"Since the mid-90s, levels of crude protein in the plants, which cattle need to grow, have dropped by nearly 20 percent."
The grass-fed beef industry has seen massive growth in recent years. More customers are asking how their steaks were raised, and restaurateurs are realizing that an ingredient's provenance matters just as much, if not more, than the way in which it's prepared and presented. Sales of grass-fed beef in the United States have increased from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016, and it's showing no sign of slowing down.
But something else might trip up the grass-fed beef industry, and that is lack of nutritious grass. In an article published last month by Harvest Public Media and picked up by NPR's The Salt, writer Alex Smith explores a problem that's only just starting to be noticed by ranchers and researchers.
"[There is] a trend in the nutritional quality of grasses that grass-fed cattle (and young cattle destined for grain-heavy feedlots) are eating. Since the mid-90s, levels of crude protein in the plants, which cattle need to grow, have dropped by nearly 20 percent."
Researchers collected 50,000 cow pies from across the United States and examined their residual nutritional content. Joe Craine, from Texas A&M University, was involved with the study. He told Smith:
"If we were still back at the forage quality that we would've had 25 years ago, no less 100 years ago, our animals would be gaining a lot more weight."
Craine suspects that part of the problem is the fact that so many cattle are taken off the prairie and moved to feedlots. This removes their manure from circulation, which is supposed to deliver vital nutrients and revitalize prairie grasses.
Another hypothesis, discussed in the context of grain and vegetable crops, is called 'the great nutrient collapse.' Some scientists attribute loss of nutritional value to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. From an article I wrote last fall, this is what happens:
"Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc."
It was interesting to read the comments on that article, many of which are relevant to the grass problem. One commenter said that, while the CO2 hypothesis may have some value, there are surely other factors at play, such as
"soil with depleted organic material, fertilizers inadequate to the full spectrum of plant needs, annual plants grown in annually plowed soil, and no deep root structure to upcycle new nutrients from weathering parent material."
This makes sense. The contemporary industrial approach to farming fails to nourish the land, and yet we are continually surprised when the land fails to deliver the bounty we've taken for granted.
Is there a solution to nutritionally-deficient grass? Smith's article says "beef producers may need [to] dump huge amounts of nitrogen across the Great Plains" in order to meet the demand for grass-fed beef, but that seems neither right nor safe.
In an ideal world, if we really cared about the environment, we'd stop eating beef altogether. This doesn't mean you have to go vegan -- even chicken or pork are significantly better for the planet than beef. Beans are even better. Lowering demand, at least, would take the pressure off farmers to seek short-term, knee-jerk solutions to a much bigger, systemic problem.