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Big Picture Blog

The True Cost of Cheap Food

Lynne Pledger

By Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger, Big Picture Beef

Do you consider yourself a careful shopper?  Perhaps you read ingredient labels.  Maybe you look for good value too.

But “good value” is where it gets tricky. With so much inexpensive food available in the US, we spend relatively little at the grocery store, but pay later in ways we may not have considered. These hidden costs, called "externalities," are the costs to our environment, our health, and our society.  We pay these costs through our tax dollars, medical bills, insurance, and decreased quality of life.  

Much of our food is inexpensive because of farming practices that offer high volume production in the short term, but have damaging long-term consequences. Harmful methods of industrial farming include - but are not limited to - monoculture; applications of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers; and the use of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). These practices are supported by our taxes through various subsidies, incentives, and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) guidance for farmers and consumers. 

Grass-fed beef production is not simply ‘less bad’ than feedlot beef; it offers proven benefits for the land, the farmers, the people who eat the meat, and the climate.

Imagine the real costs of just the three problems described below, all of which are linked to conventional agricultural methods:

  • Farmland that was once fertile is now so poisoned by herbicides and so devoid of organic matter that crop production depends on heavy inputs of chemical fertilizer.

  • Soil run-off into the Mississippi River from corn and soy production has created a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico about the size of Lake Erie.

  • Fattening cattle in corn-based feedlots (instead of pasture) contributes to global warming in two major ways: (1) carbon dioxide emitted by corn-production practices and (2) methane emitted from the corn-fed cattle.

Screenshot 2017-12-13 14.40.07.png

This aerial photo shows a portion of a feedlot, with cattle pans to the left and a manure lagoon to the right. Roadways are in gray.  Not a blade of grass in sight.

These well-documented problems, among others, undermine public health as well as the environment. Peer-reviewed studies detail how our health is threatened by all these factors: chemical inputs to farmland; antibiotics and other drugs given to livestock; and “empty calories”- that is, food lacking nutritional benefits because of production methods. Though controversies continue to swirl around what constitutes the best diet, one thing is certain: health in the US is below that of other industrialized countries in a number of measures, including prevalence of disease, obesity, and infant mortality. One indication of the real cost of this health degradation is the fact that people in the US on average spend nearly 18 cents of every dollar on health care services, but only 9-12 cents on groceries.

At a recent conference on the real cost of cheap food, Patrick Holden, Founder and Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust made this correlation between production profit and the quality of food:

 

“...the most profitable forms of food production remain those which are most damaging to the environment and public health.  Conversely, food products from farming systems which are far more sustainable in the long run and provide multiple benefits to people and the planet, are at present the most expensive, and for many people unaffordable.”  http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/TCAF-report.pdf

 

Regarding beef, it is certainly true that the easiest, least expensive way to raise beef cattle is on corn in feedlots, where the animals are routinely dosed with antibiotics. In contrast, while 100% grass-fed beef does cost more at checkout, the production methodology (a rotational, multi-paddock grazing system with no grain, hormones, or antibiotics), is a remedy for  multiple health and environmental problems caused by conventional agriculture. Grass-fed beef production is not simply “less bad” than feedlot beef; it offers proven benefits for the land, the farmers, the people who eat the meat, and the climate. 

But for the moment let’s put aside the health and environmental savings that result from 100% grass-fed beef production, and look at the out-of-pocket cost to the store customer. Compare the cost of 100% grass-fed beef to other foods that are purchased routinely and considered inexpensive. For example, ounce-for-ounce, grass-fed beef cost the same as many breakfast cereals and far less than the price of a candy bar.

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Grass-fed beef will undoubtedly be less expensive in the stores when larger numbers of people buy it and farmers can benefit from producing in greater volume.  Remember Wendell Berry’s assertion: “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Healthy food, sustainably produced, just might be the bargain you’ve been seeking - for you and for the planet.

 

Ridge Shinn is the CEO of Big Picture Beef.  Lynne Pledger is the Communications Director.

