How Green is Your Steak?

By Keith Kloor | December 9, 2012 9:15 am

Which is better for the environment: Grass-fed or corn-fed cows?

The question is not as simple as you might think. Eco-minded meat eaters tend to assume that free-ranging cattle nibbling on grassy pastures is superior to herded cows fattened on corn in concentrated animal feeding lot operations (CAFO’s).  Slate explored this assumption in 2010. (There is also a similar debate over which method produces tastier, more nutritious T-Bone steaks.)  Discussion has largely focused on which has the bigger carbon footprint.

The issue is more complicated than that, as Marc Gunther describes in a new Yale Environment 360 piece. He also notes, interestingly:

…green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC’s chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: “Most environmental groups don’t want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It’s a personal issue that’s tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old.”

That may be so, but with the global demand for meat rising–which will exact an increasingly heavy toll on the environment, regardless of whether cows are corn-fed or grass-fed– it’s an issue that greens are are going to have to grapple with.

What might turn out to be the best animal-friendly, eco-minded solution of all? Lab meat.

As Michael Lind recently put it:

…the technology of using stem cells to grow safe and healthy food in laboratories rather than in croplands and pastures is developing rapidly.  And two trends almost certainly ensure its eventual widespread adoption:  the increasing desire for meat, fruit and vegetables in the diet, as populations grow more affluent, and the limits to the land that can be used, particularly for free-range livestock.  If a richer humanity is not going to go vegan, and if there is not enough range land to support free-range beef, chicken and pork for billions of people, then the choice between cruel and filthy and unsanitary feed-lots and clean, well-lit food factories will be pretty easy to make.

I’m not so sure beef-loving foodies are going to be down with that. No matter, it should be fun to see the new genre of cooking shows and recipe books based on lab grown meat.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, lab meat
MORE ABOUT: agriculture, lab meat
  • harrywr2

    I’m not so sure beef-loving foodies are going to be down with that.

    You will have to pry the gun from my cold dead hands before I give up eating rib-eye steaks from ‘range fed cattle’. Beef…it’s what for dinner.

  • Mary

    Meh. I eat very little meat (I had a slice of turkey at Thanksgiving just to keep the family quiet). I don’t feel the need for meatish substitutes. And those who are already vegetarian often don’t either in my experience.

    But this is likely to fall victim to foodies who hate two things: 1) anything out of a lab, and 2) anything made by a company. This is going to be a processed food from corporations, so the irony is that the foodies will likely be the ones to oppose it the most and give it a bad name. See “pink slime”.

    Look at the drama over the GMO salmon. Has many enviro benefits, but it is on their hit list. I think taking pressure off wild stocks, reduced feed and tank growth time, and the potential for more efficient urban fish farms is excellent. I also don’t eat salmon, but my cat thinks bigger salmon is an awesome idea. I’d buy it.

  • Nullius in Verba

    I suspect it’ll be the same issue as with hydroponics. While it’s cleaner, more productive, and doesn’t require fertile land, you do have to build all the infrastructure and harvest the energy yourself instead of letting the food go gather it for you. So I’d expect it would be more expensive, like hydroponic veg are. Still, hydroponics is a growing sector and I’m sure there’ll be a market for it.

    I expect they’ll start off with sausages and burgers. Nobody who eats them knows/cares what’s in them, anyway.

  • Jeff N


    You are right
    about the sausages and burgers but the technology will be driven by the ability
    to supply new human kidneys and hearts not T bone steaks.   


  • Tom Scharf

    Remember a time when greens used to go out and actually do useful things?  Clean up the local creek?  The new greens seem obsessed with the monitoring and control of other people’s lives. 

  • kdk33

    Cabrito is better.

  • Roddy Campbell

    ‘… the global demand for meat rising …. will exact an increasingly heavy toll on the environment,’  Hmmm. Apart from farting cows – which must be a serious issue since we’re giving millions to Colombia for it ––plus-31m-Turkish-wind-farms-funding-talks-Kenyan-rain-makers.html#ixzz2EbSrQKg1 – …….

  • BillC

    kdk33 – el rey de cabrito/

    Well, Pollan did say “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

    Lab meat will be expensive and carbon intensive for quite a while.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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