Corn-fed is grass-fed

by Jeremy Cherfas on February 23, 2010

See if you can spot the problems with this line of reasoning:

  1. Grass-fed beef is good for you, the environment, and everything.
  2. Corn (maize, and barley, and wheat) is a grass.
  3. Corn-fed beef is grass-fed beef.
  4. Corn-fed beef is good for you, the environment, and everything.

Over at Muck and Mystery Gary does a fine job of unpacking all that logic. Sample:

[T]his would make some sense if they fed the whole corn plant to their cattle rather than just the seeds, and did so while the plant was still alive and vegetative, so that then cattle would get some green with all of that yellow. Better still, grow corn varieties bred for grazing (they exist) that produced more leaf, more nutritious stalks, and less seeds.

There’s more too, on how exaggerated claims from one end of a spectrum call forth exaggerated claims from the other, rather than the nuanced interpretation they really need. Gary talks about backlash. I suspect anyone trying to make sense of the arguments, in beef as in just about anything, would suffer whiplash instead.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

James February 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’d argue #2 and #3 are factually true and this is an example of where choosing labels that don’t mean what you want them to mean is going to get people into trouble.

It’s always bothered me that grass feed is considered the opposite of grain feed. Given that grains are a subset of grasses (and “grass-feed” animals are likely eating lots of non-grass species like clover and alfalfa so corn-feed cows probably get a higher percentage of their calories from grass species sources) it’s a poorly chosen and frustrating label from a plant biologist’s point of view.*

I’m not arguing the health/sustainability/what-have-you aspect. Only that using the name grass-fed to distinguish from grain-fed was just asking for someone to come along and make an argument like the one in the above post.

*In the same way the label organic food is poorly chosen from the point of view of someone whose first thought of organic is organic chemistry and from there thinks of all carbon based life.

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Anastasia February 24, 2010 at 12:32 am

I’ve always thought the “grass fed” v “grain fed” thing was funny for the same reason that James pointed out – grain fed is eating grass while grass fed is eating broadleafs, legumes, etc.

I’m not very familiar with animal feed, but I was under the impression that the leaves and stalks of corn (along with hay) was fed to cows as forage already, in addition to the grain. Is that not the case?

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Fiedler Family Farms February 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

Oh my…this should not be confusing nor made confusing like many good intentioned people do to mislead people. Grassfed has many health benefits over corn fed health wise which are explained in detail in Jo Robinson’s website at EatWild.com. But the big lie comes in when producers just outright mislead people. Corn is a grass and real “grassfed beef” can eat it until it forms ears. Then the ear becomes a grain which is starch and costs acidity in the rumen of a cow. Yes, hopefully ALL cattle are grassfed at some part of their life but true grassfed with all its benefits in health and taste eats only grass or non-starch/no grain feeds all its life. Corn fed is finished the last several months on corn to quickly fatten it. It cannot be fed longer without making the animal sick thus the prophylactic use of antibiotics in feedlots. But all cattle that I know of are allowed to eat some grass…which is completely beside the point. Why can’t those just say it is finished on corn? And the grassfed people get the credit for finished on grass! Just say what you do and all would be right…maybe. Jim

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Jeremy February 24, 2010 at 8:32 am

Thanks all for your comments. I would add only that James and Anastasia are failing to heed Humpty Dumpty’s wise words in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

That’s all this is really about, whether words can be relied upon always to have the singular meaning that you think they should have. Very, very few people, I bet, associate the word “organic” with organic chemistry, and they probably couldn’t say whether carbon was an element.

The original point of the post was that nobody should trust the oft-exaggerated claims of anyone with a product or an idea to sell. Right Jim?

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Fiedler Family Farms February 25, 2010 at 6:48 am

Yes Jeremy….get to know your farmer is a good rule. I don’t know if it is on Michael Pollan’s list of 64 rules but should be. It eliminates buying food from 1000 miles away as a start toward healthy eating and a healthy planet! Jim

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Andre February 24, 2010 at 8:00 pm

1. The demonstration only works in languages in which there is a broad overlap between “grass” in the sense of what grows in meadows and “graminaceae”.

