Organic beef, conventional/CAFO beef, plant-based “beef” or cultured “beef”?
For years, I did not truly grasp the difference between organic and non-organic beef and, not being much of a meat eater, I was not really that interested. With the advent of plant-based “beef” and cultured “beef”, the different “beef” options became even more perplexing. Where I live, organic beef can cost more than triple the cost of other beef so if you are going to pay for organic beef, it seems like a good idea to know why you are shelling out so much money. Meanwhile, tech investors are devoting substantial resources to creating laboratory-grown beef alternatives and quick service restaurants are scrambling to provide a faux beef burger. So, precisely what is it that is motivating this move away from non-organic beef and, from a nutritional perspective, is it merited?
Organic vs. Conventional Beef
There are a few significant differences between organic and conventional/CAFO beef. For the uninformed, the term “conventional beef farming” brings up images of cattle wandering around a pasture and eating grass and, in the months when grass does not grow, being fed grain twice a day. In fact, in many countries, conventional cattle farming is more akin to cattle raised in concentrated animal feeding operations. So, for the remainder of this article these two types of cattle will be referred to as CAFO cattle.
CAFO cattle will generally eat plants grown on land sprayed with highly toxic insecticides, pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate and DDT. Their feed is likely to contain a significant proportion of low quality feed items created with GMO products that will facilitate weight gain but not the overall health and fitness of the animal. To prevent disease from a relatively tightly packed herd and to speed and enhance the growth of the animal, growth hormones and antibiotics will be administered to CAFO cattle.
Conversely, organic beef is largely pasture raised on land that has not been treated with fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are as severely toxic as those permitted for use on non-organic land. Farmers are restricted from giving organic cattle growth hormones and antibiotics may be administered only in very limited circumstances. When cattle are fed grain, in order for their meat to be classified as organic, only a small proportion of the grain they are fed can be produced from genetically modified organisms. As a result, the level of the most toxic, endocrine-disrupting, cancerous chemicals eaten directly or indirectly by cattle raised for organic meat is substantially lower than that of CAFO cattle. These first differences may be intuitively obvious.
What may be less intuitive, is the wide range of items that constitute feed for CAFO cattle. The cost of feed is the most significant cost in producing beef, amounting to approximately 50 percent of total costs. Therefore, researchers and farmers are continuously seeking to reduce this cost in order to maintain or grow profit margins. Feed for CAFO cattle includes a wide variety of items made with GMO ingredients, which by definition means they have been sprayed with harsh chemicals that the crop has been engineered to withstand.
GMO grain, primarily corn and soybeans, is a significant food source for non-organic cattle. However, GMO grain is still relatively expensive. Relative to what? Relative to quasi-food and really-not-food items that have been determined to contribute to the growth of cattle and are considered suitable feed items.
Quasi-food includes food waste such as bakery waste, grocery waste (including dairy, plant products, unsold meat and prepared foods), waste from breweries and candy waste (including wrappers). Products created from deceased poultry, fish, horses or pigs also qualify as feed. GMO food items will have been fed to the animals whose waste and carcasses now act as food for CAFO cattle. GMO crops will also form components of the human food waste that is served to CAFO cattle. In addition, food items on which such chemicals have been applied as a desiccant are likely to be part of the grocery waste.
Note: while candy wrappers are not viewed as food, not unwrapping the candy simplifies feeding and the wrappers are excreted by the animal.
So, in many countries, CAFO cattle will ingest significant amounts of toxic chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones both directly and indirectly, through the quasi-food they are fed. CAFO cattle will also ingest any preservatives that have been added to create shelf-stable food items that form part of the human food waste in their diets. In addition, much of this food would not be considered nutrient-dense food.
The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all allow farmers to feed growth-stimulating antibiotics routinely to CAFO cattle. In the US and Canada, farm antibiotic use is about five times the level in the UK. Antibiotic use in the US on CAFO cattle is approximately 7 times higher than it is in the UK. As a result of being fed CAFO meat, CAFO cattle will be ingesting a portion of the antibiotics and grow hormones contained in the meat as a result of the way in which the deceased CAFO cattle was fed.
