Grass Fed Beef (a Historical Reminder)

February 8, 2009

This beautiful photograph is of broomstraw grass. I post it merely to remind myself that this was one among hundreds of native grasses that were almost totally wiped out by grass fed cattle brought from Europe to North America in the early 17th century.

Today, it is common to tout Broomstraw (Andropogon) growing on top of building in gutter by Martin LaBar.the many benefits of eating beef reared on grass–one of the most laudable is that this is what cattle are supposed to eat. It’s more natural, or so we’re told. But natural in what sense?

Overlooked in the rush to buy grass-fed is a longer view of animal domestication.  Cattle are not “natural.” In fact they are actually engineered through human breeding to eat diets conducive to various agricultural systems. Puritan farmers grazed cattle because they had a lot of pasture land and very little labor.  It was cheaper and more convenient for them to do so. When they could confine the cattle and feed them a diet partially based on corn, they did so–as early as 1650. Because imported cows from England had been eating corn for over a century, this was not a problem.

The cattle that wiped out broomstraw did not wipe it out because they consumed it. To the contrary, they found it hard to digest. They had not been bred to digest it. They had been conditioned to eat corn and English grass. Rather than undertake the long and arduous process of breeding cattle that could eat native grass (recall, there were no native cattle), European settlers instead chose to import European grasses (clover, timothy) that quickly choked out the native species but fed their Anglican beasts.

How does this historical ecological relationship apply to the here and now? Then as now, producing beef inherently  requires an aggressive manipulation of the landscape and the animals that inhabit it. This claim is just as valid for grass fed as for conventionally produced beef. The cattle we breed–by virtue of the process of breeding–will never eat what is “natural,” if for no other reason than the fact that humans determine what is natural for cows. That’s what domestication is all about.  We are inevitably  supporting one of the more active human manipulations of the landscape when we eat beef.

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