Grass Fed Beef is a hot product at the moment – it is the “Paleo Superfood Du Jour”. As followers of this blog should well know by now, however, I am highly critical of the “Paleo” diet/movement/religion. I am also not a believer in the existence of “Super-foods”, at least not from a purely nutritional perspective.
There is No Such Thing as a Superfood
I once got asked in all earnestness – “Do I need to eat grassfed beef at every meal?”
While this may seem crazy, read many of the popular paleo blogs or listen to Robb Wolf or Dave Asprey’s podcasts, and you can see why someone might draw this conclusion. Grassfed beef has become the Tofu of the Paleo world – the holy manna which
God Darwin put on this earth to nourish our every need and cure all ills.
In reality, however, the body has no specific nutritional requirement for grass fed beef that cannot easily be met by a wide range of other foods – there is no physical need to eat grassfed beef at all.
Yes, grassfed beef is a great source of essential nutrients, but so are oily fish, seafood, pastured eggs, lamb, and dairy products.
The media is constantly raving about the latest super-food, with fantastical rejuvenating, disease defying, life-extending properties, but this is all just marketing hype, not based on any real science.
There is no single food which supplies any special nutrient which can’t be obtained from a large number of other alternative foods. Yes, invariably, one food will contain a higher concentration of a specific nutrient than any other – For example strawberries if I recall correctly, contain move vitamin C per kcal than any other food.
This doesn’t mean we all should be consuming strawberries everyday though, as we can easily meet our vitamin C requirements by eating almost any selection of fruits and vegetables. Indeed, even just one average sized serving of the humble potato supplies nearly 50% of your RDA of vitamin C!
Not only is overdosing on essential nutrients unnecessary, I’ve talked before about how it could even be potentially harmful (though to be fair, you’d be hard pushed to OD on strawberries, this is more likely to occur through supplements).
There’s More to Food than Nutrition
I would never again allow a food’s (alleged) health promoting or health deteriorating properties be the sole influencing factor as to whether or not I would eat it.
How many people cut out delicious foods like eggs, butter, cheese and bacon for years, only to find not only was it probably unnecessary, but potentially deleterious to their health! Equally, how many have forced down bland boring soy products, chomped away at bowls of bran cereals that felt like eating a bird’s nest, and grimaced as they gulped down wheat grass and spirulina smoothies, under the misguided notion it might actually be doing them some good?
This does not mean that good nutrition is not an important factor when choosing what to eat – on the contrary, it is an accepted fact that good diet is critical to health (even if no one can agree exactly what that good diet is), just that it should not be the only factor.
If you really dislike a food, don’t eat it! No matter how nutritious it’s supposed to be, there’s always going to be other foods which can supply the same benefits in a package you prefer
On the flip side, if you really love a food, unless you have a specific allergy, or medical condition which prohibits you from eating it, there’s probably no reason why you should avoid it altogether, providing you don’t make it a staple, you ensure you’re hitting all your RDAs, and you’re not over consuming calories.
I’ve already outlined my general guidelines for making decisions on what or what not to eat in my series “What is Food?“, so I don’t want to go over it again in too much detail here, other than to note that the articles assess a food’s suitability based on just 4 criteria – calorie density, nutrient density, level of toxins, and taste.
Grassfed beef scores extremely well on all those factors, but as mentioned above, there are plenty of other foods which tick all the same boxes.
So Why Choose to Eat Grass-Fed Beef?
Every meal we eat has some kind of effect on the world around us – its production will have affected the environment, animals, people, and the economy, in some way, to some extent, either positively, or negatively.
As far as food ethics go, meat has generally got a pretty bad reputation.
There is a large vegetarian and vegan movement, who claim that meat production is inherently cruel and also destructive to the environment. Not only does it result in the needless suffering of animals, but it also contributes to global warming, deforestation, pollution, water shortages, and the rise of antibiotic resistant disease.
There is in fact, a lot of truth to these claims – I was a vegetarian for many years, and I still would not eat industrially raised meat from a C.A.F.O for just all those reasons above.
It is, however, a grave mistake to tarnish all red meat with the same brush.
Red Meat Production and the Environment
According to the anti-meat campaigners, the production of meat for human consumption harms the environment in two main ways:
- It is an inefficient use of energy, land and water to feed crops which could be eaten directly by humans to animals.
- The methane produced by ruminants farmed for human consumption is a major contributor to man made climate change.
When it comes to industrially produced, intensively grain fed livestock, both of these arguments hold true.
In most environments, grain production requires large amounts of energy, predominantly from fossil fuels, and also has many other knock on effects to the environment, such as soil erosion, and a reduction in biodiversity.
If you’re going to produce grains, from an energy efficiency perspective, it’s definitely better to feed them directly to humans, than to animals.
But is there a better solution?
The important thing to realise here when discussing the merits of one type of food production over another, is that it is never as simple as food A is better for the environment than food B.
