26 November 2014

The corn(y) side of beef production

Alexia T writes:*

The vast majority of US cattle today spend most of their lives away from pasture, confined in overcrowded and revolting feedlots, and force-fed a diet of grains, especially corn.

For centuries cows have been used to convert grass into meat and milk, however, in the past few decades the trend of mass production, at low costs, to maximise profits has turned the beef industry into a profit seeking machine rather than a sustainable source of feed. This ever-expanding industry comes with a great cost to society and its environment.

Corn-fed cows grow and fatten up much faster than grass-fed cows have ever done. 75 years ago it took cows about 4 to 5 years to reach their ideal slaughter weight, whilst today, with the high influx of corn, and other supplements such as antibiotics and growth hormones, it takes approximately less than 15 months for a cow to reach this weight.

Corn consumption in cattle causes several important problems. The production of corn, which by the way is heavily subsidised by the US government, demands vast doses of pesticide as well as continual applications of nitrogen fertilisers, which in turn use great quantities of natural gas and oil. In 2010, US corn production consumed more than 9 million tons of fertiliser and led to roughly 42 million tons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

A corn diet raises the acidity levels in the animal’s stomach, creating several health conditions such as E. Coli contamination, which not only affects animals, but humans as well (remember the mad cow disease…). Further, the corn diet has changed the levels of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in beef, which has paved the way for higher rates of cancer, weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease amongst meat eaters. The corn diet along with the other supplements that cattle are stuffed with has also led to the weakening of the humane immune systems, making many forms of modern medicine ineffective.

It may be true that the corn-fed beef industry is more efficient, but it may be neither sustainable nor efficient in the long run. The true cost of “cheaper meat” is becoming more and more evident, and the beef production industry is having a worrisome impact on climate change. Not only is it slowly destroying the environment around us, but individuals regularly consuming corn-fed cattle are also receiving direct health impacts.

Bottom Line: Corn-fed cattle production and consumption contribute negatively to climate change and severe health impacts. Changing our patterns of production and consumption would assist in reducing these negative outcomes.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.


  1. I complement Ms Alexia T for those great points concerning corn-beef interrelationships and negative synergies. May I have the email id of this student / researcher if possible? I share the health concerns of beef consumers especially over weight and the associated.

  2. @MGC -- just leave a comment. I don't give out their emails.

  3. This commentary on corn-fed beef is well intended, but resembles nothing close to an “economic” analysis. I share Miss Alexia’s desire for grass fed beef and in my case pasture fed dairy products, but this write-up lacks the necessary information on incentives and benefit/cost analysis.

    The time to raise a steer on grass/hay to butcher weight is ~3 years, not 4 to 5. Exaggeration immediately discredits the post.
    The U.S. corn subsidies primarily relate to ethanol (RFS), crop insurance and some direct payments. Why not focus on this aspect of subsidies instead of confusing with references to fertilizer and the fossil fuels? The GHG externality is a separate issue the way you have referenced it.

    Corn-fed beef differs from grass fed beef in the content omega-3 fatty acids. This difference has real-world health impacts on consumers. This is the primary benefit of grass-fed beef and should have been the focus in this post.

  4. When we look at the % of overweight people in US, NZ, OZ, UK, Ireland as in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obesity_in_the_United_States, which ranges from 47% in Ireland to 74% in the US, what I wonder is, whether the more than 99% of people who are literate (does not mean educated), are aware or want to be aware of the ill effects of eating beef and any non vegetarian food. Should this not give them an indication of shifting towards vegetarian habits including yoga. The associated factors of overweight such as BP and diabetes will affect them leading to chronic diseases. Earlier I was thinking that eye is the most sensitive organ of the body, but now it appears kidney is the most sensitive part. Any way it is left for individuals to judge, because ultimately it is the individual who suffers and suffering and not enjoyment is the common denominator in the world.
    MG Chandrakanth, UAS Bangalore

  5. I do agree that the corn-fed cattle production and consumption is harmful for the health of humans as well as on the environment as a whole. It might be interesting for you to look into how much land is used to produce the corn to feed the cattle. I read a while ago that the corn (or any other grain) that is fed to cattle, often takes up a substantial part of the agricultural land that could actually be used much more productively by producing grains for human consumption (thus reducing world hunger, at least that was their argument). So essentially there is a trade-off between corn production for cattle (that we then consume as meat) and food production as a whole, especially in the light of the food crisis going on in many parts of the world.
    Also, are you sure it is possible/feasible to change consumption patters? How would you go about doing that? Because changing individual mindsets is very difficult and meat-consumption could be considered a part of a life-standard in many, especially industrialized, countries. Would people be willing to give up their consumption of meat? What about those that are indifferent to the problem (the ones that don't care about either the environmental or health effects, or both)? While it is important to change these patterns, doing so appears rather unfeasible to me.


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