Cheap meat – not a good idea
Nancy Hinton (Food Writing 2006)
In the natural scheme of things, beef cattle graze on pastures, feeding on grass and ruminating, thereby transforming the cellulose in that grass to protein, an efficient natural process. Cows on corn in feed lots is another story. Why is this the way most of our beef is produced? Because its economical, it makes them grow fast and get fat, and corn is cheap. (Only because we’ve made it cheap by overproducing it and subsidizing it.) Like humans on a candybar diet, this unnatural diet makes them sick (bloat, acid stomach, liver disease), and so they need to be administered antibiotics, all kinds. And we don’t like that when we know about it, most often we don’t.
Not only is corn bad for the cow, its bad for the environment. Nonetheless, we grow alot of it, mostly for feeding livestock. It pollutes with nitrogen run-off, the dead zones created, and the enormous amount of fuel used to produce the pesticides that are used in producing corn. There’s also the issue of monoculture in the production of crops such as corn, which started the whole industry of commercial petroleum pesticides in the first place. All in all, it takes 100 gallons of oil to grow one cow.
And there are more hidden costs when it comes to corn. Corn is heavily subsidized. (It costs 3$ to produce a bushel of corn and feedlots pay 2.25$) So, its relatively inexpensive to raise a cow on a feedlot (1.60$/day for 32lb of meat) but meat also is sold at a low price, making it hard for the farmer not to follow. Same story for hormone use. For 1.50$ more, the farmer gets 40-50lb more weight, or 25-35$, he would lose money otherwise. Especially that often, his equipment was fronted by these big corporations, locking him even further. He is trapped in a viscious circle of a system.
The biggest problem with the feedlot system is what it means for food safety. E-coli infected meat comes from traces of manure left on the carcass at the slaughterhouse because the cows spend their lives sitting and standing in their own manure. E-coli doesn’t exist in grass eating cows; its an acid tolerant bacteria that only developed to survive the acidified guts of cows on a corn diet. So now, we have to irradiate the carcass, spray the meat with high tech solutions to get rid of a bacteria that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t feeding them corn.
Cheap meat is a myth if you consider the associated public health and environmental costs. The antibiotics that don’t work, the food poisoning, the food safety issues, the hormones in our drinking water, the wasteful use of water and energy, the environmental damage.
At the very least, a sustainable system with no antibiotics would increase the cost 10%, tranlating into a more accurate price for beef.
If we ate less cheap beef and spent more for better quality meat, it would make a huge difference to everyone except for the bad guys in big agri-business. Not to mention that grass fed beef has a healthier fat profile than corn fed beef, with less saturated fat.
To know more, read anything by Michael Pollen, and The Way we Eat, by Jim Mason.