Non of the quasi-food items will be fed to organic beef cattle because laws clearly delineate the food items these cattle may be fed. Similarly, organic cattle is not permitted to received growth hormones and antibiotics use is only permitted in very limited circumstances related to an acute health condition.
While humans can survive on a diet largely comprised of fast food and junk food, such a diet would never be recommended for optimal health. It is highly likely this is true for cattle as well.
Beyond the quasi-food items that may be fed to non-organic cattle, research has established that some not-really-food items also constitute suitable feed for CAFO cattle.
In the 1970s, a farmer began to investigate the potential to use sawdust as cattle feed after he learned that his neighbor’s cattle ate the sludge run-off from a paper mill and continued to thrive. Research ultimately established that determined that the cattle were able to process the cellulose in the sawdust as food. As a result, sawdust is now considered an appropriate feed item.
It is considered safe for just under 25 percent of CAFO cattles’ protein needs to be met using non-protein nitrogen, which is more economical than food-sourced protein. NPN refers collectively to components such as urea, biuret, and ammonium bicarbonate. While these are not proteins, they can be converted to proteins by microbes in the stomach of cattle. Dried poultry waste and manure are sources of both NPN and animal protein considered suitable for cattle. Corn silage may contain as much as 50 percent of its total nitrogen as NPN. Alfalfa hay may contain 10 to 20 percent of the nitrogen in this form.
None of these not-really-food items are fed to organic cattle.
Armed with the above information, if money was no object and health was a priority, most of us would choose organic beef rather than beef from conventional or CAFO cattle.
If you cannot afford organic beef and you are concerned about eating non-organic beef, could engineered “beef” be a better choice than CAFO beef?
There are two main types of engineered “beef”: genetically engineered, highly processed plant-based “beef” and cultured, lab-grown “beef.”
Plant-based burger patties that strive to replicate the flavor and texture of meat may contain one- third more calories and twice the fat of some identically sized actual organic beef patties. The Beyond Meat website indicates that, like actual beef, the Beyond Burger provides a complete protein. However, these new plant-based meat alternatives are highly-processed products for which there is limited nutritional information at present. As a result, it is unclear whether the nutrition offered by the final product is consistent with the nutrition offered by the totality of the raw ingredients. Hopefully, at some point there will be some reputable third party testing results to verify the patent-holders’ claims.
The process of creating the new lab-grown “meat” products currently begins with animal cells. Some producers refer to their product as “cell-based meat” or “cultured meat” because connective tissue and muscle similar to that of actual meat are created through this process. The animal cells are fed nutrients and signalling proteins derived from plants as they are grown in a bioreactor. These cells never grow into a live animal, rather they grow into hunks of connective tissue and muscle. In the next generation of cultured meat, it is anticipated that plant cells will be used even in the initial stages. Having no need for antibiotics or GMO food, certain undesirable inputs found in CAFO beef should not be present in cultured meat.
At present, cultured meat is considerably more expensive than organic beef, ranging between $400 and $2000 per kilogram, depending upon the cultured meat being offered. However, producers are optimistic that within a few years cultured meat will cost only 30 percent more than CAFO beef. Whether or not this product will have a similar nutritional profile to organic beef remains to be seen.
Humans have yet to completely unravel the mysteries of most living things. This incomplete understanding of the complexities of the foods we eat and how those foods interact with our bodies is likely to result in a failure to engineer a product that completely replicates the nutritional benefits of a whole living organism. Additionally, features not present in the living organism that are present in the engineered substitute may create significant adverse health concerns for those who are regular consumers of engineered, highly processed food. Our lack of knowledge may cause us to fail to recognize that these efforts are critically flawed.
Until we have a far greater understanding of these matters, consider excluding these engineered foods from, or making them a very infrequent addition to, your diet. Certainly, absent credible verification of the nutritional profile of the various engineered “meat” options, organic beef is highly likely to be the most nutritional alternative.