Compelling evidence shows
sustainably raised cattle are good
for the environment and for you, too
By Julie F. Morris
Photography by Margaux Gibbons and Michelle Magdalena
When my husband Joe and I first started raising and marketing grass-fed beef in 1991, people wrinkled their noses and asked, “What’s grass-fed beef?”
Today, it’s a common choice on menus and in butcher cases everywhere. Animals fed on natural forage in open pastures—rather than fattened on ill-suited grains in overcrowded factory farm conditions— have even been parodied by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia’s “Is the Chicken Local?”—an episode in which the couple abruptly abandons a romantic dinner to go inspect the farm where the chicken was raised. We have gone mainstream—and can laugh at ourselves, too!
But all laughing aside, familiarity has not bred the controversy out of meat—grassfed or otherwise.
When raised on an industrial farm, beef may leave the largest carbon footprint of any food humans eat. Thus, it is a very easy target for those who argue that meat is bad for the health of both people and the planet.
But the truth is, the local ranchers whose grassfed cows dot the Monterey Bay landscape raise pastured beef expressly because we care about health and about the environment, and we belief that grassfed is essential to both. Ranching is hard, hard work, and if we didn’t believe in it, we’d sell off our herds and do something else.
So with new studies providing more and more evidence all the time that raising and eating the right kinds of meat offer huge rewards to our personal wellbeing and that of the environment, we’ve never believed in our calling more than we do now.
BACK TO THE LAND
“Meat is perhaps the least understood part of our diet,” says Mark Shelley, a filmmaker, environmentalist and, as owner of Tassajara Natural Meats in Carmel Valley, a producer of grassfed beef. “I posit that if one is going to eat meat, it makes more difference—to the environment and our health—how that meat was raised and processed than any other food choice we make.”
One of the most common misconceptions about meat is that it’s an ecological disaster. Red meat—and beef more specifically—is blamed for clear cutting rain forests, emitting more greenhouse gases than Los Angeles freeways and using too much water. What’s lost in this argument is that cattle are not the problem. The people who raise the cattle are.
Beef cattle are living, breathing, gas-emitting animals just like whales, dogs, cats and, yes—even humans. Raised properly on grass-fed, holistically managed ranches, cattle are a net benefit to the environment as they can contribute to healthy rangelands, and such rangelands have the potential to become the earth’s largest carbon sink.
The opposite of this approach is what happens on the industrial meat farms that you smell before you see when you’re driving down Route 5.
The smell of these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) comes not just from the natural methane the cows emit, but also from the rotting waste in which the crowded cows must wade as well as the sprawling ponds where the waste is pooled. We’ll get to the personal health risks of CAFO-raised meat later, but for the environment, the tally of risks posed by CAFOs includes massive energy and
water consumption, antibiotic-tainted water runoff and overgrazing, which leads to barren landscapes that cannot capture water or grow plants, creating a void where photosynthesis was once possible.
Luckily, this outmoded industrial model of the last half-century is coming under more scrutiny, as the couple in Portlandia so aptly portrayed.
In fact, there is a resurgence—a revolution, even—happening all over North America and the world, as researchers and ranchers are developing new techniques for managing cattle in ways that restore rangelands and waterways, making beef a healthy byproduct in the fight against global warming.
One technique that we and many other local ranchers are embracing is called “holistic management,” an approach pioneered by the Zimbabwean biologist, Allan Savory, and described in his 2013 TED Talk, How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.
“There is only one option left to climatologists and scientists,” Savory says, “and that is to do the unthinkable and to use livestock, bunched and moving as a proxy for [once thriving wild] herds and predators and mimic nature,” he says, referring to a system that we now know helped protect a healthy ecosystem. “There is no other alternative left to mankind.
“We can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years,” Savory continues, “and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels [of carbon] while feeding people meat. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children and all of humanity.”
