Deciding between steak and chicken tonight? Corn-fed beef is by far the worse choice, not just for you, but for the environment and for the welfare of the animals.
Health. Most cattle end up in feedlots, where high-calorie grains fatten them up quickly. The extra fat eventually zeroes in on human arteries. And red meat—especially hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meats—promotes colon cancer.
Environment. Whether cattle live out on the range or in feedlots, they emit methane gas, a potent cause of global warming. What’s more, growing the corn and soybeans for feed requires huge amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, water, and fossil fuel. Then there’s the stench from the manure at feedlots (which are called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs), which can sicken nearby residents.
Animal welfare. The grain fed to animals in feedlots can cause digestive, hoof, and liver diseases and may necessitate the continuous use of antibiotics. That can trigger the growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that can infect humans.
The good news: the number of cattle has dropped to its lowest level—about 89 million head in 2012—since 1952, when our population was half what it is now. The average American consumed 42 pounds of beef in 2011, down more than a third since the mid-1970s. Americans now eat a third more poultry than beef.
The decline is partly due to drought in the Midwest and the Plains states that has scorched pasturelands and forced cattle ranchers to cut their herds. What’s more, federal laws requiring corn farms to use some of their crop for ethanol have boosted prices of corn and meat. Beef prices have climbed 26 percent over five years, piercing the $5-per-pound mark in November 2012.
Beef is losing ground despite the industry’s dollar-a-head “checkoff” program, which spends upwards of $40 million a year on marketing and research. Over the years, ads tried to persuade us that “Beef Gives Strength” and beef is “What’s for Dinner.” The industry also sponsors a National Beef Cook-Off, pays “Beef Ambassadors” to stoke sales, and is “engaging millennials with beef.”
Meanwhile, many people are deciding that chicken is “what’s for dinner.” Others are switching to vegetarian fare. Many college and corporate cafeterias have adopted Meatless Mondays. And animal-welfare activists are teaching youngsters about the miserable lives of animals grown on factory farms.
The government could help protect our health and the environment by slapping a tax on grain-fattened cattle. It could ban the routine use of critical antibiotics, which would lead to cleaner CAFOs and healthier animals. It could limit the air and water pollution that CAFOs cause. And it could end the beef marketing program. Of course, the cattle, corn, and soybean industries would fight those proposals in state capitals and in Washington.
What can you do in the meantime? Think twice when you approach the beef counter at supermarkets; skip the burgers and steaks at restaurants; and encourage your school or workplace cafeteria to save money, the environment, and lives by serving less beef.