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Published on June 5th, 2010 | by Jeremy Bloom

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Beef is the Worst – Why Put Oil on Your BBQ?

grillingIt’s a glorious summer weekend, and folks all over are firing up their grills. But before you shop – today is World Environment Day, so maybe you should think twice about what you’re putting on the BBQ, especially after the devastation of the BP Gulf oil disaster.

Beef is, simply, the worst thing you can eat – especially mainstream store-bought beef that comes straight off a factory farm feedlot. Read on to learn why…

In honor of World Environment Day, the UN has issued a new report (PDF Download) that says the best thing we can do to deal with environmental problems, climate change, and fossil fuel dependency is cut back on meat and dairy in our diets. And beef is the worst.
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We’re not suggesting that everyone has to go Vegan tomorrow. But cutting back even a few days a week can have a big impact.

“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products…

Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Where’s the beef?

It’s not down on the farm these days, alas. The healthy, natural beef of years gone by is almost extinct. It has been driven out by cheap beef, raised on gigantic feedlots, fattened on corn. The problem is: corn isn’t healthy for cows, and raising beef this way ultimately isn’t healthy for us either. Here are some things to watch out for and ways to be more healthy when it comes to your beef-related choices.

If you ask children, “What do cows eat?”, they’ll tell you: “Cows eat grass!” Not corn – grass. Kids are smart; smarter, it seems, than the barons of agribusiness, who haven’t figured that part out yet.

Why do farmers feed cows on corn? First, because it’s cheap, thanks to massive federal subsidies. Second, because  starchy corn forces cows to fatten up faster. Cattle evolved a complex digestive system to derive nutrition from rangeland grasses; feed them on corn and their digestion goes haywire, causing flatulence, acid stomach, and massive weight gain.

Sickening

This isn’t healthy for cows: with their immune systems damaged, the cows get sick – an amazing array of illnesses, ranging from liver abscesses and infections to dust-inspired  respiratory disease. So agribusiness loads them up with antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to get them to the slaughterhouse – and your plates.

This also isn’t healthy for people: this beef ends up lower in nutrients (everything from vitamin A to vitamin E) and higher in fat – the bad kind, cholesterol-boosting fat. And the rampant use of antibiotics in crowded conditions has led to the rise of a new breed of super-bugs that are sickening thousands and possibly millions.

Grass-fed beef has much higher levels of vitamin E

You heard about the spinach that was infected with E. coli 157? There’s no way to prove anything, but it’s likely the infection came from animal waste from a factory farm. Agribusiness likes to say “It could come from over-flying birds or foxes running through the fields,” but you don’t find exotic bugs lie E. coli 157 in the guts of wildlife. The most probable source is the vast lakes of animal waste on nearby cattle farms. Remember the acid indigestion the cows get from corn? E. coli 157 doesn’t do well in the guts of normal, grass-fed cattle, but it thrives in the acid environment of corn-fed cows.

This is a growing problem – 199 people got sick during the spinach outbreak and three died, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 20,000 people a year who are infected with E. coli 157 ,and 200 who die. It’s mostly the very young and the very old who are vulnerable; infection from E. coli 157 is the biggest cause of kidney failure in children.

Making Beef out of Oil

The biggest irony: none of this makes any economic sense at all! Nobody would bother feeding corn to cattle if US taxpayers weren’t paying billions of dollars in subsidies to make corn cheap. And consider this: Cornell’s David Pimentel points out that growing all of that corn takes vast amounts of petroleum-based chemical fertilizer.

Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,

“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”

Giant agriculture distorts everything. In real agriculture, poop is fertilizer. But we use petroleum products to fertilize the corn, send the corn to giant cattle operations, which churn out massive lagoons of dammed-up poop. It should go back to fertilizer, but it’s such an antibiotic and chemical-laced concoction that it ends up as just another toxic waste-product.

Make a difference

So now you know more of the facts, but what can you do to improve your diet and make a global difference as well? Vegetarians would like you to cut out beef completely, but that’s not totally necessary.

