Grass-fed beef has skyrocketed in popularity as consumers become increasingly leery about eating meat that has been treated with growth hormones and antibiotics.
Grass-fed beef, which is a cornerstone of the trendy Paleo diet, has been touted as much healthier than grain-fed cows.
"Grass-fed [beef] is a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids," according to an Oct. 6 Guardian Express report. "Grass-fed meat is an abundant source of vitamin A, E, potassium, iron, and zinc."
Grass-fed meat contains up to five times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed cows, and have twice as much conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and obesity. In contrast, the consumption of grain has been linked to dementia, depression, ADHD, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.
Factory-farmed livestock are raised on grain, corn, soy and candy — including the wrappers (gag!) — and are injected with drugs and hormones to make them grow faster.
Factory-farmed livestock also live in unsanitary, crowded conditions where they're often abused and mingle with diseased cows before being slaughtered and end up on someone's dinner plate. Sadly, the vast majority of animal meat served in restaurants and sold in supermarkets are factory-farmed and grain-fed.
Meanwhile, grass-fed cows tend to roam free, where they subsist largely on grass and are usually not injected with drugs and hormones.
While grass-fed meat is unquestionably healthier than grain-fed cows, scientists say grass-fed beef is not the optimal solution from an environmental point of view. Last year, Oscar-winning director James Cameron, a vegan, made headlines after slamming meat eaters for destroying the environment.
According to a 2009 report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang of the IFC Environment and Social Development Department, 51 percent of the world's man-made greenhouse-gas emissions is due to livestock production. In March 2013, vegetarian billionaire Bill Gates also noted that factory farming is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions.
In response, meat eaters argue that grass-fed cows contribute to a healthy eco-system. However, some experts take issue with the notion that grass-fed beef is more environmentally friendly than factory-farmed livestock.
Dr. Jude Capper, an adjunct professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, said the myth of the eco-friendly, grass-fed cow is misleading at best and a sham at worst. If anything, Capper says grass-fed cows do more harm to the Earth than factory-farmed ones.
"There's a perception that grass-fed animals are frolicking in the sunshine, kicking their heels up full of joy and pleasure," she said. "What we actually found was from the land-use basis, from the energy, from water — and particularly, based on the carbon footprints — grass-fed is far worse than corn-fed."
This is because raising grass-fed cows is inefficient and results in more water and land usage and produces more waste in the long haul.
"They have a far lower efficiency, far lower productivity," said Capper. "The animals take 23 months to grow (versus 15 for corn-fed cattle). That's an extra eight months of feed, of water, land use, and also an awful lot of waste. If we have a grass-fed animal, compared to a corn-fed animal, that's like adding almost one car to the road for every single animal. That's a huge increase in carbon footprints."
Pat LaFrieda, a third-generation meat wholesaler, agrees that grass-fed cows harm the environment, and are more expensive for consumers. While shoppers pay a lot more for grass-fed beef at the supermarket, LaFrieda pointed out that all cows — even those labeled "grass-fed" — are grain-fed at some point.
"The carbon footprint of something that's grass-fed is much larger because it has to live a lot longer to get to weight if it's not fed grain or corn," he told Bloomberg. "What most people don't know is that all beef is grass-fed for about 85 percent of its life. It's finished off on grain."