What’s Your Beef – The Australian

Mark Whiitaker author and journalistOriginally published in The Australian on March 12, 2012

My wife and I moved to the country with our two young children in early 2007. The grass was green despite the drought, the air was clean and the cattle were as big and fat as the challenge we faced.

I was not good with my hands. I hadn’t even owned a mower or an electric drill until four years earlier. I certainly knew nothing about grazing.

I remember, though, one day early on, I had to move a mob of cattle. After the initial comedy of attempting to make them respond to my will, they all started going in the desired direction and I fell in behind them on foot. It felt right. My mind hooked into a vibe of contentment I was sure connected me straight back to the people who first domesticated cattle about 9000 years ago. Perhaps even to my cattle-duffing ancestors, the Grahams, who were exiled from Scotland to Ireland by King James I for their raids into England.

Cattle go deep into our psyche. Words associated with wealth – stock and chattel – derive from cows. The word “daughter” descends from the Indo-European word meaning “milker”. (I must remember to tell that to Rosie, 8, when it’s time to milk the house cow, Jezebel.)

My point is, cattle make you feel good. And that’s even before they hit your plate. Which is why the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, was so disturbing. It said that the methane coming from all the planet’s burping ruminants contributed 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than all the planes, trains and automobiles. Such a number made it easy for campaigns like “Go Veg, Be Green, Save the Planet” to make their claims.

Nevertheless, I learnt all I could about grazing and got on with growing my little herd and my even smaller flock (we now run 45 breeding cows and about 35 ewes). Five years on, I’ve come to the conclusion that our animals are a positive force for the planet, and that eating their meat at least once a day is probably going to make me live longer. But I wouldn’t say the same about all cows and sheep. Just the 100 per cent grass-fed ones. Here’s my response to the most common beefs against cows.

Forests are the best place to sequester carbon

Early on in my journey into beef I learnt from a friend that if you put a big mob of cattle onto a small paddock, interesting things start to happen. Faced with intense competition for feed the cattle become less selective in what they eat, consuming weeds and unfavoured plants along with the sweetest grasses and clovers before they are moved into the next paddock. The tall grasses that have been eaten off no longer need their deep root systems, so the deeper roots die off, leaving their carbon far down in the soil, some of which will turn into stable humus that can last 100 years.

When you hear carbon being talked about, forests and the atmosphere seem to get most of the attention. But there’s twice as much carbon in the Earth’s soils (1100 billion tonnes, according to UN figures) as in living plants (560 billion tonnes) and a lot more than in the atmosphere (750 billion tonnes). There are some who claim that if all the world’s grazing lands were turned over to high rotation grazing techniques then all the excess carbon emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution would be safely locked up back in the soil.

Turning the soil – by ploughing, for example – exposes it to the atmosphere and causes carbon in the soil to return to gas – carbon dioxide. That’s one way agriculture destroys carbon in the soil and adds to the greenhouse effect. A third of all arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals, so while a grass-fed animal can put carbon into the soil, a grain-fed one will help take it out.

Ruminants cause 18 per cent of global greenhouse emissions

The biggest single chunk of climate crime that I can find my animals not guilty of is courtesy of the Livestock’s Long Shadow report. More than half of the emissions it attributed to livestock were actually caused by deforestation. Most of that 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2 is from the Amazon and most of it is done with three aims: the first two are logging and land speculation, and then come the cattle ranchers.

But the UN report dumped all those emissions at the hooves of the cattle, according to British author and farmer Simon Fairlie, a former vegetarian and a former editor of The Ecologist magazine. He picked apart that inconsistency and a number of others in his book Meat: a Benign Extravagance and concluded that, rather than causing 18 per cent of the world’s emissions, ruminants were closer to 10 per cent. Still high, but Australian beef consumers shouldn’t be made to feel so bad about it. There was a lot of land clearing in Queensland factored into the beef footprint, but new clearing regulations have stopped that. And a CSIRO study released earlier this year has also found that our northern beef herd – more than half the national herd – is emitting 30 per cent less methane than previously thought, so if you’re buying Australian grass-fed meat, you can chew a little easier.

Beef steakIt takes 35 calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of beef

A study by US Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service found that it takes five to 10 calories of fossil fuels to grow one calorie’s worth of grain or vegetables. Grass-fed beef, however, requires just half a calorie of fossil fuel to create one calorie of food. It’s when you’re eating grain-fed beef that the equation changes entirely. A 2002 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that it took a whopping 35 calories of fossil fuels to create just one calorie of grain-fed beef. So you’d think grass-fed beef would be the darling of the environmental movement.

Methane and cattle increase in lockstep

It’s the methane being burped by cows that is the basis of their greenhouse PR problem, because methane is considered to be 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane is created in the first stomach of the cow and the coarser the food being eaten, the more of it is created. So cattle eating grass make more methane than cows in feedlots being fattened on grain.

Previously, livestock numbers and methane were in lockstep. As the world’s cattle herd got larger, so too did its methane levels. In 1999, however, the amount of methane in the atmosphere flattened out while the rate of increase in ruminants almost doubled. This prompted the UN’s FAO to release another report last year stating that the role of ruminants in creating greenhouse gases “may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting”.

Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones thinks the methane/cow issue will “just quietly go away”. Jones, based in Armidale, NSW, says little is known about the sources of methane or the “sinks” – the places where it is destroyed. “The science surrounding livestock emissions is extremely rubbery – not only from a measurement perspective, but also because natural sinks, such as soil, are not considered in the calculations.” When Professor Mark Adams, dean of agriculture at Sydney University, went to the Snowy Mountains to study grazing and fire interaction, he didn’t expect to walk into the climate debate. As part of a broader study, he put out little chambers on the soil, measured the methane inside them, then measured them again over time as the methane percentage changed. He was startled to see that the methane inside the chambers disappeared at an astonishing rate – as fast as any measured in the world. Calculating how much methane was emitted by the lightly stocked cattle on the property, he realised that more methane was being oxidised by the soil – rendered into much less potent carbon dioxide – than was being produced by the cows. Adams is careful to point out that his results do not translate to all grazing country and the land he studied was lightly stocked. Much less methane would be eaten by soils in the dry tropics, he says, but nobody knows how much less because it hasn’t been studied. And none of this is being taken into account by the studies that demonise cattle and sheep.

As for cattle emitting more greenhouse gas than the transport sector, one of the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow, Pierre Gerber, a policy officer with FAO, later admitted the rationale was flawed. Whereas the report accounted for the entire life cycle of cattle, it only accounted for the fuel used by the transport industry, not the embedded emissions in the vehicles and the roads, which are huge. When all that is taken into account, the transport sector emits a lot more.

Professor Alan Bell, an animal scientist and chief of the CSIRO’s Livestock Industries division, disagrees with my take on grass-fed cattle emissions. Bell says the simplest way to reduce methane is grain feeding. “A lot less methane is produced when cattle are fed high-grain diets than animals out grazing fibrous forage material. This presents a conundrum for people without a scientific background but with strong environmental instincts because many of those people are not in favour of grain feeding. They feel it’s not the best use of a food resource … it’s hard for them to deal with the fact that one easy way to reduce the carbon footprint of beef cattle is to feed them more grain.”

I point out that those calculations don’t take soil carbon into account. “That’s not true now,” he says. “We’re much more sophisticated in the life-cycle analysis approach than we were several years ago.” I ask him to send me the studies that show this, but the only one he sends does not mention soil carbon. The only study I could find that took soil carbon into account in calculating the ruminant footprint was by US scientist Dr Rita Schenck, who specialises in life-cycle assessment. She studied a farm in Nebraska which had cornfields, planted pasture and native pasture. She calculated on the basis of the cattle weights at slaughter compared to the various inputs for corn and the cattle and, crucially, the carbon in the soil. There was twice as much carbon in the pasture as the cornfield. And she concluded that with grass-fed beef, the carbon stored in the soil was greater than the carbon-equivalents pumped out of the cattle as methane. “This is really a preliminary calculation,” says Schenck. “I think it points us in the right direction. I think it says we ought to move more towards grazing and natural pasture.”

It takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef

You may have seen statistics about all the water used to produce a single steak. One Cornell university professor, Dr David Pimentel, went so far as to claim it was 100,000 litres per kilogram of beef. This number is at the extreme end but it’s the sort of figure bandied about by vegan warriors. Pimentel essentially counted all the rain that fell on the pastures where the young cattle lived, plus all the water they drank, then all the rain and all the irrigation water used on the fields that grew the hay and the grain they ate in feedlots.

The only water there that represents a significant opportunity cost is the irrigation water. In Australia, only 30 per cent of cattle are feedlotted and virtually none of their feed is irrigated, according to Professor Bell. I suspect most people will not get too concerned about the rain that falls on farmers’ paddocks. But if you just give the cattle a whopping 50 litres a day to drink, and calculate a slow-grown steer’s life at about 1000 days for 150kg of useable meat, it comes out at more like 333 litres per kilogram. Throw in some for hosing out the abattoir and the water in the truck’s radiator and you get a more accurate idea of a grass-fed animal’s intake.

So why is everybody so hung up on meat? Dr Manny Noakes, author of The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, makes the point that red meat provides a lot of valuable nutrition yet has a footprint equivalent to that of all junk foods combined – the soft drinks, chips, cakes and lollies – which provide almost no nutrients. “As a nutritionist I’d say that it’s better to be getting a balanced diet including meat, and reducing your footprint by reducing waste and food we don’t need to eat.”

Red meat gives you cancer

Everybody knows that eating red meat gives you bowel cancer. And perhaps it can if you eat lots of it without fruit and vegetables. Red meat’s problem has always been that people who eat a lot of it often chug beer, smoke and don’t eat their broccoli. Noakes says: “Having meat in a healthy diet is not a risk. Having charred meat in the context of a fatty, unhealthy diet with a lot of pastries and other unhealthy foods is not good.” She also warned that too much processed meat can be a danger. But again, fruit and veg is protective. Indeed, in Argentina, where they eat a lot more meat than they do in other western countries, and where they don’t grain feed their animals, they have a much lower rate of colon cancer.