Regardless of the method of farming, meat does require more land per calorie to produce. If you had a patch of land that was suitable for both the production of a high yield, calorie dense crop suitable for human consumption that required minimal energy input in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, sewing and harvesting, or livestock rearing, there is a fair chance that the edible crop would produce significantly more net calories.
(NB – The sensible option would actually most likely be some form of poly-culture, and use the land to farm both edible crops and livestock, but let’s not over complicate matters for now).
Grass is a high yield, calorie and nutrient dense crop very well suited to the UK topography and climate. It can grow on steep slopes, on uneven ground, doesn’t require any ploughing, tilling or weeding. It doesn’t require irrigation, and if well managed won’t require any chemical fertilizers.
The only problem with grass as a food crop, is that humans can’t eat it.
Fortunately, ruminants do a very good job of converting inedible grass, into highly nutritious, easily digestible, and super tasty meat! (If God hadn’t meant us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat…).
Are the rolling green hills of the British countryside an inefficient waste of valuable space?
If this land was not used to farm cattle and sheep, what would happen to it? Should it all be bulldozed and turned into quorn factories?
But what about greenhouse gases?
One thing which cannot be deined, is that cows and sheep a very flatulent creatures.
During the conversion of the many varied plant species on which the ruminants graze, into lovely, tasty, nutritious meat by the trillions of bacteria which reside in their four stomachs, lots of methane and various other gasses are produced.
Here’s some news for you however; even if those plants aren’t eaten by ruminants, eventually they will die, and be broken down by micro-organisms, releasing their carbon back into the system.
When ruminants graze on pasture, much of the carbon in the biomass they consume is turned into manure, which then sequesters carbon back into the soil.
Want to help the environment? Sell your lawn mower, and get a sheep instead. Just think about it!
Food Production Always Necessitates Sacrifice
In addition to claiming (incorrectly), that their diets are superior to that of ignorant omnivore’s in terms of health and ecological impact, vegetarians and vegans also claim their diets as superior as they don’t necessitate the killing of animals.
This is in fact probably the number one reason most people choose to follow a vege/vegan lifestyle.
Unfortunately, they are wrong again.
Generally speaking, vegetarianism involves the abstinence from meat eating, but allows the consumption of dairy and eggs. One must presume that all these vegetarians are oblivious to the fact that all almost all male calves and chickens born into these systems are killed straight away as it is not economical to keep them alive (NB If you do consume dairy, the most ethical thing you can do is to eat Rose Veal).
But I guess if the meat is not actually on your plate, it doesn’t count?
Vegans look down on vegetarians, claiming veganism is the only way intelligent humans should eat, as we don’t have the right to take the lives or freedom of any other living creatures in order to feed ourselves when we don’t have to.
Unfortunately, vegans are falling for the same error as the vegetarians – just because there isn’t a bit of dead animal on your plate, doesn’t mean that animals didn’t suffer or die in its production.
In his paper entitled “The Least Harm Principle” Steven Davis argues that a vegan meal may have actually resulted in the deaths of more animals, than eating a meal of pasture raised beef.
This is due to a combination of small mammals, reptiles and birds being killed by combine harvesters and other farm equipment, run off from fertilizers and pesticides into local water systems, and the general destruction/displacement of natural habitats.
In his counter argument Gaverick Matheny argues that it is hard to calculate exactly how many animals die in the production of vegan food, that Davis may have over estimated, and that at least the animals that are killed accidentally, are “free” up until this point.
If we are talking about how many animals were physically killed in the production of one particular plate of food, it is true, it is very hard to say. Maybe no animals were directly harmed in the making of your seitan, on the other hand, how do you know that a mouse wasn’t mutilated by the blades cutting the wheat, or if it was taking food back to a nest to feed babies which will now starve?
On the other hand, a cow definitely died if there’s a steak on your plate, there’s no avoiding that. What vegans and vegetarians tend to forget however, is that you don’t have to kill a whole cow for every meal. Depending upon the age and breed of a cow, one carcass produces around 160-200kg of beef. Based on a typical serving size of 160-200g (A 6oz steak = 168g), this is around 1000 meals per animal. Even if you ate beef 4 x per week, that’s just over 200 times per year, or one cow every 5 years. Hardly serial killer status.
Providing you’re getting your beef from a well managed farm you can trust, you can also rest assured that the animal had a good life, died swiftly and painlessly, and didn’t leave any dependants.
But what about freedom? At least the mutilated mouse and its starving babies died free!
Freedom is a very human concept, most likely not high on the priorities of mice, cattle or any other “non-human animals”.
Keeping animals which normally live outdoors in tiny cages or cramped conditions is cruel, without doubt, and I would never eat factory farmed meat. A cow or sheep which has access to as much fresh pasture as it can chew, combined with free medical care, and protection from parasites and predators, would probably count itself pretty lucky, if it could do such a thing.
A wild animal may have its “freedom” and the potential of longer life expectancy, but what is it going to do with this? Is a captive cow missing out on travelling the world, going to concerts, reading great works of literature, watching its grandchildren grow up and go to uni?
