Environmental Impact of Beef

Cattle In Field CloseupWhy does everything always have to be about money?

Many corporations seem more are concerned more about making money than producing a better product. What’s unfair is that many of these companies do not have to cover the environmental damage they are wreaking upon the country, and the world for that matter, in the production of their prized beef.  But what is the environmental impact of corn fed beef?

Grain or corn fed beef is just one example of profits driving beef to lower standards. Cows are classified as ruminants because of their ability to convert cellulose into energy.

A cows’ natural diet is green – grass and other plants found in pastures. This changed in the 1950s when cows were put in feedlots before they are slaughtered so that they could fed on copious amounts of grain and corn to fatten them up and make more money. But what’s the environmental cost of this market trick?

The Environmental Impact of Corn Fed Beef?

From a sustainability standpoint, corn fed beef’s environmental impact is significantly more detrimental than grass fed. A huge amount of corn is needed to fatten up the cows before slaughter, so much so that 248 gallons of oil is needed to produce the corn that each cow eats. This is a huge environmental concern as this corn production harms the environment and harms the soil much worse than pastureland. Don’t care as much about the environment? Think about how many people could be fed using the corn or land that is used to feed cows.

Corn fed beef is extremely high in fat and calories without giving us a return on nutrients or omega fatty acids. Cows are supposed to subsist on pastureland and not corn, so when ranchers give cows diets that are high in corn there is a high risk of death or sickness. Enter antibiotics. To combat this, cows are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them healthy and prevent death. These yummy chemicals are then transferred over to the consumer. We’ve all come to recognize the word E. Coli today too. This is in part a product of the switch to grain as well. Grain diets increase the acidity levels in cows to a much friendlier level for E. Coli to grow, so the health risks are higher in grain fed beef.

What about taste? This is a mixed bag. The marbled flesh of grain fed beef has become an American favorite, but in many blind taste tests grain fed has not necessarily won out. You’ll even notice from the taste test that the grain fed beef is more expensive. However, if you are not buying premium beef but instead are looking at more economical beef, grain fed is markedly cheaper. Steaks are half the price of grass fed and ground beef is at least a dollar less in most cases. In addition, grain fed beef is more consistent in flavor, which is in part why restaurants love to use it.

If you ask most any foodie or lover of steak what is the best beef in the world, you’ll probably get one of two answers: Argentina or New Zealand. Both these countries are known for their beef quality, and both feed their cows grass. A country like Argentina bases so much of their food culture upon steakhouses and beef, that they surely must know something we don’t in their choice to grass feed beef despite the costs. I too would prefer an Argentinean slice of lean, succulent beef freshly carved over the fatty American beef, and we are slowly seeing stores offer alternatives to grain fed beef.

Give it a try next time, and at the very least you’ll be doing something good for the environment and your own health by passing on grain fed beef.

John GarnettHere are some other Green Blizzard articles that will be sure to be of interest:


About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.