Photo by Michelle Magdalena
Photo by Margaux Gibbons
But how, exactly, does this work? Simply put, when plants are left undisturbed—or at least are not overgrazed—they use the same photosynthesis that you learned about in elementary school to naturally snatch carbon out of the atmosphere, away from where it would have contributed to global warming, and then deposit what carbon they don’t need deeply within the soil, where it can promote fertility. And the cattle, as they rotate through carefully managed fields, leave behind their own fertilizer, conveniently packaged with seed from the grasses they eat, thereby promoting biodiversity.
Joe and I attended our first holistic management class the month before our wedding and learned that by carefully planning our livestock grazing, we could maximize our ranch’s productivity. We have been using the technique for 24 years on the ranches we manage and can attest to the wildflowers and oak trees that thrive where our cattle have grazed.
Using portable electric fences to control the timing and number of cows, we move them often to prevent overgrazing. Careful monitoring ensures we meet our goal of promoting perennial grass growth and healthy soils while fattening our cattle and increasing our profits.
By pasturing our animals, we also use much less water than a CAFO would.
Last winter’s drought mandated that we haul water to our cattle atop a ranch we lease in Watsonville. This gave us a real-time measurement of exactly how much water each cow needed: 10 gallons a day, or 3,650 gallons per year. Compare that to more intensive factory CAFOs, which use automatic “flushing” systems that consume up to 150 gallons of water per cow, per day. Add to that the millions of gallons of water used to grow the grain they are fed, and it’s no wonder so-called conventional red meat gets such a bad rap.
NOT YOUR FATHER’S STEAK
Like ecologists, nutritionists are now realizing that the meat question is not a matter of whether or not it’s harmful, but whether the type of meat and how it’s raised is harmful.
Jessica Campbell, a certified nutritional therapy practitioner and founder of Food Foundation, a Bay Area consulting firm that helps clients eat for good health, has from personal experience and work with clients become a bit of a meat evangelist.
“My new love of beef stems from the fact that I made a poor choice in college to become a vegetarian and was that way for nine years,” says Campbell, noting that she believes that her meatless diet led to deficiencies of protein, B vitamins and iron, as well as depression and an inability to get pregnant.
Putting meat back into her diet, Campbell says, led her to lose 10 pounds, drop two clothing sizes and, finally, get pregnant.
“When we eat beef from cows that have eaten the grasses they were designed for, we access all of the vitamins from their diet of greens,” Campbell notes. “We see more omega 3 essential fatty acids, which are beneficial anti-inflammatory agents, and significantly more antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta carotene, which protect our cells from oxidation,” she explains.
And what about the supposed health risks of red meat—like high cholesterol, heart attacks and cancer?
“Unfortunately, some studies linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer,” says Cate Ritter, a certified nutritionist and kitchen coach in Pebble Beach, noting that the studies didn’t distinguish between the quality of meats or types of meats examined, or how the meats were cooked.
“I’m sure most people would agree that a grassfed steak doesn’t belong in the same category as a processed hot dog filled with preservatives, artificial coloring and added sugars,” Ritter says. “It’s a slow process, but luckily the health community is finally recognizing the benefits of high-quality animal products.”
In a sign of change, decades of doctors’ advice that we should eat a “lowfat diet” and stay away from red meat is increasingly being linked to the obesity epidemic in the United States, forcing many nutritionists to question traditional guidelines that powerful interests in the processed food industry helped shape.
What’s more, the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products that we were told in particular to avoid have been found to be less harmful than once thought, and the trans fats such as margarine that were once advocated to replace them have been exposed as much worse.
And in any event, grassfed beef tends to be lower in fat than conventional beef, and it doesn’t carry the same health risk of contamination with E. coli that beef raised on factory farms does.
Far from viewing it as harmful, the wildly popular Paleo diet and CrossFit exercise regimes encourage pastured meat as part of a nutrient-dense, low-calorie diet to build muscle and immune systems and fight disease.
“The reason I love the holistic approach [to nutrition] is that we are not researching and developing new pharmaceutical solutions to your symptoms of disease. We are looking back in time to when our ancestors hunted and ate what was there for them to eat,” Campbell says. “We are acknowledging the innovations of agriculture and farming, but we are turning our back on food processing.”
