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It’s OK to eat beef

It’s OK to eat beef

These days it’s very fashionable (in certain circles) to bash beef. The rationale goes like this:

  1. Beef is inherently unhealthy
  2. Cattle eat mostly grain, which could feed humans more efficiently
  3. Livestock are raised inhumanely
  4. Cows are responsible for climate change because they pour methane into the atmosphere (from farts)

Let put #4 to bed right away. More than 95% of cow methane comes from the mouth. From burps. This according to years of research by agricultural scientists. But burps don’t quite have the smirky “ick” factor as farts, so don’t expect certain beef critics to use actual facts in their arguments.

By the way: beef acounts for less than 2% of “greenhouse” gas emissions in the U.S. Meanwhile 96% of emissions come from transportation, electricity production and other sources. If beef went away, not much would change about gas emissions.

I recently watched a webinar about beef and sustainable agriculture. A lot of the information, such as the burping — was new to me, so I wanted to share some of that. I’m not likely to change the minds of strict vegetarians, but many people do eat beef, and appreciate learning new things about their food.

I eat beef occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. I don’t see anything wrong with that. That’s why I call my diet “sometimes vegetarian”. For some people, beef is a daily thing, so I was surprised to learn that the average daily consumption in the U.S. is a mere 2 ounces, barely half a burger.

Upcycling

A road I drive frequently between towns goes past some rangeland. Cattle are typically grazing on these large tracts. During March, the cows give birth. Dozens of little calves suddenly appear, seemingly overnight. It’s very cute, but next year they’ll be bigger, grazing on a different section, upcycling grass into muscle protein.

Let’s put criticism #2 to bed. Almost 90% of what beef cattle eat is plant material that would not be eaten by humans: forage (grass, hay) and inedible by-products of plant processing. Would you eat almond hulls, distillery grains, cotton seed meal or beet pulp? Cattle do, upcycling forage and food waste into quality protein.

Cattle are typically “finished” on a grain based diet. Here’s another thing I learned: cattle produce much less methane when eating grains compared to eating grass and other forage. Why? For the same reason you might produce more gas eating beans, vegetables or other high fiber foods: gut microbes thrive on the undigested fiber, producing gas. It’s ironic that beef critics object to grain, even though it results in less methane.

Unhealthy?

Humans have been eating meat for eons. Some anthropologists theorize that humans who cooked and ate meat evolved to have larger brains, thanks to better nutrition. If meat were inherently unhealthy, we would have died out long ago. So much for criticism #1.

What does beef contribute to nutrition?

  • quality protein in an easily digestible form, and small volume compared to the same amount of protein from a plant source
  • iron
  • zinc
  • B12
  • niacin and other B vitamins

What about fat?? We’ve been lectured for decades about avoiding beef because it’s high saturated fat. During that time, beef producers raised leaner cattle and created leaner cuts of beef. Your typical donut or pepperoni pizza probably has more fat than a lean burger. But old beliefs die hard. Lots of people still avoid beef (fat!!), but are happy to chow down on fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

Inhumane?

What does inhumane livestock agriculture mean? That cattle are whipped? Starved? What rancher would do that to animals raised for meat? What rancher would have the time to do that? Maybe it means finishing cattle in feedlots. Or killing them. If so, it won’t be possible to change those people’s minds. In order to get meat, livestock is slaughtered. It’s been going on for eons, and it’s not just cattle and it’s not just in the U.S.

Supporting a healthy and sustainable food supply

There are impactful food choices you can make right now, every day that support a healthy and sustainable food supply.

Such as —Stop wasting food. I hate food waste. It represents the largest proportion of waste in landfills. Well over 80% of this waste comes from restaurants, grocery stores and homes. Half of that is from homes, so you can support a sustainable food supply by not wasting food: don’t buy too much, don’t prepare too much, use food up before it spoils, re-use leftovers.

Here’s another simple choice: avoid ultraprocessed foods. It’s not just about the energy that goes into the processing. It’s the packaging, additives, water use and extra transportation for all of that.

If possible, buy locally raised (or as local as possible) beef. Small family farms that invest in sustainable agricultural practices are worth supporting. Look for local or regional products at your grocery store or farmer’s market.