2. I would add to Luigi that one has to be wary of other tricks. The nibble Small family farms in tropics can feed the hungry and preserve biodiversity provides two examples:

a. Exaggerate, or even invent, the claims of the opposing party.

Here: “Conventional wisdom among many ecologists is that industrial-scale agriculture is the best way to produce lots of food while preserving biodiversity in the world’s remaining tropical forests.” Were is that conventional wisdom? And if there is one, it is certainly not among ecologists.

b. Support your claim with your own claims.

Here: “Perfecto said these goals are in line with the findings of the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development synthesis report. The report concluded that small-scale, sustainable farms are the best way to alleviate world hunger while promoting sustainable development.”

The circularity of the claim is in fact revealed by the author of the press release: “Perfecto was one of the report’s authors.”

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James February 25, 2010 at 12:00 am

Do you know of some languages where #1 isn’t the case? It’d be interesting to check how expectations of grass-fed play out in them.

You make a very important point in 2.a. Putting obviously false statements in the mouths of your opponents is subtle and effective way to discredit them that I’ve been noticing more and more in food/ag debates lately (Not sure if it’s becoming more common or I’ve become better at spotting it.)

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Andre March 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm

1. Wouldn’t the Italians know that their scaloppine and bisteca come from animals finished with maize as the main source of energy in the Po valley?

2. In France, there is no large-scale marketing strategy to sell “grass-fed” as superior to other modes of production (it would in any event not be competitive). One kind of exception that comes to my mind is lamb sold under certain appellations of origin, where consumers know that the lamb are raised and fed on pastures.

3. I can imagine that “grass-fed” and its equivalents in all languages would be quality certificates for consumers who have no idea of agricultural (and culinary…) realities. It is thus a matter of education.

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Karl Haro von Mogel February 25, 2010 at 7:50 pm

My concern with the “grass fed” issue is that it is taken to be an either-or. Grains are an efficient way to get a lot of calories and nutrients to the cows, but feeding them nothing but a pile of grain is probably not very good for them. On the other hand, exclusively feeding them nothing but pasture (including grasses and lots of non-grass stuff) will take up a lot of land and the animals will grow slowly. Few people are overtly talking about the middle ground, such as a combination of pasture and grain.
I used to raise some sheep back before foodieism existed, and they had six acres to browse around on, and we fed them a scoop of molasses-coated grains and alfalfa pellets each day. We also fed them alfalfa in the dry summer California months. This was by no means 100% grass-fed, yet, I think it would be something that the proponents of grass-fed would be happy with. So then my question is, why are people pushing for “100% grass-fed?” This kind of dichotomous thinking comes up all the time in ag discussions – and it’s something that we could do without.

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Jeremy March 1, 2010 at 8:41 am

I agree that extremism of any kind is unhelpful; the trouble is, 100% is an easy concept to defend, no matter how hard it may be to justify. And most regulations that the average consumer believes means 100% frequently means nothing of the sort. In the UK, for example, certified organic dairy and beef cattle can be fed a certain percentage of non-certified organic feed. Do most people know that? I very much doubt it.

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DennyO August 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Cow corn is really two types:

1) Forage corn are the ears and stalks chopped up by a forage harvester machine and stored usually in a silo. It is fed to cattle, usually for the combination of the cellulose, which a cow’s stomach can digest, plus the natural sugars and starches.

2) Grain corn is left to mature until the kernels are their biggest and have dried out and drawn all the goodness from the cobs, by having converted the sugars into starch. It is harvested generally by using a combine, which strips the kernels (which are very hard at this level of maturity) from the rest of the plant. In turn, the kernels are ground and used for corn meal in feeds. Of course, some corn meal is also used by people, as is corn starch. Some of it is now used for ethanol too. Grain corn is the biggest use of corn as a crop.

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