Approximately 70.4 percent of cattle in the U.S. are raised and slaughtered in factory farms, industrial operations that maximize profits and production at the expense of humane animal treatment. In seeking an alternative that still satiates their appetite for meat, many consumers purchase “grass-fed beef” instead. The U.S. market for grass-fed cattle has grown at 100 percent per year for the past four years, making images of happy cows frolicking in green pastures ubiquitous on meat products that line supermarket shelves. These farms advertise their practices as providing a better life for cattle in which they can perform their natural grazing behaviors and support grassland ecosystems. However, is “grass-fed beef” truly any more sustainable or humane than its counterpart raised in factory farms?
It is standard industry practice for all calves to begin their lives grazing on a blend of grass and supplemental feed after they are weaned and separated from their mothers. This means that all cattle were “grass-fed” at one point in their early lives. A majority of the calves are then sent to a feedlot at nine to eleven months of age and fed a high-fat diet of grains to quickly reach the desired weight for slaughter. A small subset of cattle are instead finished on grass and graze on pasture until slaughter. These cattle go on to be marketed as “grass-fed beef” to consumers.
There are no universal standards for what can or cannot be labeled as “grass-fed beef.” Surprisingly, about 75-80 percent of “grass-fed beef” sold in the U.S. is from cattle raised abroad in Australia, New Zealand, and parts of South America. This is because there are limited locations in the United States with ideal weather conditions to raise cattle on a pasture year round. These “grass-fed beef” products from abroad are often purposely mislabeled as “products of the USA'' to appeal to consumers looking for locally-raised animals. The USDA has allowed meat producers to do this since the rollback of the Country of Origin Labeling requirements for beef and pork in 2015, which required meat being sold to disclose its country of origin.
Though the USDA has guidelines for small farms desiring to raise grass-fed cattle, it revoked its official “grass-fed” certification program in 2016 due to its inability to enforce it. The United States’ leading seal of approval currently comes from the American Grassfed Association (AGA), a third-party organization. The AGA defines grass-fed animals as those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest. The AGA certification does not allow cattle to be given antibiotics and growth hormones or to be confined indoors during the grazing season.
Proponents of “grass-fed beef” argue that since cattle lack starch-digesting enzymes and are instead grazing animals by nature, spending their lives on pastures is better for their health and well-being. AGA certified grass-fed cattle are also free to roam around pastures, unlike in feedlots where there can be more than 1,000 animals packed into a small space. Yet the AGA also has no specific guidelines for how cattle should be treated, only stating that grass-fed farmers should ensure that all livestock production methods and management promote animal health, safety and welfare, including handling, transport, and slaughter. These three aspects of ethical treatment are only mentioned briefly with no attention or care given to specific industry practices. Animal welfare concerns involving handling include practices such as prodding with an electric rod to move and direct cattle, castration performed to reduce agressiveness and sexual activity of bulls, and dehorning by using chemicals or a hot iron to disbud horns. These are all painful experiences for the animals. Additionally, although alternative methods of identification such as ear tags are suggested and more favorable, the practice of freeze, fire, and electric branding is still common to identify ownership of animals. This is especially important in Western states, where grazing of public lands is vital to raising cattle. Another issue relating to humane treatment is transportation of cattle in trucks or trains from the pasture to a slaughterhouse. Throughout the journey, cattle are liable to suffer from stress, thirst and exhaustion in overcrowded and poorly-ventilated vehicles. In the U.S. alone, 29,000 cattle die in transport every year. Many animals travel up to 28 hours without stopping. If they are alive upon arriving at the slaughterhouse, the cattle are first stunned using a captive bolt inside the facility. However, due to the fast-paced nature of meat processing facilities, this system can fail and does not always render the animal unconscious. A study in the European Union found that as many as 12.5 percent of cattle are still conscious despite being stunned. This means they are still aware of their environment while being hoisted into the air and having their major arteries and throat severed to make them bleed out.
Emissions from beef and milk production represent 65 percent of the livestock sector emissions globally. Because cattle are ruminants, their unique digestive process involving fermentation results in belching, which releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane has a warming potential 28-34 times that of carbon dioxide on a 100 year time scale. The manure and urine from cattle also release nitrous oxide, a gas with a warming potential 273 times that of carbon dioxide. In feedlots, many cattle are closely confined in small areas in which their urine and manure are concentrated. When raising cattle on grassland and pasture, their manure can return nutrients and carbon to the soil. Proponents of grass-fed cattle argue that grazing animals can potentially aid in the sequestration of carbon in soils by stimulating root growth and by helping carbon be moved from above ground in the atmosphere and in vegetation to below ground in buried manure and plant roots where it can less easily be disturbed. However, according to research done by the Food Climate Research Network, the sequestration potential from grazing management offsets only 20-60 percent of annual average emissions from the grazing ruminant sector, and makes an insufficient dent on overall livestock emissions. Additionally, in order to sequester more carbon, intensification in the grazing sector would lead to substantial increases in methane and nitrous oxide from the presence of more cattle.
At the current level of beef production, the current pastureland grass resource can support only 27 percent of the current beef supply. It is physically impossible for the 27 grams of animal protein produced per person today to be supplied by grazing systems without carbon dioxide release via deforestation and land degradation to make room for more cattle. Or, if beef consumption is not reduced and is instead satisfied by greater imports of “grass-fed beef,” a switch to purely grass-fed systems would likely still result in higher environmental costs, including higher overall methane emissions from a larger cattle population. The demand for meat is only growing and is expected to increase by one percent each year through 2023, making it even more challenging to rely on pastureland for beef production in the future. And, efforts at reducing the methane intensity of ruminant production through breeding and feeding strategies such as adding seaweed to feed have limited proof of concept and are outweighed by the effects of increased animal numbers. Instead, decreasing our high levels of animal product consumption could free up land for other uses such as forest regrowth, rewilding, and bioenergy production. Forest regrowth and rewilding has the potential to sequester carbon, provide vital ecosystem services such as improved soil and water quality, and contribute to biodiversity. Lastly, grass-fed cattle can cost as much as four dollars more per pound than conventional beef cattle due to the increased time it takes for them to reach the desired weight for slaughter. Therefore, grass-fed cattle are currently not an accessible food option for many consumers in the United States and abroad.
Ultimately, “grass-fed beef” is not any more humane or environmentally friendly than beef from cattle finished in feedlots. Instead of continuing with “business as usual” and developing ways to mitigate the environmental damages due to our overconsumption of animal products, we need to stop the growing consumer demand. By reducing our consumption of animal products and transitioning to a plant-rich diet, we can significantly decrease current emissions of greenhouse gasses and improve the lives of animals. For more information on incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, check out these resources.
Hannah Hughes is a college advocate with FFAC studying Public Policy Analysis at Pomona College.