In Search of a Sustainable Meatball

When asked to list my top five favorite foods, meatballs would definitely make the list. But I also believe in doing my part to create a sustainable future, and beef is definitely under heavy scrutiny these days. The science around the environmental impacts of beef is controversial, and it’s hard to know the real deal. 
Much of the oft-cited literature, like the UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow, suggests that beef production is awful. It degrades land, produces huge amounts of GHGs, uses and abuses water resources, and destroys biodiversity. 
 But then other reputable sources question the methodology behind prominent studies. Do you account for deforestation or would that occur anyways? Do grass-fed systems work differently? Don’t production systems vary by geography? What if the beef is organic? 
 Ok so it seems clear that the vast majority of the beef produced around the world is contributing to climate change and other negative environmental consequences (and health, all though that’s worth questioning as well).
 But wait…couldn’t all that be due to the practices used to raise the cows and the data collection/analysis methodolgies?
 Enter Defending Beef, Soil Carbon Cowboys, and of course Allan Savory. When raised holistically, they argue, beef can produce hugely POSITIVE environmental outcomes like land restoration and carbon sequestration.
 So why doesn’t the science mention these guys? 
TomKat Ranch, educational foundation and grass-fed beef producer, recently commissioned an LCA on their grass-fed sustainable regenerative agriculture ranch. These guys are plugged in to the latest practices and have significant respect and recognition in the industry. What did the LCA tell them? 
Incorporating holistic land management practices into these studies is…complicated. Their LCA methodology was based on existing models of conventional livestock production systems, and high quality data about grass-fed systems and their impacts (e.g., on carbon sequestration) don’t exist yet. Basically, the study pointed to the gaps in the currently available tools. More work is necessary to really understand the environmental footprint of grass-fed beef. 
 I would love to raise my own cattle and maybe someday I will. But until then, my personal approach is to continue to follow (and question) the latest science. And on the relatively rare occasions when I want a meatball (or seven), to seek out the most sustainably-raised beef I can.


Easy enough to say…but what do I actually buy? 
Well that just became another whole can of worms. I used to go with grass-fed beef, but now, apparently, “grass-fed” no longer means…anything. 
 The USDA “grass-fed” standard used to require that 99% of a cow’s diet after weaning (where it drinks milk) be grass or forage (e.g., clover, but not grains, like corn or soy). I say used to, because as as of January 12, 2016, the USDA revoked this standard.
 The reason for the change is, as far as I can tell, because there are two USDA bodies (Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) and Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS)) involved in regulating labeling standards and certifications, and they can’t seem to figure out a way to agree on a standard for grass-fed that will actually be verifiable in practice. 
 Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, was clearly not happy about this, saying:“The rationale that a strong USDA label standard for grass fed beef is not useful because it might not be recognized by a partner agency is outrageous…it is both sad and true that these two USDA agencies often do not coordinate, and worse yet that in some cases FSIS has looked the other way, allowing particularly unscrupulous meat companies to abuse the USDA standard…but the common sense solution is not to revoke the standard, but instead to tackle siloing and lack of interagency communication head-on.”
 Now that the AMS doesn’t provide a standard, producers have to make up their own. Wait, what? 
 Well, actually, that’s not so different from how it was before. Now, as before, FSIS will approve a producer’s label based on the documentation that a producer submits. The documentation must include the definition of grass-fed that the producer is using. Revoking the AMS standard does not change this process. In fact, producers can still reference the now-rescinded AMS standard (which, apparently, only 4 producers were even using). 
 What does this mean for producers? Producers who want a grass-fed label approved by the FSIS can either make up their own standard (which, again, could be exactly the same as the AMS standard) and submit for approval, or use a third-party certification such as American Grassfed or Food Alliance. Net-net: things won’t change much for producers. 
 Can I still find grass-fed beef that’s actually grass-fed?
 I’m pretty skeptical about the “set your own standards” idea. What does “50% grass-fed” mean? Does the cow eat half grain and half grass? Or did it, like all cows, only eat grass during the first six months of its life before heading to an industrial processing facility to get stuffed full of corn? And how will FSIS verify any of this? It seems like an opportunity for greenwashing and even more consumer confusion.
 On the other hand, I like the idea that third party certifications may become more popular, especially as many of them go beyond just diet, certifying things like confinement conditions and overall animal welfare. 
 The conscientious consumer’s dilemma: to eat beef or not to eat beef?
 I wish I had the answer (then I would have title the post “how to find the sustainable meatball”), but all I can recommend are less-than-convenient solutions. Go to farmers markets. Talk to farmers. Read company websites about practices and standards. Visit farms. And definitely look for third party certifications.
 For now, you might have to spend a bit more time (and probably money) so you can feel good better about where your meatballs came from. And, until you’re confident in what a “grass-fed” claim really means, save them for a special occasion. 
 Want to dig deeper?

  • These guys argue that overall there isn’t much of a change for producers.
  • On Pasture goes even further, claiming that activists were using this to create attention-getting headlines.
  • On the other side, Organic Consumers Association agrees that things won’t change much for producers, but worries about the confusion it will create for consumers.
  • And if you really want to get into the weeds, the USDA held a conference call on the subject and you can see the transcript here.
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