Going organic, Part 2: Corn-fed versus grass-fed beef
Science of Food
Editor’s note: This is the second in a monthly series of columns about the benefits of eating organic food.
Cattle are ruminants, and unlike us humans, they have a highly evolved digestive organ called the rumen that allows them the ability to digest grass and turn it into a very nutritious protein. For millions of years, the ancestors of modern cattle ate grass, until humans decided to take them off their lush green pastures, put them in crowded feedlots and force them to eat corn.
When cattle are fed a corn-based diet, their normal digestive system stops working properly and they become more vulnerable to getting sick. Their rumens become acidified (acidosis), creating acid-producing bacteria that take over, affecting their immune systems. They experience severe bloating as a result of a slime that covers the rumen and prevents the normal escape of gases. They are thus susceptible to severe liver damage and, sometimes, death.
Thus, cattle are frequently put on antibiotics in an attempt to prevent and/or treat the various diseases that emerge from this unnatural diet. Beef from cattle treated with antibiotics (or any other veterinary drug, for that matter) may contain residues from these drugs that can be passed onto humans. In addition, beef cattle living in these crowded feedlots spend much time lying in their own manure. When the cow or bull is killed and processed into meat, it can be difficult to keep the manure out of the meat. Bacteria from the manure are able to enter the meat supply this way.
Frequent exposure to antibiotics causes numerous problems: It disturbs our natural gut flora and the good bacteria that live in synergy inside our bodies. Science is just beginning to understand this complex relationship, but we do know it plays a major role in our overall health and well-being. The bacteria in our bodies are intimately linked to the health of our immune systems. If we are consuming antibiotics on a regular basis, these good bacteria will be killed, too.
Children suffer more from frequent exposure to antibiotics because they are physically smaller. They are still developing and so are their gut flora and their immune systems. The small doses of antibiotics will affect them in a more pronounced way.
But perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the widespread use of antibiotics in this way is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such superbugs, are evolving as a result of these agricultural practices and cannot be effectively killed by the arsenal of modern antibiotics available today. This is a significant and potentially life-threatening issue that we are facing in modern society as a whole.
With all these problems and risks that arise from cattle eating corn, why, then, did we start feeding them corn in the first place? The answer is economically driven. Corn-fed cattle fatten up more quickly. The sooner you can turn that cow or bull into profit, the greater the amount of income that can be generated from that animal.
Then, when Monsanto introduced genetically modified corn and RoundUp herbicides, farmers grew corn in such large quantities that it created a huge surplus. They needed to get rid of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture started to encourage farmers to feed it to their livestock, and with a government subsidy now in place, it actually costs more to grow corn than it costs farmers to buy it. Most of the corn grown in the United States currently goes to feeding livestock.
So, what meat to buy? Labeling of beef products is confusing. Corn-fed beef is found in nearly every major supermarket, and it will likely be the cheapest meat you can buy. And “grass-fed” does not necessarily mean the cattle are antibiotic-free.
“Meat labeling just became even more confusing for farmers and consumers,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, as the USDA revoked the standards required for the “grass-fed” label in January earlier this year. “Actions such as this take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.”
Don’t be fooled by phrases such as “all natural” or “fed a vegetarian diet,” either. We as consumers have to pay close attention to what we are buying.
There is an interesting interdependence between the beef industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the government and Monsanto. For me, it is worth buying organic and grass-fed beef. I hope you will consider investing just a little more time and money in better quality beef and demanding better standards and labeling from our government. This will support not only your own health; it will support human health as a whole.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry — the “molecules of life” — and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 and firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about services offered at her studio, visit http://www.elevatedyogacolorado.com.