A Myth of Grass-Fed Beef
On the PBS website for the muckraking documentary King Corn-a film that roundly attacks industrial agriculture-the following declaration is made: “Before WW II, most Americans had never eaten corn-fed beef.” This claim, which has become a mantra in sustainable agriculture, is more often than not dispatched to rally support for grass-fed beef-a supposedly healthier and more environmentally sound way to feed cattle-which is to say, in accordance with the rhythms of nature rather than the time clock of industry.
Just a brief sample:
- Sustainabletable.org: “Traditionally, all beef was grass-fed.”
- Daily Mail: “Traditionally, all beef was grass-fed…”
- Grasslandbeef.com: “Originally, all cattle were grass-fed…“
- TreeHugger.com: “All cattle were grass fed until about 60 years ago…“
- Stopfactoryfarms.org: “In the past, all beef was grass-fed beef…”
Now, it’s hardly my intention to wade into the crossfire of the grass- v. grain-fed debate (although I suspect that’ll be inevitable). Instead, I simply want to point out that any claim to cows eating corn being a recent development is, to say the least, deeply suspect.
Let’s rewind to the past:
- “Corn is the best grain feed for fattening cattle.” (James Edward Halligan, Elementary Treatise on Stock Feeds and Feeding, 1911, p. 207.)
- “I believe that corn is the best feed for cattle and hogs…” (W.H. Freeman, Iowa Yearbook of Agriculture, 1904, p. 345.)
- “Green fodder corn is the best feed for milk cows…” (C.Z. Yoder, Annual Report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, 1886, p. 400.)
- “I doubt not that ground or boiled corn is best for cattle…” (Hazel Ridge, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents, 1853, p. 319.)
- “The fattening [of cattle] should be promoted by feeding them morning and evening with stalks of Indian corn.” (Samuel Deane, The New England Farmer, 1822, p. 63.)
Once again, I’m not arguing that the grass-fed alternative isn’t a viable response to the problems of factory farming grain-fed cows. I’m only suggesting to advocates of the grass-fed option that, if they feel so compelled to draw on the past to support the present, they should start by providing some footnotes. The romance of a pasture-fed past will only take the story so far.