  • Cut back on beef (and meat). One or two days a week without meat is the equivalent of switching from a gas-powered sedan to a hybrid. (It’ll also save you money, and is good for your heart).
  • Go solar! When you do eat beef, go for free-range or grass-fedOrganic is best – it’s more expensive, true, but remember, you just cut out a day or two of beef, so you can afford to serve better-quality, more nutritious meals for yourself and your children. Better for you, and better the planet.
  • Watch your dairy intake, too. Most big dairy producers are as bad as the beef feedlots. Cut back on dairy, or switch to organic for lower impact.
  • Watch out for corn in your veggie products! Once you start reading ingredient labels, you’ll be shocked and appalled to see how American processed food is loaded up with corn and corn derivatives (loaded with dairy derivatives, too!). It is a good idea to cut back on processed foods anyway, as they are loaded with all kinds of weird chemicals and additives (many of which are manufactured in bulk in China with minimal safety standards).

UPDATE: Some commenters have referred to a report by UC Davis Prof. Frank Mitloehner that says the UN is wrong, that the numbers for the US (based on 2007 EPA estimates) are actually 3 percent emissions for agriculture vs 26 percent for transportation. I’m betting most folks haven’t read the full report – it’s incredibly technical and dense. I gave up on page 26.

His criticism was a technical one – that the earlier report did a full life-cycle analysis on beef, looking at things like how much oil was used to grow the corn to feed the cattle (as we talked about in this article), and how much oil was used in transportation of all that feed. Whereas that “well-to wheel analysis” was not done for the transportation industry, so in fact agriculture may NOT have more of a climate impact than transportation (at least in the US).

In other words… the heart of his argument is that the report underestimated the number for transportation.

What he DIDN’T say was that beef had no impact, as some commenters and newspapers are asserting, like The Washington Times under the headlines “Meat, dairy not tied to global warming” and “Forget all that indecorous talk of animal flatulence, cow burps, vegetarianism and global warming. Welcome to Cowgate.” (Ironically, Mitloehner was the guy who discovered the issue of cow-belches, in a study for the California dairy industry and the EPA.)

Mitloenher himself has stated,  “I didn’t say that there is no reduction in greenhouse gases associated with animal protein consumption, but that it is a relatively small contribution and that consumers can do other things that have greater impact on this.” And that last point is simply his value judgement, not based on his research.

He added, “I think it’s time that we work across the globe really on transferring knowledge and help particularly those areas like India and China to produce in a way that is as environmentally benign as possible. I think we have that responsibility. So it would be nice if we would take some of the politics out of the discussion and really focus on getting things done and resolved and addressed.”

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(Portions of this article originally appeared at Ecoble.com)

(Photo from D Sharon Pruitt under a Creative Commons License)




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About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He just moved to Los Angeles, and continues trying to change the world in positive ways.



  • http://magickalmamaslife.blogspot.com Jasmine Lovett

    "One or two days a week without meat is the equivalent of switching from a gas-powered sedan to a hybrid."

    Another little fact about cutting meat from your diet: Corn and grain fed cows require 16 pounds of feed for every one pound of beef. To make that a bit simpler, for every pound of beef you feed yourself/your family, there is 15 pounds of food that other families could eat.

  • JJ Duhon

    the only thing the un specilizes in is getting money

    from the USA.

    do you remember yul gibbins? all he ate was nuts &

    twigs. do you know what he died of. stomach cancer!

  • Beef Eater

    LONG LIVE BEEF

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  • Butch McRae

    Jasmine Lovett says:"Another little fact about cutting meat from your diet: Corn and grain fed cows require 16 pounds of feed for every one pound of beef. To make that a bit simpler, for every pound of beef you feed yourself/your family, there is 15 pounds of food that other families could eat."

    What percentage of that 16 lbs. is roughage in the form of grass and hay? I think your calculations are off by about 10 lbs. Cows eat grass and other roughage, that we as humans cannot digest, and turn it into a healthy protein to sustain us, at the top of the food chain. I do not think 15 lbs. of grass clippings will satisfy too many families.

  • Jeremy Bloom

    Butch, I totally agree with you that grass-fed and roughage-fed cattle are better for the planet (and taste better than grass).

