26 Nov 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.