also provided powerful environmental services like carbon sequestration and seasonal flood control.

When Americans first settled the Midwestern prairies, they began to farm highly fertile, virgin soil that was about 10 percent organic matter. However, 150 years of converting our grasslands to farms has cut that vital organic matter by more than half and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide—the leading driver of global warming—into the air. Iowa, for instance, has replaced almost all of its prairie with mono-crop agriculture, maintaining only about 1 percent of its native habitat.

If you remember, the upper Midwest was flooded in the spring of 2008, which caused catastrophic dislocations, massive erosion of precious topsoil, and billions of dollars in damage. This is because a plowed field sheds rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can only absorb, at most, about 1 1/2 inches of rain in an hour. A permanent pasture however can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain in an hour. That’s the difference between floods and no floods.

Today nearly all of America’s original grasslands have been converted to genetically engineered corn and soybeans, two crops that are enormously destructive to the environment because they require massive amounts of fresh water, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers to grow. And sadly, these crops are mostly used to feed livestock, where it takes 15 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef.

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Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)

Most U.S. beef is produced from cows living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where grain-fed cows become sick from eating a diet unnatural to them, and emit large amounts of toxic methane into the air—further contributing to global warming. The enormous, concentrated piles of manure that these feedlots produce pollute rivers, streams and other fresh water sources and can be smelled for miles, destroying quality of life for every person who lives near them. Additionally, the conditions in these feedlots are so poor that cows have to be treated with antibiotics and hormones to survive, which creates the conditions for  E. coli outbreaks, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and other health problems for the average American who eats the meat.

Vegetarians have their environmental argument against today’s beef right: the industrial way in which we raise cattle is both unhealthy and extremely unsustainable. The irony of all of this is that the very prairie we destroyed to grow grains to feed cattle was already the perfect, natural habitat for raising healthy, happy cows.

A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a  source of global warming gases, but a permanent pasture is a pump that pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility and builds topsoil. According to a recent  Scientific American article “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?” production of high-input annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rate. Therefore, converting half the U.S. corn and soy acreage to pasture might cut carbon emissions by about  144 trillion pounds —and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels that would also result.

It’s very simple: If we convert from grain-fed to grass-fed cattle, and use rotational grazing methods to maintain healthy, high-quality prairie, we can turn millions of acres of genetically engineered, heavily sprayed row crops into carbon sinks, and use permanent pasture to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as conserve water.

We are slowly learning that human enterprises work best when they imitate Nature’s diversity. This is the basic tenet of Permaculture. Early in the rise of organic farming and vegetarianism, we mistakenly assumed we could sustain ecological diversity by raising a dozen or so different tilled crops on a small farm—forgetting that an acre of prairie contains hundreds of species of plants. But many organic farmers found out the hard way that they could not make their operations balance out biologically and economically without bringing animals back into the equation. Handled right, animals control weeds and insects, cycle nutrients, and provide a use for waste and failed crops. Healthy ecosystems—both wild and cultivated— must include animals. We now understand that honoring this principle is vital to the very life of our planet.

The good news is that pioneering farmers and ranchers across the nation are already raising grass-fed beef and dairy successfully—an enterprise that can scale up quickly because we have a good working model already. According to  Mother Earth News“The Amazing Benefits of Grassfed Meat,” “…it is not unrealistic to think that we could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields to permanent pastures and  see no decline in beef and dairy production in the process.

Doing so would give us:

  • a more humane livestock system,
  • a healthier human diet,
  • less deadly E. coli,
  • elimination of feedlots,
  • restoration of wildlife habitat nationwide,
  • enormous savings in energy,
  • virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on grazing lands,
  • elimination of the catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin,
  • and a dramatic reduction in global warming gases.

The  American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. Their label certifies that their beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots; received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed; and were humanely raised and handled. This emerging marketing network has already placed grass-fed animal products in co-ops, health food stores and supermarkets across the nation.

This quiet revolution against industrial farming has been fueled entirely by consumer demand. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef and other animal products simply because we know it’s healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart, and because we don’t like the filth, cruelty and antibiotics inherent in the concentrated feedlots that dominate the industry currently.

We also know that grass-fed beef and dairy products are leaner and lower in the omega-6 fats that are linked to heart disease. Grass-fed meat and dairy products also are higher in Vitamins A, E and D as well as beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids, both of which reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, and promote weight loss. And, perhaps most importantly, grass-fed beef just tastes better. I know because we eat it weekly. In fact, we run our neighborhood grass-fed beef CSA, and help distribute bimonthly shares of some of the yummiest, freshest locally-raised beef I’ve ever had.

While it is true that a lot of environmental good would come from reducing the world’s consumption of beef, the reality is that the number of people who eat meat is only growing. And properly raised and prepared, beef and dairy products are healthful and traditional parts of the human diet that we have relied on and enjoyed for tens of thousands of years. So it behooves us to raise our cows in the most humane and environmentally benign way possible, which, it turns out, is they way nature had designed all along.


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