What is Grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed is a term used to describe meat from animals that have been raised on a diet consisting of grass, as opposed to the increasingly more typical grain-based diet. This type of meat is gaining popularity due to its numerous health and environmental benefits.
But I thought eating meat was damaging to the environment?
Simply put, it is. But only if you eat meat the way we have become accustomed to. That is, cheap meat from unknown sources, eaten in great volumes. However, if you choose to eat meat, there is a sustainable alternative that is both good for us and good for the environment.
Here in the UK, we have a climate that is perfectly suited for growing lots of grass, with a plentiful supply of sunshine and rain through the seasons. We also have vast swathes of land that are just not suitable for growing crops. This is either due to poor soil conditions, soil structure, or just simply not practical to farm mechanically at scale. Typically this land might be hillsides, valleys, moors, and plains for example. What grows abundantly in these areas though are grasses, herbs, legumes, and a beautifully biodiverse buffet for grazing ruminants such as sheep, cattle, and other wildlife.
We have found this with our own farm. As our farm is based on top of a hill, our soil is shallow and without heavy use of fertilisers, we cannot grow crops on a large enough scale to make them commercially viable. Where we can grow food, we grow organic vegetables and salads on a small scale supplied to our farm shop & kitchen. Where we can’t, we have chosen to pursue a regenerative approach through our farm, focusing on promoting natural, diverse grasses, herbs, and legumes that benefit our local flora and fauna and provide a healthy and sustainable food source for our cows.
In fact, it is these cows that actually help the plants to grow in return through their natural grazing habits. By eating the plants, they encourage them to grow back with vigor, by treading the ground they help pollinate and germinate seeds in the solid bed, and by leaving behind their precious dung, they replenish the soil with their own natural fertiliser. This natural cycle needs very little input from us farmers and creates its own carbon cycling loop which further reduces our footprint as a farm.
That sounds too good to be true, why didn’t we think of this before?
We did! At least our ancestors did. Up until about one hundred years ago, that is exactly how we farmed our lands and our animals, with a more natural, symbiotic approach. It was only the advent of fertilisers, pesticides, and the growth of industrial farming techniques to produce lots of food as cheaply as possible (thanks to our wonderful supermarkets) that took us down another path. We also then worked out that if we could cultivate large plains of land, removing any biodiversity and creating huge monocultures we could grow crops like wheat and maize in huge volumes that we can then feed to our animals to get them fatter, more quickly. What we now are left with is land that is sick, animals that are sick (they evolved on eating grass, not grain), so it’s no wonder we are getting more and more sick as a population.
There has been a lot in the press recently about our ‘broken food system’ with supermarket shelves being stripped bare once again. Those that focus on a more localised, seasonal food system, like ourselves, haven’t found these issues anywhere near as problematic.
What are the health benefits of grass-fed meat though?
Not only is our food system broken in terms of supply, but it is also killing us. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the UK and so much can be done to improve our health by eating a more healthy, balanced diet. We shouldn’t be eating meat every day, three times a day. When we do eat meat though, we should be choosing meat that is not highly processed, pumped full of additives and reformed to make it look like food. Sure, it’s easier to market to us, cheaper on the shelves and more convenient, but we are kicking the can down the road and papering over the cracks of the long-term side-effects like our own health and the health of our planet. Don’t get me wrong, we all like a little treat every now and again but if we are making these choices multiple times a day, we are making a seismic contribution to these issues.
There have been many studies on the benefits of grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef. Luckily, unlike in the US for example, grass-fed is much more readily available over here and if you choose to buy it over the grain-fed alternative, it is said to provide the following benefits.
- Higher in nutrients: Grass-fed beef is richer in nutrients such as vitamins A, E, and K, as well as beneficial fatty acids such as omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
- Lower in saturated fat: Grass-fed beef has a lower amount of saturated fat compared to grain-fed beef, which can lead to improved heart health and reduced risk of heart disease.
- Better for weight management: Studies have shown that consuming grass-fed beef may help with weight management, due to its lower calorie and fat content, and higher protein and fibre content.
So what can I do to make a change?
There’s no denying that eating grass-fed meat and sourcing it from a local farm or a butcher that sources meat directly from local farms can (not always!) be more expensive than from supermarkets. That is the sad fact of the matter, that eating good quality, healthier food is more expensive and sometimes more inconvenient for us. Until that is changed (I’m sure I’ll get on to that in future blogs!) we can still play our part.
A wise person once said, “if you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way”. To me, that doesn’t mean making huge, wholesale changes born out of guilt that can more often than not just fall by the wayside (the classic New Year, New Me syndrome). Small sustainable steps are what it’s all about and also mean that you can enjoy the odd treat and takeaway without the guilt. But where possible, we can make small changes at home, perhaps drop meat to one meal a day, or 3 times per week. But when buying your meat, make sure it is from farms that share your own values and if you can choose grass-fed, then all the better.
We should also challenge ourselves to buy whole foods, like whole cuts of beef, rather than pre-prepared, pre-processed versions, and cook more from scratch. This gives us complete control over what is going into our food and thus our bodies. It’s shameful how much food we waste as a population and cooking more meals from scratch can really help this. Remember that our food isn’t handed to us on a plate. There is a great deal of effort and time that goes into how our food gets to us, so we desperately need to treat it with much more love and care and great things can happen.