Grass-fed meat contains a cancer-fighting oil called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is pretty much absent in grain-fed beef. Dr Tilak Dhiman, formerly of Utah State University, has devoted his life to studying CLA. He says that 11 out of 11 animal studies have found that CLA reduces cancer while two out of two studies found it decreases heart disease. The evidence is just as strong that it increases immunity to disease, increases bone density and decreases adult diabetes. Four out of five studies found it also decreases body fat. Naturally somebody put it in a pill, but natural CLA from animal products (meat and milk) is 600 per cent more effective in fighting cancer than the pill form, he says.

Eating meat causes heart disease

In the 1950s, the US found itself in the grip of a new health crisis. Death by myocardial infarction – heart attack, where part of the heart dies because of a blocked artery – had risen from about 3000 in 1910 to more than half a million a year. A theory took hold that saturated fats from animal products were to blame. The idea of fats clogging arteries was an easy sell because anyone can visualise blocking a drainpipe by pouring dripping down it. This hypothesis prompted Dr Norman Jolliffe to start the Anti-Coronary Club. He got 814 New York businessmen, aged 40 to 59, to eat what he called the Prudent Diet, replacing eggs with cereal, red meat with fish and chicken, and butter with margarine. The club members were compared to a matched group of 463 businessmen who were allowed to continue eating their animal fats. When the results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1966, the authors of the study were able to note with enthusiasm their success in reducing cholesterol levels in the Anti-Coronary Club – 5.7mmol/L compared to 6.5 for the animal fat group. Reading the abstract they wrote, you could be forgiven for thinking the experiment had been a raging success. They just neglected to mention that eight members of the Anti-Coronary Club had died of heart disease, compared to none in the control group.

There is a substantial subculture of doctors and professors shooting down research like this on which half a century of dietary advice has been based. One is Dr Uffe Ravnskov, a Danish researcher based in Sweden who began looking into the matter in 1989 when the country launched an anti-cholesterol campaign. “Very soon I realised that the scientific evidence behind the campaign was non-existing,” he writes. He hypothesises that because cholesterol is used by the body to fight disease, its presence in the blood is a symptom of other problems, not the cause. But the diet-heart bandwagon was already rolling, he believes, due to authors ignoring or misquoting discordant studies. “If saturated fat causes heart disease, a reduction of such fat in the diet should lower the risk, this is pure logic,” he says. “But up to 1997, nine such trials had been published and when all the results were put together in a so-called meta-analysis, no effect was seen whatsoever. In a few of the trials the experiment resulted in a little fewer deaths from heart disease, but in other studies mortality had increased.”

Milking cattleHealthy people drink lite milk

A few years ago I stopped cutting all the fat off my (grass-fed) steaks. I also reverted to full-cream milk and began to avoid any product with the word “lite” on it. I’m not on a diet, but I am 3kg lighter than I was then.

After the famous Framingham Heart Study – a study of 6000 men in Massachusetts that is often cited as more proof of the link between animal fat and heart disease – the study’s author wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 1992): “In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol … the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.” The study did show that those who weighed more and had abnormally high blood cholesterol levels were slightly more at risk for future heart disease, wrote Dr Mary Enig from the Weston A. Price Foundation, “but weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet”. That is, the more cholesterol you ate, the skinnier you were and the less cholesterol you had in your arteries. Dr Enig was among the first researchers to raise concerns about trans fats from vegetable oils in the 1970s but was ignored by peers more intent on running down animal fats.

You only get omega-3s from fish

Grass-fed beef has been shown to be the second richest source of omega-3s after fish (three times richer than in grain-fed beef). Omega-3s are important in lowering blood pressure, fighting depression, reducing cancer and having a brain that fires on all cylinders.

Noakes says the type of long chain omega-3s you get in fish and beef are better for you than the short chain ones in plants. “We also know beef and lamb are quite high in iron and zinc. They are really important for growth and development and immune function and it’s really difficult to get the same concentration of those nutrients in plant-sourced foods.” They’re also more easily absorbed by the body than if you got that iron and zinc from plants.

One of the first things you’ll notice about grass-fed beef is the yellow fat. Butchers sell this stuff for less because it doesn’t look as good as the white grain-fed fat. But the fat is yellow because of all the beta carotene in the grass. It’s the same reason real free-range eggs are more orange, and it comes from the stuff that gives carrots their colour. And, yes, it is good for your eyes. The body uses it to make vitamin A. Grass-fed beef also contains four times more vitamin E than grain-fed beef.

Last year, when I began on full-fat milk, homegrown eggs and meat every day – with lashings of fruit and homegrown veges and only a little junk food – I went along to have my cholesterol measured. Fourteen months later, I had it tested again. Not only was I 3kg lighter, my total cholesterol had fallen 12 per cent. The so-called “bad” cholesterol (a notion Enig and Ravnskov reject) had also dropped from 3.5 mmol/L to 2.9 and the “good” cholesterol had risen slightly. Cows really do make you feel good in lots of different ways.

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© Mark Whittaker.

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