A mounted jackalope head hung over the meat counter at the back of my town’s butcher shop when I was a kid. (For the uninitiated, that’s a mythical taxidermy creation that crowns a jackrabbit with deer antlers.) The beef this fierce creature guarded came from local cows that had lived primarily on grass and hay. For quite a while, grain-fattened beef has been more to America’s liking. But recently, as local, natural and organic foods have gained popularity and distribution beyond small community outlets like that butcher shop, grass-fed beef is making a comeback.
But guess who’s raising a growing chunk of Americans’ grass-fed beef? Australian farmers. It’s traveling around the world to us frozen.
So here’s a question: What do you do when one sustainable action or trend causes unintended, perhaps unsustainable, reactions?
The American Grassfed Association proclaims grass-fed beef healthy for people, animals, planet and community. Grass-fed cows certainly live in a more natural state than cows that are fattened up on a rich diet of corn – and are often confined to feedlots, rather than roaming in pastures.
Grass-fed cows take several years longer to reach full size (and thus ROI) than grain-fed ones. Feeding cattle grass only, with no additional grains (like corn), may seem intuitive, but it’s difficult in most regions of the U.S. without stockpiling plenty of hay for winter feeding. The costs associated with this, and for all the space grass feeding takes, make it harder for American grass-fed beef producers to compete against Australian imports, even if those imports have left carbon hoofprints across the globe.
There’s not a clear-cut guide to weighing the sustainability-related benefits of grass-fed beef against the issues of international transportation and refrigeration. (And, of course, there’s more complexity to the pros and the cons than we’ve talked about here.) While you likely have no power over the economics of imports and exports, you can be cognizant of the side effects generated by sustainable actions and trends that you support.
Here’s another, related sustainability conundrum: Biofuels (and the high need for animal feed corn) have driven up demand for corn and soy, giving landowners in the Western Corn Belt plenty of reason to convert their property from native grassland to corn and soybean farms. One study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points out that today’s remaining grasslands are being converted to agricultural uses at rates that haven’t been seen since right before the Dust Bowl. The loss of grassland presents a critical conservation issue, and the study suggests that the good prices for corn and soy growers could be limiting the economic viability of other effective, beneficial types of biofuels.
As you develop and track your sustainability goals, you should consider side effects like these. The path toward sustainability can sometimes become a tunnel, and it’s easy to stop looking outside it once you’re headed in a good direction. Opening up the tunnel vision is beneficial for several reasons:
- You could be an innovator in your industry: If there’s a more sustainable, more effective way of doing business or meeting goals, lead the way – even if the better path is the road less traveled.
- You can ensure you are, in fact, benefiting people and the planet – not just your own sustainability story.
- You won’t be caught unawares as savvy consumers, who desire transparency, become more aware of these conundrums (especially pertinent if you target a greener audience).