The fact is, for the majority of wild creatures out there, life in the wild is a world of hunger, fear, exposure to the elements, followed by death, usually slow and painful.
A Young Wildebeest Enjoying its Freedom
The usual vege/vegan argument is “Well at least it had a chance” – But a chance of what? Newsflash: Everything dies. Even if humans don’t kill them for meat. At least death by human is quick and painless.
So on the basis of animals physically killed in the making of one specific meal, it’s pretty hard to gauge whether a steak or a bean burger resulted in the most premature deaths. Really, however, one needs to look at the bigger picture, and the effect that a particular method of farming has on biodiversity – all individual animals will die sooner or later, but what about at the species level?
Grains and legumes require mono-cropping in order to produce meaningful quantities. This basically means that the area of land on which they are grown is devoted solely to their existence. All other life that might try to colonise that land is considered either a weed or a pest, and must be eradicated. This is the case on even the most benign, organic, “all natural” farm.
To produce enough vegetable protein to sustain a vegan population, however, “all natural” organic farming would not cut it. Industrial farming methods would have to be employed, resulting in chemical fertilizers and pesticides leaching into the local waterways, and further spreading the disruption of local habitats.
Let’s not also forget, that plants eat dead animals/animal waste. If this does not come from the meat production industry, it has to come from fossil fuels, the extraction and processing of which causes further destruction and disruption of the natural habitats of even more flora and fauna in locations far removed.
The pasture on which grass fed ruminants graze, however, is a rich and diverse habitat, shared by a huge variety of species – grass is not just one species of plant, but a vast multitude of grasses, legumes, flowers and herbs, interspersed with fungi, mosses and more. All this rich fauna is then teeming with invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds, with which the ruminants happily cohabit.
By choosing to eat grassfed meat, you help preserve this rich and diverse habitat.
(Of course, no system is perfect – It would be biased not to point out that bears and wolves were wiped out in Great Britain as they were a threat to our livestock. This needn’t have had to have been the case however, in a better managed system. Equally, running around in the dark shooting badgers is not a necessary (or in anyway useful) component of farming pasture raised meat in the UK).
Who’s Food is on Your Plate?
The food you eat doesn’t just have an effect on animals and the environment, it directly affects other human beings too.
Unless you’re growing the food yourself, each meal you eat is providing a source of income for its producers.
You are also, however, eating food that could have potentially fed someone else.
At face value, these both seem fairly unproblematic – you’re paying for your food and keeping someone in business, and at the same time, everyone has to eat, so providing you’re not eating more calories than you require, what’s the problem? You can’t starve yourself for fear of depriving someone else of food can you?
If we are talking about locally produced food, purchased direct from/very close to the source of production, in a relatively unprocessed form, the above is most likely true. Buying fresh meat, dairy, eggs and vegetables direct from the farm, or via farmers markets and box schemes puts money back into the local economy. Providing people just eat what they need, and don’t needlessly waste food, it should be a pretty efficient, self sustaining system.
Things start to go awry when we begin to import foods from other economies, in particular, from developing economies.
There is an argument that importing food from less affluent nations is to their benefit, as it results in a flow of money into the economy.
Unfortunately, this is often not really the case, as the companies which own many of the farms in developing countries are powerful, foreign owned, multi-conglomerates, who are very adept at avoiding taxes and ensuring as much of the profits as possible go into the pockets of their wealthy shareholders in the West.
Only a tiny percentage of the money you spend on food from South America, Asia or Africa ever actually makes it into the pockets of the local people living and working on and/or near where the food is produced.
Choosing Fair Trade products, is definitely a must if buying exported food from a developing nation, but it is still not a perfect solution, as even with better wages, local people cannot afford to pay the same high prices for their local crops as affluent Westerners.
A recent example are the problems being caused in Bolivia by the growing popularity of “vegan superfood” quinoah. A traditional staple food source of the local people, it’s recent boom in popularity as a trendy “health food” (mmm, love those anti-nutrients), has driven prices so high that local people can no longer afford to buy it.
True Superfoods are Local and Sustainable
The question of what to eat has become a very complex one indeed. It’s very hard to say for sure what effects a plate of food will have on your long term health, the environment, the economy or the other animals, non-human or otherwise, we share the planet with.
We are constantly being bombarded with news of the latest “Superfood” – be it quinoa, soy, green tea, acai berries or manuka honey. In reality though, the only thing “Super” about any of these products is that they are rare, and from far away, enabling food manufacturers to charge a premium and make super profits, typically at the expense of the local people, and definitely at the expense of the environment, both locally and globally.
The true superfoods, are those that can be produced locally, and sustainably. Which can provide both a source of nourishment and a source of income for the local people, and work in harmony with the local eco-system.
In the UK at least, beef and lamb from cattle and sheep put out to pasture in the lush British countryside certainly fit this profile, and should play an important role in our diets and food system, along with sustainably produced, seasonal crops suited to the local environment, including some grains and legumes.