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Organic-raised cattle. Photo courtesy of Dakota Beef.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.

 

 

May 2006
Updated April 2009

 Product Reviews / NutriNibbles

Where’s The [Organic] Beef?

Page 1: The Realities Of Beef Production


Click here to read other months’ Organic Matter columns by Stephanie Zonis

Organic beef is raised in a manner that is ethically responsible to the animal and more environmentally responsible to the plant. This is Page 1 of a four-page article that explores these issues and the benefits of organic beef. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.

 

Where’s The [Organic] Beef?

There are any number of well-publicized reasons for not eating beef. Quite apart from the warnings of the medical community about diets too rich in red meat, and the viewpoint of those who don’t want to eat meat for ethical reasons, beef is a food that requires heavy resource consumption. People are concerned, as they should be, with the use of antibiotics in conventionally-raised livestock. There are issues related to the safety of beef available to consumers, particularly where a disease like BSE (commonly called “mad cow”) is concerned. Yet, beef retains a great popularity among many sectors of the American population, and it provides an impressive nutritional profile, including some nutrients hard to find in non-meat sources. Is organic beef the solution to consumers’ concerns?

To an extent, the answer is “yes.” If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, you’re probably not going to consume beef in any case. And too much saturated fat-heavy beef in anyone’s diet is simply a bad idea. But organically-raised beef, eaten in reasonable quantities, can allow you to partake of “the thrill of the grill” with the knowledge that your beef was raised in a more responsible and more ethical manner.

Let’s start with the issues of resources and pollution. Far from the small family farms that form the rapidly-disappearing ideal of American agriculture, CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are the norm in this age of industrialization. These CAFOs usually involve the raising of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals in one place, all of which are confined for at least 45 days per year. Typically, animals in CAFOs are fed very large quantities to ensure weight gain in a short time; they’re also given hormones so they’ll gain weight more quickly. But these crowded conditions make for an environment favorable to the spread of disease, so the cattle are fed antibiotics in high concentrations.

The Shocking “Runoff” Of Cattle-Raising

As you might suspect, these animals produce vast quantities of manure. In the once-upon-a-time world of “Mom and Pop” farms, this manure was valuable; it served as fertilizer for the farmland. But the CAFOs have so many animals in one place that they produce far more manure than could ever be needed for fertilizer. The manure and waste are stored in open pits called “lagoons.” Allowed to ferment in these “lagoons,” the cattle waste can cause health problems for farm workers. At times, the contents of the lagoons are sprayed on the farmer’s field, but when too much is applied, as often happens, the excess is runoff, which contaminates waterways in the vicinity and can even contaminate local groundwater.

  • Dead Zones. If you think this problem is confined to isolated waterways in the American West, think again; a “dead zone” (a region of water that cannot support life) sometimes as large as the state of Connecticut is now an annual feature in the Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone is caused by fertilizer runoff draining into the Mississippi River (which acts as a catch basin for some 40% of the water in the U.S.) and thence to the Gulf. Sometimes, too, the “lagoons” leak or spill their contents, resulting in further contamination.
  • Water Depletion. Almost half of the water used in the United States today goes toward raising livestock; given that this is the U.S., the bulk of those livestock are cattle. The National Cattlemen’s Association claims that it requires 441 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (from birth through slaughter). Most other sources put this figure far higher, at around 2,500 gallons. Remember, that’s just for one pound of beef; the same amount of water can produce up to one hundred pounds of grain or potatoes.
  • Chemical Pollution. There’s also the question of antibiotic and other chemical pollution. The website AskFarmerBrown.org claims that over 26 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to U.S. livestock annually, compared to only 3 million pounds of total human intake. Less than 10% of those antibiotics go to fight active infections; the remainder are a preventative measure necessitated by confined quarters. Additionally, an astonishing percentage of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides are used in the raising and production of livestock in this country. The same website indicates that over half of all insecticide use, over two-thirds of total herbicide use, and 43% of all pesticide use is employed in animal agriculture. Factory farming is bad for biodiversity, too. An enormous percentage of the monoculture soybeans and corn used in the U.S. annually go toward feeding livestock.

Continue To Page 2: Mad Cow Disease

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