    Remember what I said in the article, though?

    “If you ask children, “What do cows eat?”, they’ll tell you: “Cows eat grass!” Not corn – grass. Kids are smart; smarter, it seems, than the barons of agribusiness, who haven’t figured that part out yet.”

    Feeding cows grass and roughage is just common sense. Unfortunately, it’s not what happens on feedlots.

    “…The average finishing diet for feedlot cattle consists of 70-85% grains. Corn is the primary grain source for these rations, with secondary grain sources of barley, sorghum, and wheat.”
    Source: CattleGrower.com
    http://www.cattlegrower.com/ARranchhand/blog/743/

  • ethanoldawg

    Please let me make just a few observations. From the POV of a person that has spent a career working in the agricultural supply industry. At times I work with corporate farms. These corporate farms are usually owned by a “family” and were set up by a farmer. She and her husband set up the corporate structure in an attempt to provide healthy nutritious products to their customers, while she is attempting to keep her “farm “in the family. So please do not vilify them.

    When we look at how she has done in providing healthy nutritious products to her customers. We need to limit our observation to, a subset of her customers, individuals living in the United States of America. (Would not want to discuss those this baroness of agribusiness has feed around the world) In the United States we will see some of the best feed individuals in the history of the world. These people are well fed while paying a very low percentage of their income for their nutrition(allows a lot of time to pursue other interests). I see this article being written from a POV that is not looking to share information. Starting with the headline Beef is the Worst. All I can say is Beef is not the Worst ! I am thinking that living on the hay/pasture cattle start on would not be very pleasurable. Or a meal of the silage that corporate farms may feed growing cattle would provide a great dose of fiber. The finishing ration, while a little dry, may not be so bad. I for one will stay with USDA inspected beef. Thanks for your time to read my humble thoughts.

  • Brandi Buzzard

    I would like to point out that the EPA recently stated that the numbers in their report concerning livestock are exaggerated. When figuring the nubmers they did not account for all the aspects of transportation however they did do this for agriculture. You can read their statement, and the true livestock emissions number (3%) by reading this article http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=9336

    I hope that this has cleared up any misconceptions you have about the industry that feeds the world and supplies the US with the safesty food supply to be found anywhere.

  • http://kansascattleranch.blogspot.com Debbie

    I wish it were so easy to save the planet by changing our eating habits. Unfortunately, instead of looking at cutting down on direct oil and energy usage and increasing recycling and reusing, activists have found a way to disparage animal agriculture and make Americans feel like they are doing good by cutting back on beef consumption.

    Many of the claims in this article are taken out of context, or misconstrued, in an attempt to give readers an easy way to “help” the environment.

    In “Clearing the Air,” a response to the Long Shadow report that first mis-reported livestock’s link to greenhouse gas emissions, scientists refute the claim saying “In the United States, transportation accounts for at least 26% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions compared to roughly 6-8% for all of agriculture, which includes less than 3% associated with livestock production.”

    Less than 3% is a long way from 26% of emissions from transportation. http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/events/2009_symposium/presentations/2009-09-09_Wednesday/Track_02/Session_03/Talk2_Session3_308_Wed_Mitloehner.pdf

    Other studies show that grass-fed beef is not better than grain-fed beef, and some even show the opposite. What most people fail to realize is that all cattle are raised on grass for the most part of their life. They are only in a feedlot for about 4 months during the finishing stage. The corn we feed our cattle is not corn that would be fed to humans. There are different types of corn and each has its own use. We are not feeding human feed to cattle. http://www.cattlenetwork.com/Study-Shows-Ground-Beef-From-Grain-Fed-Cattle-Healthier-Than-Grass-Fed/2010-05-27/Article_Latest_News.aspx?oid=1091824&fid=CN-LATEST_NEWS_&aid=760

    Lastly, every ruminant animal has E.coli O157 in their stomach. Some have more than others, and ranchers like me have spent millions of dollars to study ways to cut down on E.coli in beef. The recent lettuce outbreak has not been attributed to livestock directly or indirectly. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,592365,00.html

    I am a cattle rancher from Kansas and I work every day to make the environment around me a better place. The land is an important resource and legacy that I hope to leave in a better condition than what I found it. I choose to cut down on trips to town (60 miles roundtrip), carpool when possible, turn off electrical appliances in my house and on the ranch, and recycle and reuse whenever possible to keep from buying more and more and contributing to the trash in landfills.

