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By Colin Busby
When trying to eat sustainably, red meat is something you typically want to avoid. However, diversifying what you eat and having some beef every now and then can have nutritional benefits.
It is important to note the typical, cruel actions of large meat companies. The most ethical thing you can do is either go vegan/vegetarian or at least find local farms that treat their cattle with care by letting them roam free and putting them down in the most humane way possible, not the most cost efficient.
For more information on the cruelty of the meat industry try these links:
Assuming you’ve decided not to go vegetarian or vegan, your best option is to find humanely raised farms that you can purchase from or look for sustainable labels on beef at your local supermarket.
Typically, there are 6 or 7 labels that you will find in your store:
Grass Fed - The Grass Fed label is a strictly enforced certification that states that this meat has only eaten grass after it has been weaned. It is important to note that this label says nothing about hormones or antibiotics, meaning that they may or may not be in your meat.
Natural - The Natural label dictates that there are no artificial ingredients in the product as well as minimal processing. Artificial ingredients being defined as any ingredient that does not meet the FDA’s regulatory definition of natural, which in this context would most likely be a flavoring or coloring additive. However, note that GMOs, antibiotics, or inorganic feed may have been used in the raising of the cattle.
Naturally Raised - Cattle is raised without growth hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products.
Organic - The organic label certifies that the cows are raised on organic land (no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, or genetic engineering for at least 3 years.) Cows must have year-round outdoor access. An all-organic diet does not exclude organic grain feed. There are no GMOs or antibiotics. Cows are raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behavior” - so think shade, sun, clean water, and shelter.
Pasture Raised - Cattle have access to the outdoors at least 120 days a year.
Raised without antibiotics - No antibiotics are used in any way shape or form at any part of the animal’s life.
Raised without hormones - There are no added hormones at any point of the animal’s life.
Ok. So what do these labels actually mean to you?
Grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef is universally agreed upon when looking for ethical, clean, and lean meat. One thing to note is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed, but is still not a significant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. However, grass-fed beef has less overall fat than grain-fed and is considered to be the leaner of the two.
The concern for antibiotic-free meat arises from where these antibiotics are needed. Diseased and sick cows are primarily found in worse living conditions and on grain-fed farms. Therefore, if you’re giving your cows ethical and healthy living conditions, there is no need for antibiotics. Also, antibiotics have led to increased treatment resistance in diseased cows as well as showing similar symptoms in the humans that eat that meat.
Although rGBH, the most common hormone given to cows, does not have any effect on humans, it however may affect the cow’s aggression, fertility, and overall health.
Know Your Ranch
Now, the most important thing to note about ethicality and sustainability in beef is that the individual farmers have a lot of control over how their cattle is raised. Different breeds, lifestyles, and cuts of cows have many different implications on the environment and our health. Therefore it is important to do your own research when buying from beef producers. The most practical way is to check the food labels and learn what they really mean.
Ok, now that we have established how to go about buying the most sustainable and ethical beef, let’s talk about alternatives. Beef production is the second most inefficient source of food energy, second only to lamb production, in all of the agricultural industry. It tops the charts though, for most emissions annually. The average footprint of beef emits 36 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of beef produced. For reference, chicken only emits 10 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram produced as well as emitting no methane. Lastly, beef uses about 1,800 gallons of water per pound of beef produced.
The most sustainable meat alternatives are chicken, turkey, seafood, and pork. One way to think of it is that poultry is the leanest and cleanest meat you can eat. Seafood and pork are not bad options either but always keep in mind where your meat is sourced because shipping is a large contributor to emissions.
Now, there are also vegetarian and vegan alternatives to meat. Tofu and tempeh are some of the more popular options when considering alternatives to beef, but legumes, mushrooms, peas, mung beans, and nuts are also good sources of meatless protein. But for the sake of efficiency and the most popular substitutes, I will discuss tofu and tempeh. These two plant-based options are used to substitute red meat because of their decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. For decades, red meat has been linked to numerous kinds of heart disease.
Tofu has been listed as emitting only 3 kg of CO2 per kilogram produced whereas tempeh only emits around .323-.555 kg of CO2 per kilogram produced.
Both of these options come from soy. However, tofu is formed from coagulated soy milk curds. Its production process is very similar to cheese’s. And similarly, it is a good source of calcium and protein.
Tempeh, on the other hand, comes directly from the soybean. The soybeans are fermented before being pressed which means that tempeh is classified as a probiotic food. Not only is tempeh good for your gut, it is also a great source of protein.
Out of a 100 gram serving, here are the macro-nutrients involved in the three foods.
As stated previously, tempeh produces the least emissions, followed by tofu, then beef. It is important to note that the soybean industry isn’t the most sustainable thing either. When creating farmland to plant soy, large swaths of land are cleared and produce a large number of by-kills (any animals living in the ecosystem have their habitats removed and die). However, planting soy for humans rather than feeding livestock is much more sustainable.
When deciding to purchase beef, it is important to check the labels and farms involved when choosing your cut of beef at the store or online. Poultry, pork, and seafood have a much smaller environmental impact than beef and are great meat substitutes. There are also plant-based alternatives like tempeh and tofu that have an even smaller environmental impact. Lastly, when trying to shop sustainably and ethically, the most important thing you can do is to research where your food is coming from.
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