A Breath of Fresh Air
Intensive cattle production—where thousands of cattle are confined in dirt feedlots and fed a grain-based diet—has come under fire over recent years for its appalling record on gas (GHG) emissions. Yet proponents of intensive farming systems are now fighting back: They argue that these industrial cattle operations are actually more environmentally friendly than pasture-based or grassfed farming systems.
They claim that while it may seem counter-intuitive, scientific research shows that feeding cattle in confinement and feeding them grain is the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce beef, because feedlot cattle emit less methane—an important greenhouse gas (GHG)—per pound of meat than grassfed or pasture-raised cattle. They argue that the only choice we have to feed the growing global appetite for meat and dairy products, and to provide for the world’s hungry, is to further intensify production.
The problem is that this argument strongly conflicts with the ever-mounting scientific evidence that pasture-based and grassfed cattle systems have a much better environmental profile than confinement systems.
To get to the bottom of the debate, AWA carried out an in-depth review of the science relating to GHG emissions among different cattle production systems. What we found is that most of the research used to present industrial farming systems as more environmentally friendly is actually very limited in its scope and, at best, tells only part of the story. The research frequently ignores two essential facts: first, the significant non-methane GHG emissions associated with intensive livestock farming, such as the carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions resulting from grain-based feed production or vast feedlot manure lagoons. Second, the potential role that carbon sequestration could play in offsetting the overall GHG emissions associated with pastured beef production.
AWA’s latest report, A Breath of Fresh Air: The truth about pasture-based livestock production and environmental sustainability, confirms once again that the most sustainable livestock production comes from pasture. Although pastured cattle might have a slower growth rate and produce more methane per pound of meat, this is more than offset by the overall benefits of the entire pasture-based production system.
Consumers’ concern about the safety of their meat has risen as multiple beef recalls have made the news in recent months. However, the latest recalls making headlines are nothing new; between Jan. 1, 1994 and Nov. 31, 2007, roughly 800 separate company recalls took place – equivalent to over 300 million lbs. of meat and poultry products. Nearly all were caused by two types of bacteria: Listeria and E. coli.
At the heart of the problem is the standard industry practice of raising and processing animals at the fastest rate and the lowest cost. With over 80 percent of meat in the United States coming from mass production units, consumer fears may be justified. Fortunately, an alternative exists. Studies show that meat from grassfed cattle, such as those raised by Animal Welfare Approved farmers, is less likely to harbor dangerous bacteria. For a comprehensive overview of the history and benefits of grassfed beef see AWA’s Grassfed Primer, available for free download here.
A 2001* study comparing calves finished in feedlots with calves that stayed out on grass showed that grassfed animals had less E. coli overall, and the E. coli that did show up was a different strand that was much less likely to infect humans. None of the grassfed calves had the potentially lethal O157:h7 strain, whereas all of the grainfed calves had this type of E. coli.
Another study** conducted in 2003 found that, among loads of feedlot and grassfed cattle, 58 percent of the former group carried the campylobacter bacteria. Only 2 percent of cattle raised on pasture had these bacteria, which can cause symptoms including fever, upset stomach, headache and muscle pain.
The Animal Welfare Approved husbandry standards require that all beef cattle are raised humanely on pasture, ensuring that they are able to live naturally in a habitat that suits them, and that their meat is a safer choice for consumers.
* Russell, J.B., F. Diez-Gonzalez, and G.N. Jarvis, “Potential Effect on Cattle Diets and the Transmission of Pathogenic Escherichia Coli to Humans” Microbes Infect 2, no, 1 (2000) 45-53.
**Bailey, G.D., B.A. Vantelow et al. (2003) “A study of the food borne pathogens Campylobacter, Listeria and Yersinia, in faeces from slaughter-age cattle and sheep in Australia.” Commun Dis Intell 2003; 27(2): 249-57.