When you buy beef at the supermarket, you face the choice of purchasing organic versus conventional beef. To bear the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label, beef must meet the regulations set forth by the National Organic Program. Organic and conventional beef differ in more than just price; they also have distinct environmental and animal welfare impacts.
The type of feed animals eat is a primary difference between conventionally produced beef and beef from cattle raised under NOP standards. Conventional beef production raises animals in confined animal feeding operations, where animals eat a diet of grain to promote rapid weight gain (see References 1). The majority of feedlot cattle receive growth enhancers or antibiotics as part of their feed regimen (see References 2, page 45). While visiting feedlots as part of his research for his book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," journalist Michael Pollan also found cattle feed containing beef tallow, urea, feather meal and chicken litter (see References 3, pages 73-74).
Organic agriculture standards require that cattle graze on grass for the entirety of the grazing season in the region where they are raised, a period that must total at least 120 days. Organic standards forbid the use of antibiotics, growth enhancers and feed additives such as urea and slaughter byproducts. (See References 4, § 205.237)
Animal welfare issues surrounding raising animals for food tend to focus on living conditions. The USDA addresses the stress beef cattle experience in conventional feedlots and acknowledges that access to pasture represents an ideal in terms of both animal welfare and environmental stewardship (see References 5). They note that animals experience stress levels high enough that, in 1999, 40 percent of feedlots reported providing new animals with increased space before moving them to normal feedlot conditions (see References 2, page 13).
Organic standards forbid the continuous confinement of beef cattle on feedlots. They do permit the use of feedlots temporarily during the non-grazing season, as long as animals are not crowded and do not have to compete for access to food and water. Living conditions must accommodate the animals' natural behaviors. (See References 4, § 205.239)
The key environmental issue concerning conventional beef rearing practices is the concentration of large amounts of livestock manure in a small area. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, livestock in the United States produce 6 to 10 times the amount of waste as humans, creating challenges for safe disposal. Livestock wastes contain dangerously high nutrient levels, pharmaceuticals and pathogens that pollute the soil, waterways and air. (See References 6)
Organic production requires a management plan that prevents manure from becoming a pollutant and encourages the recycling of manure (see References 4, § 205.239). Organically raised cattle may benefit the environment because the grass used to feed them prevents soil erosion (see References 5).
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Cattle: Background
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; Feedlot 99: National Animal Health Monitoring System; May 2000
- "The Omnivore's Dilemma"; Michael Pollan; 2006
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; Animal Welfare Issues: Beef; Richard Goodrich, et al.; September 1997
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Proposal -- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) Pollution Prevention