I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in animal science with a focus in industrial animal production. Those large chicken and hog barns or massive feedlots of beef cattle you see while you’re driving down the road and can’t help but breathe through your mouth because of the smell; that is what I focused my studies on. A long way from holistic health.
What I learned over the course of my degree is how to maximize production i.e. profit. How increasing stocking densities will produce the largest quantity of meat. How to increase the growth of an animal in the shortest amount of time and to effectively manipulate variables such as lighting to ensure maximum growth. Where is the joy in raising animals this way?
It was the joy of growing up on a beef farm that I loved so much about agriculture and why I wanted to pursue a career in it. The joy of seeing a baby calf frolic around an open pasture alongside her mother. The joy of calving season and watching the miracle of birth at 2 a.m. in the middle of spring. But there is no joy in housing thousands of chickens into one industrial-sized barn. Partway through my degree, I realized this is not an industry I want to work in; it’s not natural to raise animals in confinement and if this is how our food is raised, what it is doing to those of us that are consuming it. The quality of our meat is important to the quality of our nutrition.
So ironically, my thesis for my bachelor’s degree was on how to increase conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in beef. CLA is an antioxidant that has proven to have various benefits such as improving cardiovascular imbalances, blood sugar regulation and weight loss. During my research, I found that beef cattle that were fed their natural diet of forage had a more favourable rumen (stomach) pH in which bacteria were able to produce CLA in higher quantities. Grass-fed beef contains more than double the amount of CLA found in grain-fed beef. Cattle that consume high grain diets have significantly lower rumen pH that results in various health implications. By confining our cattle to grain-fed rations we are inherently decreasing their health and our own. I don’t think it’s a big surprise that if you feed an animal its natural diet it's going to be healthier and therefore supply us with a more nutritious product.
The quality of our food is the key to living a healthy life. Scientific research has proven that conventionally raised (grain-fed) meats are pro-inflammatory compared to grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has a more favourable ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids of 1:1 compared to 20:1 of grain-fed cattle. Thus, conventionally finished beef has fewer omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to be anti-inflammatory. Additionally, like humans animals store toxins in their fat. The higher fat content of conventionally raised beef also contains higher residue of toxins from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics and exogenous hormones that are used to increase growth rates of cattle.
There are six hormones that are legally used in Canada to enhance beef production. Three are natural steroids: estradiol, testosterone and progesterone. Three are synthetic hormones: zeranol (estrogen), trenbolone acetate (androgen and glucocorticoid) and melengestrol acetate (progestin). These hormones increase the growth and development of the animal decreasing the amount of time to slaughter. The European Union has banned the use of all growth-promoting hormones in livestock production. It is thought that the use of exogenous hormones used in the production of conventionally raised animals acts as endocrine disruptors in humans. Thus, altering our hormone balance with unnatural levels of estrogen contributing to reproductive hormone imbalances and ultimately affecting our fertility. Hormone residue in meat is of concern for pregnant women and prepubertal children as exposure to sex hormones may induce testicular dysgenesis and lead to poor spermatogenesis in adulthood. Furthermore, estrogen growth hormones in livestock production are known as estrogen-like pollutants, xenoestrogens. Consumption of xenoestrogens leads to an imbalance of reproductive hormones such as estrogen dominance.
Three ways to afford quality meat on a budget:
1. Buy a deep freeze and purchase it in bulk.
2. Purchase meat directly from a local farmer. Many farmers will sell quarter, half or full animal for cheaper than you can buy separate cuts in the grocery store.
3. Use every part of the animal; by making a soup out of the chicken carcass after a beautiful roast chicken dinner.
Swan, S.H., Liu, F., Overstreet, J.W., Brazil, C., Skakkebaek, N.E. Semen quality of fertile US males in relation to their mothers’ beef consumption during pregnancy. Human Reproduction. 2007. 22(6): 1497-1502.