by jill isenbarger
I’m guessing that at some point—at a dinner party, at the water cooler—you’ve had the “beef conversation.”
To eat, or not to eat. That is the question—and one that we at Stone Barns Center are asked a lot. Isn’t it better for the planet to swear off beef? Or should we consume more burgers and steaks, but only if they’re grassfed?
Cattle production gets dinged on many fronts. It’s been blamed for desertification, the spread of invasive weeds, soil erosion, severe overuse of water and emissions of greenhouse gases, from the methane emitted by cows to the carbon released when Brazilian forest is cut down to become pasture. Some are so blinded by all that cattle and their ranchers have done destructively that they refuse to see how any sort of ranching might ever be compatible with ecological preservation.
But it can be. Open-minded ranchers and farmers using variations of the Savory Method of holistic management have been proving that well-managed cattle, moved frequently and tightly to replicate the movements of bison and other native ungulates, can restore grasslands, increase carbon in the soil, use less water and protect wildlife. The problem is that not all beef labeled “grassfed” is a product of good management practices.
Given that the U.S. grassfed beef market has been growing at 100 percent per year for the past four years, Stone Barns Center undertook a new study to examine it. “Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef” finds an urgent need for accurate labeling to ensure that consumers are getting what they think they are buying, including the humane treatment of animals and environmental and health benefits.
The reality is that much of the meat sold as “grassfed” is actually from cattle raised in enclosed environments, where cows are fed grass pellets in “grass feedlots.” These cattle haven’t spent the whole of their lives on open pasture, eating real grass, as you might reasonably expect.
Among the study’s findings: The price of grassfed beef could come down significantly if the industry were to establish well-managed grass-finishing operations that take advantage of economies of scale in processing, distribution and marketing. But these operations must be based on high standards for land and water stewardship and the humane treatment of animals. Currently a number of labels and standards confuse the marketplace and the consumer, as they conflate excellent management practices with poor ones.
Stone Barns Center produced the study in collaboration with Armonia LLC, Bonterra Partners and SLM Partners. On April 19, we hosted a summit to introduce the myriad benefits of grassfed beef, including superior taste, to more than 100 chefs and beef purchasers and retailers from around the country. I’m proud of this multidimensional work that will go far in helping us choose what’s for dinner.
You can see the complete study here.
Originally published on June 21, 2017