When summer comes around, few things are as satisfying as firing up the grill and slapping on a thick, juicy steak. Barbecue has long been one of the season’s most beloved pastimes, and while chicken, pork, and seafood have always had a place on the nation’s grills, beef is still the main event.
And when it comes to getting beef that is low in fat, high in flavour, and which has been raised on pasturage without added hormones or antibiotics, grass fed steaks have quickly become a new favourite.
But as consumers become more knowledgeable about the impacts of the beef industry — particularly the degree to which beef farming may be exacerbating climate change — some are wondering whether grass fed beef is actually to sustainable alternative many fans claim it to be.
Is grass fed beef really a more environmentally friendly choice? What does “grass fed beef” actually mean? Does my flame-kissed grass fed steak have the same carbon footprint any other steak has? If you want to get past the marketing and understand the story behind grass fed beef, here are a few things you should know:
Grass Fed vs. Grain Finished
All beef cattle start their life on a diet of grass. The only difference between grass fed beef and the more conventional grain finished beef is that grass fed cows only eat pasturage over the course of their life, while grain finished beef are typically switched to a diet of corn after their first year.
Cattle on a pasturage diet simply eat the plants growing on the range where they are being raised, which means that they aren’t relying on an industrial feeding system that requires grains need to be cultivated and processed before they can be fed to the cattle. For this reason, grain finishing adds to a cow’s carbon footprint.
Farms vs. Feedlots
The reduced carbon footprint of grass fed beef isn’t just a factor of the their diet; it is also a question of how the beef has been raised. There is a huge environmental difference between cattle raised on a farm, and cattle raised on a feedlot. Feedlots represent an intensive approach to agriculture, and tend to be extremely concentrated, which exacerbates problems like waste management and methane release.
When the beef industry is criticized for its role in climate change, most critics are referring to grain finished cows raised on feedlots. While farm-raised, grass fed beef is the most environmentally friendly choice, grain finished beef that has been raised on a farm committed to sustainable agriculture is a good alternative.
Enjoying your favourite steak recipe on a warm evening is one of the great pleasures of summer, and when you choose meat that has been raised in environmentally sustainable ways, that pleasure is even more acute.
For this reason, make sure your next barbecue features delicious grass fed steaks. Or, if you prefer the flavour of grain finished beef, purchase your meat from a butcher or delivery service that specializes in connecting customers with farms that raise beef sustainably.