 

Beyond sustainable: beef in a new agricultural model

Edgar Stewart

By Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger

This op-ed first appeared in the Greenfield Recorder, 9/12/2016 as “My Turn/ Shinn and Pledger: the secret of CO2 repair.”

Raise your hand if you believe that beef production is bad for the environment.

OK, lots of hands are up – but not everyone’s. While corn-fed, feedlot beef production does squander water and contribute to climate change, a growing number of environmentalists recognize that raising 100% grass-fed beef – with no grain ever – provides surprising and significant benefits for our beleaguered planet.

How can this be true?  First, to clarify, all beef cattle start their lives on pasture but eventually most are sent to feedlots for fattening on corn.  In New England, most beef cattle are trucked to feedlots out West; others are fed corn on the home farm. But 100% grass-fed cattle graze on pasture for their entire lives, with no corn, no feedlots, and none of the negative environmental impacts of the industrial model.

And there’s more. The recommended practices for fattening cattle on pasture (without grain) actually revitalize soil and address two pressing threats to human life: climate change and drought.

Regarding climate change, let’s acknowledge that cutting greenhouse gas emissions, even dramatically, is not enough to curtail global warming; we must also get carbon that is already in the air sequestered in the ground where it cannot escape.

For this task the most effective climate change activists are the smallest: the Glomales fungi, which are found on plant roots. When plants pull carbon from the air and send it down to the roots (photosynthesis), the fungi exchange some of the carbon for mineral nutrients needed for optimum plant growth.  Then they lock this carbon deep beneath the soil surface as stable humus. The fungi do this by making a waxy material called glomalin, which stores 27% of the world’s soil carbon according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’ve never heard of glomalin, you’re not alone; this key to soil health wasn’t even identified until 1996.  But now scientists recognize glomalin as an important low-tech strategy for sequestering carbon, and studies have been done to determine the best way to increase glomalin in farmland.

So what is the best way?  A 2013 study of three cropland scenarios and three grazing scenarios found the highest concentration of glomalin in native grassland pastures managed by rotational grazing, an essential practice for fattening grass-fed beef.  This method allows grazed land to rest and regrow tall grass before the cattle graze it again.

While soil chemistry is complex, rotational grazing goals for soil health are simple: (1) establish deep-rooted perennial grasses, and (2) manage pasture to foster abundant microbial soil life, including the Glomales fungi and associated bacteria. This reflects the way that buffalo helped build the topsoil of the Great Plains; the animals continuously moved to a new bite of grass, leaving behind a subterranean army of microbes creating glomalin that stored carbon. By the time the buffalo circled back to the area, lush, deep-rooted grass had regrown, and the cycle continued.

Glomalin also increases the land’s capacity to absorb and store water. In the western US, rain runs off vast acreages that lack the carbon “sponge” necessary for water to infiltrate soil and remain to protect against drought and erosion.  A USDA National Resource Conservation Service study demonstrated the dramatic difference in land managed by rotational grazing as opposed to cropland or pasture managed by conventional grazing.  A filmed experiment on three fields shows a given amount of water taking 31 minutes to infiltrate cropland soil, 7 minutes to infiltrate conventionally grazed pasture, and 10 seconds to infiltrate soil managed by rotational grazing.

Consumers are already demanding grass-fed beef for health reasons. In the next ten years it is predicted to comprise 30 to 40% of the total beef market. But for the most part, the grass-fed beef found in the meat case is imported from overseas. We must produce 100% grass-fed beef here in the Northeast to realize multiple environmental benefits for our region and beyond.

Some people choose a vegetarian diet. Fair enough. But it is important for everyone, regardless of dietary choices, to understand the differences between conventional and grass-fed beef production methods. To lump them together jeopardizes the success of an urgently needed, regenerative method for producing protein for humans and sequestering carbon. Because this approach dramatically increases soil productivity and is based on energy from the sun – not fossil fuel – this model offers hope for feeding world populations.

Producing 100% grass-fed beef utilizes natural systems that pre-date agriculture – and human folly.