    These steps are not always easy, but are much more helpful to saving the environment than not eating meat.

  • Kevon

    I am reminded of the “prequel” to “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, in which the main characters were part of a band of prisoners being death marched acros the Arizona desert. The prisoners and their captors faced the twin mortal threats of starvation and marauding Apache bands…wait a minute. There are human beings living in the desert with enough energy to conduct guerilla warfare against armed soldiers. There must be SOMETHING to eat out there, right? Yet, the white men continued to keel over from hunger. The moral of the story is that humans, omnivores though they be, would rather die than change their eating habits.

  • Jeremy Bloom

    First, Note that Mitloehner isn’t an agriculture specialist, or an energy specialist… he’s an AIR QUALITY specialist.

    He complains that the UN didn’t look at well-to-wheel energy costs for transportation. But then he downplays the “direct” costs of agriculture in the US – which is probably lower than the Global 18% figure (we’re more efficient and we don’t cut down rainforest), but still higher than the 3 percent figure he touts. And regardless, that’s another apples and oranges comparison – because our power industry spits out SO much more CO2 than any other country on Earth (with China fast catching up), the overall PERCENTAGE of agriculture’s emissions will be lower by comparison.

    Again: The UN report wasn’t wrong. Mitloehner is comparing their GLOBAL numbers to the DOMESTIC percentage and saying we’re lower. But in terms of bulk CO2, feedlot beef production still looks pretty bad. (Again, the PERCENTAGE is lower, but even 3% of the largest emissions in the world is pretty high.)

    From the Livable Future Blog:

    It’s not just burps from livestock that are to blame for the greenhouse gases (GHG) attributed to food animal production. Don’t forget that the vast majority of the grains we grow in the U.S. go to feed livestock. A 12-year-old Cornell study found that livestock, “consume more than five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.” (The amount of fresh water used in animal production is even more shocking.) When you consider the GHG emissions from all that grain production including transportation and the fossil fuels used to make artificial fertilizers you start to get the picture of just how resource intensive industrial food animal production can be.

    And more from the Atlantic Magazine:

    On the grand scale of scientific errors, though, this one was relatively minor. What matters most is that the 18 percent figure—and the corresponding implication that reduced meat consumption would lower global warming—remained essentially untouched by Mitloehner’s report. Mitloehner’s only complaint about the cattle emissions numbers was that they obscured regional variation in livestock emissions. A South American country actively clearing rainforests to raise cattle will make a much greater contribution to the 18 percent figure than a country such as the United States, which is not clearing land for livestock. It’s a good point. But Mitloehner’s debunking of the transportation comparison changes nothing about the overall impact of livestock on the environment. “We stand entirely behind the 18 percent figure,” Gerber told the Columbia Journalism Review.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/04/carnivorous-climate-skeptics-in-the-media/39177/

  • Dave Sjeklocha, DVM

    It would be very difficult and time consuming to correct all of the misinformation being offered in this article and even in some of the comments. Here are a few points/comments to consider: It was stated that cows are not supposed to eat corn, but are supposed to eat grass. If they aren’t supposed to eat corn, why do they seek it out? If given the choice, cattle will walk away from the most beautiful green grass and eat corn. Secondly, what is corn? It is the seed of the corn plant. What is the corn plant? It is a grass. So, when a grass-fed cow eats some grass seed, is she eating something that is “not natural” for her? Finally, cattle fed corn produce less methane than strictly forage fed cattle. They also reach harvest weight sooner. So, not only do they spend fewer days producing methane, but they produce less methane on a daily basis. There are several other mistakes and misconceptions, but I will let someone else address them.