Meantime, such recently released books as Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise (Simon & Schuster, 2014) and Dan Barber’s The Third Plate (Penguin Press, 2014) advocate a balanced, more holistic approach to eating and nutrition and encourage consumers to ask how their food was produced and who produced it.
In his introduction in The Third Plate, Barber aptly quotes Lady Eve Balfour, one of the earliest of organic farming’s pioneers, who said that the best kind of farming could not be reduced to a set of rules and marketing tools (as big organic tends to be now) but by “the attitude of the farmer.”
So what’s a consumer who is concerned about both health and the environment to do?
When deciding whether to buy your next juicy rib eye, ask these simple questions:
“Who is producing this food and how was it grown?” “Is the way it is raised hurting or helping the environment?” “Will it improve my health?” If the meat is grassfed, and produced by a rancher who manages
the land in ways that nourish the soil, then fire up the grill and enjoy your steak, knowing that with each bite, you are taking care of your body and fighting climate change at the same time.
Julie Morris is a writer and local food promoter. She is co-founder and owner of Morris Grassfed Beef and a past recipient of the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s First Place Award for Environmental/Agricultural Reporting and currently lives in San Juan Bautista with her husband Joe and their border collies. Read her blog at localfood.wordpress.com.
Tips for Cooking Grassfed Beef
Adapted from the American Grassfed Association
Julie Morris demonstrating her technique.
Photo by Margaux Gibbons.
The main things to remember when cooking grassfed beef are that it’s lower in fat and cooks more quickly than grain-fed meat. So before cooking your pastured beef, consider marinating it or slathering it with the fat of your choice. When the time comes to put it on the flame, try locking in the juices by first searing it. And be sure not to overcook. Read on for more detailed advice.
- Grassfed beef is ideal at rare to medium-rare temperatures. If you prefer meat well done, cook at a low temperature in a sauce to add moisture. A slow cooker is ideal.
- Because grassfed beef is low in fat, coat it with extra virgin olive oil or another light oil for easy browning. The oil will also prevent the meat from drying out and sticking to the cooking surface.
- Very lean cuts like New York strips and sirloin steaks can benefit from a marinade. Choose a recipe that doesn’t mask the flavor of the beef but enhances the moisture content. For safe handling, always marinate in the refrigerator.
- Never use a microwave to thaw grassfed beef. Either thaw in the refrigerator or, for quick thawing, place the vacuum sealed package in cold water for a few minutes. Let it sit at room temperature for no more than 30 minutes. And don’t cook it cold straight from the refrigerator.
- Tenderizing breaks down tough connective tissue, so use a mechanical tenderizer like the Jaccard. It’s a small, hand-held device with little “needles” that pierce the meat and allow the marinade or rub to penetrate the surface.
- Another way to tenderize is to coat a thawed steak with your favorite rub; put it into a plastic zipper bag; place on a solid surface and, using a meat mallet, rolling pin or other hard object, pound a few times. This will not only tenderize the meat, but will also incorporate the rub, adding flavor. Don’t go over- board and flatten the beef unless the recipe calls for it.
- Always pre-heat the oven, pan or grill before cooking grassfed beef.
- Grassfed beef cooks about 30% faster than grainfed beef. Use a thermometer to test for doneness and watch the tempera- ture carefully. You can go from perfectly cooked to overdone in less than a minute. The meat will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat, so when it reaches a temperature 10 degrees LOWER than the desired temperature, it’s done.
- Let the beef sit covered in a warm place for eight to 10 minutes after removing from heat to let the juices redistribute.
- Pan searing on the stove is an easy way to cook a grassfed steak. After you’ve seared the steak over high heat, turn the heat to low and add butter and garlic to the pan to finish cooking.
- When grilling, quickly sear the meat over high heat on each side and then reduce the heat to medium or low to finish. Baste to add moisture.
- Never use a fork to turn the beef. Always use tongs.
- When grilling burgers, use caramelized onions or roasted peppers to add low-fat moisture to the meat.
- When roasting, sear the beef first to lock in the juices and then place in a pre-heated oven. Reduce the roasting temperature by 50°F.