Dear Dot: Is Grass or Grain-Fed Beef Better for Emissions?

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Dear Dot,

I recently read that grass-fed beef is not better than grain-fed for greenhouse gas emissions and, in fact, may be worse. What does Dot know about that?

–Robert, Chilmark

Dear Robert,

What Dot knows is that, many years ago, after four years of a meat-free diet, I decided to re-introduce beef, but only from humanely-raised, grass-fed cows. Research at the time indicated that grass-fed cows farted less because grass was better for them and, therefore, methane emissions were reduced. (Our lovely Bluedot copyeditor urged me to use the term “flatulent” but I believe my readers to be a hardy bunch. Besides, the word “fart” makes me giggle like a schoolgirl.) I was also deeply concerned about animal welfare and understood that grass-fed, pastured cows were typically happier and healthier. I found a local farmer who delivered grass-fed beef to our home every few weeks. It cost more, but we ate less, which balanced our budget. And when I took that first bite, I moaned with pleasure and asked my husband: “Does this taste so good because I haven’t had meat in four years? Or is this just really good?” 

He nodded. “Yes,” he said, “it’s really good.”

So, there’s that — our admittedly subjective assessment that grass-fed beef tastes better. 

You reference research that concludes that grass-fed cows do not, in fact, produce lower methane emissions than grain-fed cows. It isn’t that grass-fed cows produce more belches or farts, but rather that grass-fed cows grow more slowly and are slaughtered at an older age; therefore, over a longer lifespan, they produce more belches and farts than shorter-lived cows, emitting methane with each digestive eruption. 

What’s more, comparing greenhouse gas emissions from grass-fed vs. feedlot cattle is just a part of the picture. 

For one thing, pastures of grasses themselves absorb greenhouse gasses, which offers some mitigation. In a climate like the northern U.S., however, where grass only grows a few months each year, the carbon benefits are reduced. 

For another, grass-fed animals, which eat and poop on the land, contribute to soil health. And healthy soil, a product of this regenerative farming, absorbs more carbon than less healthy soil. 

Simon Athearn, CEO and farmer at Morning Glory Farm, says that soil health is a key motivation behind his dedication to grass-fed. “On a feedlot,” he explains, “the animals are on a hard, biologically dead surface, conglomerated together instead of spread out, and fed an aggressive diet of very high-density foods that process less efficiently in the rumen and create more flatulent gasses. A ruminant’s natural diet is grasses.” As well, he says, the grain industry has to produce the grain fed to those cows, often via a monoculture, which causes erosion and depletion of soil. And processing the grain creates a greenhouse gas trail: Grain must be harvested, processed, bagged, and distributed, generally by large machinery and trucks. 

Athearn also touts the benefits of local grass-fed cattle. Much of what we see on store shelves that’s labeled grass-fed comes from animals as far away as Australia and New Zealand. If it’s processed or inspected at all in the U.S., the label will look like it’s from the United States. 

Which is reason number a kajillion why it’s important to get your food from a local farmer. Not because food miles have a significant impact on carbon emissions (they, surprisingly, don’t), but because it’s far easier to discern the agricultural principles of a neighboring farmer, and because it’s smart to support those with whom you share a community. 

But remember, too, Robert, that because of the deforestation required to provide land for cattle, not to mention the loss of biodiversity, beef (no matter what it’s fed when it’s simply a cow) has an outsized impact on the warming of our planet. So, if you’re going to eat beef — grass-fed or otherwise — do so sparingly, and savor every bite.

Ruminantly,

Dot

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