  • http://fcla@weebly.com Wesley Parks

    A very interesting article,however you were very short on facts. The Un Study has been proven false and Michael Pollen has never told the truth in his life. He and Al Gore are getting rich and leading the genral public “down the garden Path”

  • KC Kinder

    And don’t forget that cattle spend the first 12 to 18 months eating grass. They aren’t simply tossed into a situation of grain and water only. They spend months along side their mothers, who fortify them as our do us. They learn to aquire a taste for grass, on the they continue after they are weaned from their mothers milk.

    Also, the corn that cattle consume isn’t fit for human consumption. With that said, without farmers producing mass quantities of that variety of corn, think of the situation our environment would be in. Think dust bowl all over again. Farmers are amazing stewards of the land that are preventing erosion every day.

    Recently, studies have proved that there is no nutritional difference in the multiple forms of beed production. http://www.foodproductdesign.com/news/2010/06/beef-from-grain-fed-cattle-healthier-than-grass-fed.aspx. I am a producer and as long as you are eating beef, getting the health benefits of the zinc, iron and protein, then I am happy. You have 29 cut choices to promote healthy living in your daily diet. Eat in moderation, team with veggies, live long and prosper:)

  • Karen

    Beef cattle, as opposed to dairy cattle spend their lives on grass rangelands, except for the 120 days that yearling calves may be finished in a feedlot to produce the quality of beef that Americans prefer. Those rangelands are not fertilized with chemicals. Much of them are located in areas that cannot be farmed to produce other foods. Cattle are a significant fire fuel management tool. Imagine if there were fewer houses near San Diego last summer so that the cattle could have mowed the overgrown understory. It's also important to know that feedlots and dairies vary the cattle feed source, both to benefit the cattle nutritionally and to contain costs and to take advantage of other cellulose. This can include almond hulls, tomato peel and seed from the canneries, cotton seed, and other food processing byproducts that would otherwise end up in the landfills. Cattle are able to utilize otherwise wasted cellulose to produce a healthy food for human, while at the same providing conservation and natural resources benefits.

  • Karen

    As a CA rancher and grandmother of athletes who eat beef and respect our role in daily environmental management, I encourage critics of livestock production and animal consumption to visit the many educational websites of university cooperative extension (each state has one), USDA, the American Dietetic Assoc. and the livestock industry itself. There is a significant body of human and livestock nutrition and natural resources research conducted by academia, government and the industries that can enlighten discussions and tell ‘the rest of the story’. Nutrition is complex. For example, not all fats are bad fats. Some are critical for health and will be earily missed if animal fats aren’t consumed. Check out beefitswhatsfordinner.com to start your own journey into understanding and preparing balanced diets based upon the government’s and nutrition industries’ mypyramid.com. The recipes are good, too!

  • http://opitslinkfest.blogspot.com/ opit

    With all due respect to erudite studies defending corn-fed farming, systemic abuse is most problematic at the ‘tip of the spear’ : CAFO’s.
    Water pollution studies on oxygen depletion zones in the Gulf of Mexico and resulting ‘blooms’ – before it turned into a pool of carcinogenic toxins obviously – made a clear link to toxic pharming which has invaded groundwater supplies throughout the Mississippi Basin. Grist was only one forum to note that years ago.
    I’m well aware carbon dioxide output is not a problem with mass raising of beef. It’s a fine diversion from monoculture problems which vary from eventual destruction of the ever more finely bred stock from disease to the breeding of Superbugs, strange viruses, and the proliferation of prions. There was even a strange British farmer’s association between agrichemicals, manganese in the soil,and BSE.
    And not testing for BSE is the norm for reasons of international politics, not food safety.
    But seed policies make it interesting to consider if corn will remain ‘food’ if one monitors Monsanto’s policies and is aware what happened in Iraq,India,Africa….all as precursors to current invasion of GM strains into the US,UK,Canada….
    Things are so crazy that the Navajo agricultural station has planted GM corn at the same time that Indigenous People worldwide are rebelling against it. Starving Haitians burned seed from Monsanto foisted on them by Bill Gates.
    There’s lots more I could say…but running on at a private blog is neither appreciated nor efficient.

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