W503: Economic, Environmental, Genetic, and Nutritional Aspects of Grass-Fed Beef
Statement of Issues and JustificationStatement of Issue and Justification: "Grass-fed" beef is a rapidly expanding segment of the US retail beef market. Beef marketed under "grass-fed" labeling is understood to be raised entirely or almost entirely on pasture and forages. Because of health claims for "grass-fed" meat and milk and impending economic competition between traditional beef finishing operations, which are primarily grain based, and subsidized ethanol production, a scientific understanding of the issues will help operators and the public select the appropriate course(s) of action. 1) Americans as a group are fat. Obesity is a leading health problem for Americans of all ages that lead to more serious cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. Grain-fed beef has been implicated in both increased human energy consumption, leading to obesity, as well as being high in undesirable cholesterol and saturated fats. 2) Sources, supported by limited research, find that grass-fed milk and meat products are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. These materials are reputed to infer a number of health benefits that over-ride issues which include protection from cardiovascular disease and cancer. 3) Americans, particularly affluent Americans, are increasingly concerned about the how and where their food comes from, and whether it is produced safely and humanely. 4) Grain-feeding of cattle has developed a particular consumer taste for beef. Will a change to "grass-fed" production result in changes in product taste and quality that are unacceptable to US consumers, and if so can management and genetics be used to produce an acceptable grass-fed product? 5) Grain feeding, based on the significant use of fossil fuels to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, process and feed conventional feed stuffs in confinement is economically, ecologically and socially expensive. These costs are increased by the need to remove manure and manage nutrients from confined animal feeding operations to prevent environmental contamination. In view of the recent rise in the subsidized ethanol production based on grain, severe economic stress can be expected in the livestock feeding industries in the future. Can "grass-fed" cattle significantly contribute to reducing the economic stress between these two agricultural sectors? 6) With less dependence on fossil fuel, fertilizer, expensive machinery, grass-feeding systems for raising and finishing cattle may offer livestock operators significantly improved profitability and sustainability, in exchange for intensification of their management, rather than their financial investment. Not only might operations become more directly profitable, but in some cases they may be able to capitalize on the carbon-sequestration potential of pasture to sell "carbon credit", potentially leading to greater rural economic health.
In order to properly address these significant interrelated issues an extensive multi-interdisciplinary framework needs to be established to examine existing knowledge and develop and propagate new knowledge related to grass-fed beef.
**Administrative Advisor(s): Ron Pardini, Don Snyder, Ralph Cavaleri
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