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By Mark Lundegren
There was a time, not long ago, when organic produce was a rare and expensive commodity in supermarkets across the developed world. Today, these foods are more widely available and often priced close to conventionally-grown alternatives.
For nearly identical reasons, this likely will be the case with 100% organic grass-fed or pasture-raised meats in the future. While 100% grass-fed meats increasingly are available beside conventional offerings, they typically remain relatively expensive overall. However, this is apt to change, and soon. Primarily, the change owes to the fact that mature grass-fed or pasture-raised meat ranching operations, especially ones using new regenerative or restorative production techniques, promise to improve overall land fertility, increase meat yields, and reduce ongoing production costs. In addition, future governmental policy and private initiative in many regions is likely to favor ecologically-gentler grass-fed meat production over conventional ranching and farming. In all, these factors promise to reduce the costs and prices of grass-fed meats, and crucially in addition to avoiding the various negative ecological impacts of conventionally-raised meats.
With an eye toward declining costs for grass-fed meats, I want to summarize the case for choosing 100% organic grass-fed or pasture-raised meats over their conventionally-raised counterparts. As you will see, and once again largely as with organic and especially perennial produce, the arguments for organic pasture-raised meats are quite strong, though importantly they too are mainly and often unexpectedly for ecological rather than nutritional reasons overall
The Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat infographic above summarizes the numerous potential benefits and advantages of choosing 100% organic grass-fed meats over conventional varieties. In all, these factors are quite substantial and compelling, and especially so if we envision a future where consumer costs for these foods are comparable to or near those of conventionally-grown meats.
The infographic begins by defining grass-fed meats as just that – the meats of naturally grass-eating and pasture-dwelling animals. These foods span a sizeable portion of the animal kingdom that includes cattle and sheep, and is often described by the physiological term ruminant. That said, the infographic emphasizes that some of the techniques of perennial grassland ranching may be applicable to non-ruminant animals as well, notably where animals can be raised to forage at scale on pasture or silvopasture (grasslands mixed with trees). Sustainable and pastural non-ruminant animal food production potentially includes poultry and egg farming, insect-eating fish production, and even insect-based foods. However, the techniques broadly do not extend to various omnivorous and carnivorous land animals that cannot thrive sustainably in grassland conditions by feeding on native plants, insects, and small prey animals – that is, without harmful soil disturbance, predation on animals raised for human food, or dietary supplementation with environmentally-destructive monocrop animal feeds. A number of modern food animals fall into this category, notably including omnivorous and commonly root-digging pigs or hogs.
Taking up these themes, the infographic highlights – near the top and again to the right – that conventional meats normally are raised on a diet that is a mix of pasture foods (diverse wild and in total perennial or self-renewing pasture grasses, clovers, legumes, grains, and related plants) combined with specially and separately-grown animal feeds (legume and grain plants, such as soy and corn, that are grown at scale and as annuals in ecologically-displacing, soil-degrading, and often pesticide-dependent monocrop or monoculture tracts). By contrast, 100% organic grass-fed or pasture-raised meats do without this latter group of foods entirely, and often all external or imported inputs, for the full life of the animal. As touched on before, this is especially the case once the typically multi-year transition of ranches from conventional meat production and other forms of agriculture to regenerative or perennial ranching is complete – and thus as the pasture operations become mature, self-sustaining, and even naturally self-promoting or progressively beneficial and productive.
In keeping with my introductory comments, I have structured the infographic’s comparison of conventional and organic grass-fed meats into two broad categories – nutritional effects and ecological impacts. As you can see, and explore via the links below, there appear to be significant and notable nutritional differences between these two types of modern meats. Overall, conventionally-raised ruminant meats employing a mixed diet – again where monocrop grains, legumes, and forage are used to fatten or finish animals, often via concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) and during the last months of the animal’s life – tend to contain more agricultural additives, more fat but lower healthy omega-3 fats, altered hormonal levels, and often reduced vitamin and mineral levels, notably including vitamin K2 (overall via poorer soil quality and specifically lower grass intake in the case of K2).
While these distinctions are important, it again are the ecological differences between these two forms of ruminant food meats that prove most stark and substantial. As you can review in the infographic and once again explore via the links provided, by avoiding monoculture farming and other external inputs – that is, by working principally and sustainably within rather than at odds with perennial grassland, pasture, and forest ecosystems – 100% organic grass-fed meat production can produce dramatically different and even diametrically opposed environmental outcomes. These typical, essential, and in total planet-impacting differences from 100% grass-fed or perennially-raised meats include sustained soil-building in place of conventional agricultural erosion, the resulting potential for ongoing natural carbon sequestration, greatly improved soil water retention and restoration of Earth-cooling natural water cycles, maintenance or increases of natural biodiversity, and support or even restoration of local ecosystems displaced or impaired by conventional ranching and farming.
Today, 100% pasture-raised, grass-fed, perennial, and sustainably-raised meats may remain unavailable or unaffordable for many people and their local communities. But as with organic produce twenty years ago, this is likely to change, and soon, with the proliferation of perennial and restorative regenerative ranching operations and techniques. Once again, this development owes to improving economics as modern perennial ranching operations mature and develop, and to increasing governmental and private promotion of sustainable and regenerative agriculture generally.
In any case, when and where this change in the market prices of 100% perennial meats occurs, the waiting benefits are substantial – for ourselves, the local ecosystems upon which we all depend, and the planetary ecological system our local ecosystems form in total.
As always, I am happy to respond to your comments and questions.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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