A colleague of mine today published this fine story in the Wall Street Journal indicating that Argentina’s admirable grass-fed cattle culture is becoming a thing of the past. I did a somewhat similar story for the Journal in 2004, but the trend I highlighted back then seems, sadly, to be gaining ground.
There’s nothing romantic or even particularly healthy about hoarding hundreds of cattle into filthy feedlots for fattening before slaughter. In contrast, there is something appealing about seeing cows graze on the open range. Just the idea congers up images of the bucolic lifestyle and the peace and freedom that seem to accompany it.
Meanwhile, the scientific community seems to have reached a broad consensus regarding the generally advantageous and more healthful nature of grass-fed beef. A Consumer Reports post on the issue earlier this year noted that free range “meats are lower in total fats than conventional meats and have higher levels of good fats like omega-3s.” Additionally, grass-fed “ground beef usually has more conjugated linoleic acid, which might improve the immune system and help fight cancer, atherosclerosis, and type 2 diabetes, lab and animal studies show.”
Moreover, feedlots can be harder on the environment than open ranges. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit grouping of scientists, had this to say about the topic:
“Conventional corn—and confinement-based beef and dairy operations—raise a host of concerns, including water, air, and soil pollution; greenhouse gas emissions; inefficient use of energy; odors; inhumane treatment of animals; reliance on drugs; and the promotion of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. There is general agreement among scientists that grass-feeding cattle on well-managed pastures provides significant environmental and other benefits.”
When I did my story on grass-fed cattle, I mentioned some of the related health benefits. But at the time nobody was more aware of these benefits than officials in the Argentine Agriculture Secretary who were touting those benefits when promoting Argentine beef abroad. Such advantages appear to have taken a back seat, however, now that the government appears to be more actively promoting the use of feedlots (in part by subsidizing them). This doesn’t mean that Argentina’s days of grass-fed cattle are over, but it does mean your chance of eating feedlot-fed beef is getting higher.