Grass vs grain – you decide. Mercury Food and Wine article no. 13

Last month I discussed the concept of how one’s food choices have effects way beyond ones dinner plate. This month I would like to elaborate by looking at the implications of our choices of meats and animal products.


Meat in particular has had a bad press recently for ethical, environmental and health reasons, and the increasing shift towards industrial meat production has made matters a lot worse. Let us look at beef production as an example. The cow is an amazing animal. It is a most efficient converter of cellulose into protein. Cellulose, which is found in all plant material is indigestible to humans. The only plants that we may consume have a much lower proportion of cellulose than most, and the cellulose they do have is passed through the human gut as fibre. Grasses are the most prolific land plants on the planet and yet the only part we can consume is the seed or grain. However the vast majority of this huge source of biomass is in the leaves and stalks and this is where the cow comes in to play. The cow has evolved a highly sophisticated digestive system in which it has enrolled the cooperation of beneficial bacteria to break down cellulose and turn it into muscle and milk proteins. Cows have evolved to live on grass leaves and stalks and not on the grains. These animals have enabled humans to obtain high quality nutrition from grass. Grass based cattle farming if done properly can be sustainable and in fact benefit the soil and the environment. The meat from a grass fed cow is flavoursome and has a higher proportion of healthy omega 3 fats. In my experience the best tasting beef is is from a three year old grass fed animal.


Grass fed Nguni cattle.

On the other hand industrial agriculture,in a quest for profitability, has concentrated cattle into crowded feedlots, where they are fed only grains, mainly maize. Grains are mainly composed of starch with very little cellulose. This is an unhealthy situation for the cow but it suits the industrial system for it increases the animals growth rate and results in a marbled meat that is relatively tender. However it results in an unhealthy cow that won’t live long but this is not seen as a problem, as feedlot cattle are normally slaughtered at 18 months. Clever marketing has convinced us that young, tender, but bland, grain fed beef is the ideal and as a result few have tasted the alternative, naturally ranged grass fed beef slaughtered at the correct age.


Industrial feedlot cattle farming places extreme stresses on the environment and on human and animal health. You can smell a feedlot miles away as a result of packing cattle tightly into pens and therefore creating concentrated amounts of urine and manure. The cattle have to stand in this mess and breath in the heavy ammonia emission’s. The slurry created from the manure and urine is stored in slurry dams and is disposed of by spraying onto fields. This slurry is problematic in that it contributes to contamination of our water. Antibiotics and in some instances growth hormones are administered to the cattle and these are concentrated in their manure.

Grain fed cattle (

Antibiotics are administered to basically keep the cattle healthy in unhygienic conditions. The downside here is that ideal conditions are created for antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop.

Cattle raised in these conditions are unable to express their natural behaviour as free ranging herd animals and become stressed in such tight confinement.


I was recently dining at an upmarket steakhouse franchise recently when I happened to note on the menu that they proudly served only “SA Grainfed Beef”. This meant they were serving their customers unhealthy meat,from animals raised in a cruel, environmentally damaging fashion. Hardly something to be proud of. My meal was not enjoyable after that revelation. However there are establishments who pride themselves on serving ethical grass fed beef and I would rather give them the benefit of my choice.


About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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