Our beef with grain-fed meat

Health: To comprehend why grass-fed meat is superior to grain-fed, we must think back to Michael Pollan’s famous idiom, “you are what you eat eats too.” Grass-fed cattle’s increased nutritional density and better-associated health outcomes stem from the chemical differences between forage and grain – and the complex ways in which livestock metabolize these inputs. A “pasture-based” diet includes much more than just grass, spanning flowers, herbs, clover, and other legumes. Plants produce natural antioxidants to protect themselves from UV rays and disease. Therefore, when this pasture is digested by cattle, the nutrients accumulate in their fat and are then transferred to us humans when we eat their meat. The relationship between grass-fed, regenerative ranchers and livestock is based on three core tenets: 

  • Forage – Ruminants are born, raised, and finished on pastures where grasses, legumes, and post-harvest crop residue are the primary energy sources. 
  • No confinement – Animals graze on open pasture and are allowed to fulfill their natural behaviors and basic instincts at all times. 
  • Animal health – Feeding animals by-products, antibiotics, ionophores, or hormones of any type is prohibited. 

Contrastingly, centralized animal feeding operations (CAFOs) rapidly fatten up cattle with grain-based feeds. In 2019, the USDA reported that nearly 36 percent of US commodity corn acreage was allocated towards livestock feed. Beef derived from a CAFO also passes on health risks to unassuming consumers. To combat diseases and infections caused by idleness, unsanitary living conditions, and high acidity in their digestive tracks, factory farms pump livestock with growth-promoting antibiotics (GPAs), which contribute to the contamination of meat by pathogenic bacteria – e.g., campylobacter, salmonella, and enterococcus. By 2015, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the US were used for animal agriculture. In comparison to grain-fed (CAFO) cattle, meat derived from pasture-raised cattle comes with a wide range of nutritional and health advantages

  • Fatty Acid Composition – Grass-fed beef offers a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to higher levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – an omega-3 fatty acid with neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antidepressant properties. 
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) – Grass-fed beef contains two to three times as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) –  a fatty acid that boosts the immune system and protects against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Antioxidants, Vitamins, and Minerals – Grass-fed beef has higher precursors in cancer-fighting antioxidants – e.g., GT, SOD, and CAT. Cattle raised on pasture also boast a seven-fold increase in vitamin A levels and a three-fold increase in vitamin E levels. These natural antioxidants play a crucial role in protecting cells from oxidative stress linked to arthritis, stroke, and other harmful conditions. 
  • Saturated Fat – Grass-fed beef contains a higher proportion of stearic acid – a type of saturated fat that does not raise blood cholesterol levels. A higher proportion of stearic acid also means that the meat contains lower amounts of palmitic and myristic acid, which are more likely to raise cholesterol.
  • Bacteria – Keeping cattle on forages up to the point of slaughter has been proven to make the beef safer by reducing the occurrence of E. coli strain 0157:H7. 

Turning meat into a cheap commodity has had harmful effects on the wellbeing of livestock and people. With the rise of CAFOs, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the food industry to stop using GPAs while dietitians and doctors advise us to cut back on red meat. It is impossible to decouple the relationship between eating sick, unhealthy cattle, and a society that is equally sick and unhealthy. However, by investing in the grass-fed, regenerative meat sector, we can support a system that produces humanely raised, nutrient-dense meat that restores agro-ecosystems and elevates the world’s 640 million small farmers. To find high-quality producers across the country, check out the American Grassfed Association, Local Harvest, and Cornucopia Institute


Listen: In this episode of Food by Design, Sandeep Pahuja weaves between conversations with ranchers and soil scientists to unpack the ways in which farmers can lead the charge against global warming. Loren and Lisa Poncia, who own and operate Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County, discuss the potential for regenerative techniques like rotational grazing to generate a net negative impact on emissions. By systematically moving livestock through open pastures, the Poncia’s are able to mimic what happened in the Great Plains hundreds of years ago with herds of wild bison. Ruminant animals – such as cattle, sheep, and goats – serve as natural soil management tools by eating the grass in front of them, stomping and churning the land below them, and fertilizing the grass behind them with manure. Click the link to learn more about how farmers can play a critical role in transitioning our food system towards one that produces more nutritious food while removing more carbon than it emits.