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Study supports eco-impact of lifelong cattle grazing, but there are caveats 

click to enlarge Healthy soil can sequester carbon, but a growth in grass-fed beef could deforest land. - OLEKSANDR OSIPOV / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Oleksandr Osipov / Shutterstock.com
  • Healthy soil can sequester carbon, but a growth in grass-fed beef could deforest land.
The hamburger stands as one of America’s favorite dishes and most famous food exports. Thanks to that culinary stature, it’s in a position to teach us something: how to shrink the carbon footprint of our meals.

Yes, to some that means eating meat-free burgers, like the plant-based Impossible or Beyond burger. And maybe someday bug-burgers or lab-grown meat burgers. But it’s the big offender, beef, that we’re addressing here. Beef has increasingly been regarded as the most environmentally destructive form of protein humans consume, because of the greenhouse gases released by cattle and the production of their food.

But some grazing advocates have argued that properly managed cattle production can be carbon-neutral, and the newly released results of a five-year study — a collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Union of Concerned Scientists — support that notion, showing more carbon sequestration in soil. The caveat: It requires twice as much land as conventional beef production (i.e., more deforestation), as noted in a recent Grist article, which proposes that conventional beef cattle at least spend more of their lives munching grass before moving to grain at a feedlot.

Only about 1 percent of American beef is currently grass-fed, and it’s an open question as to whether regular beef eaters will stomach the change to grass-fed, which has a bad rap as leaner (for fat lovers who know fat equals flavor) and tougher than its feedlot-finished counterpart. “Gamey” isn’t the right term, but some folks discern a notable difference in flavor with grass-fed too, using descriptors like “nutty,” “earthy,” “wilder” and “more rich,” which sounds great to us, but perhaps overly complex for someone desiring a mild patty.

And, conventional beef eaters would also have to accept eating less beef, because healthy grazing practices would only produce about half the beef per acre compared to current practices — hence the doubling of necessary land to keep pace. The price, meanwhile, would likely rise.

But, the hamburger, done right, could nullify these overarching beef concerns. The next caveat: Americans would need to accept buying their meat frozen, not fresh. The idea that fresh meat is somehow superior to meat that’s spent months in the freezer is a notion as firmly held as it is unsupported by fact. Unless that attitude changes, grass-fed beef will never be more than a niche product.

Here’s why: Feedlot beef can be supplied year-round, on demand. Whenever meat is required to fulfill an order, fat cows are shipped to slaughter, and meat is available. But a grass-fed beef supplier is at a serious disadvantage trying to compete. The rancher’s cattle are standing around eating hay all winter, while those feedlot cows are eating corn and soy. The grass-fed animals weigh less than they did the previous summer, because hay is not as nutritious as green grass. Thanks to their fat reserves from the previous summer, grass-fed animals make it through the winter fine, but as those reserves are drained, the meat loses quality. Grass-fed beef is of the highest quality when slaughtered in summer, at peak fattiness, when the producer has the most meat per animal to sell, and the consumer gets the richest meat.

Hamburger offers a solution to this and every other obstacle to grass-fed beef. Unlike more prestigious primal cuts, ground beef can be thawed very quickly. Just drop a frozen pack in a bowl of room temperature water. As a hunter, I do this regularly with my deer and elk burgers. The only advantage of raw meat is the convenience to cook it immediately. But in terms of quality or safety, raw meat might as well be called rotting meat, because this is what happens as soon as meat’s no longer attached to a living animal — unless it’s frozen or otherwise preserved. Frozen meat, properly packaged, can last more than a year, unscathed by the ravages of time.

And regarding grass-fed beef’s toughness reputation, a meat grinder becomes the great equalizer, making it as tender as feed-finished, while allowing all parts of the animal to contribute to the meal. So maybe America will be ready to stomach a swap-over.

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