You are what you eat… ATE. And if you’re indulging in factory farmed meat, this includes GMO corn, soy, and wheat: known belly-busters that create inflammation in your gut and cause serious health issues. Rising meat consumption has driven the growth of industrialized farming techniques to meet consumer demand and corporate greed. These techniques, however, are depleting the nutritional benefits you could receive from animals grazing in their natural habitats.
By Carter Trent
Despite the rise of plant-based meat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger, people love to eat the real deal. Only about 5% of the U.S. population are vegetarians, and the consumption of meat is on the rise.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates meat consumption in 2022 will reach 224.9 pounds per person, continuing an upward trend over the past decade from 199.9 pounds per person in 2012. Livestock populations have expanded to meet the growing demand, and now represent 94% of all mammals on the planet, excluding humans.
Factory Farms Exploding on a Massive Scale
The substantial number of livestock is predominantly managed by factory farms, or feedlots, formally referred to as animal feeding operations (AFOs) by the agricultural industry. These industrialized farms are designed to house large numbers of animals under strictly-controlled conditions to maximize meat production at the lowest cost.
The USDA explains:
"AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland."
About 450,000 factory farms exist in the U.S., where an estimated 99% of the nation’s livestock live.
Factory farms have enabled meat production on a massive scale, but there’s a tradeoff. Numerous studies have shown the nutrient density in factory farmed meat is lower when compared to livestock allowed to roam pastures.
Nutrient density measures the level of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients present in food. The higher the nutrient density, the more nutritious the food is. But when nutrient density declines, our health is adversely impacted, contributing to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The lower nutrient density of factory farmed meat is explained by the old adage, "you are what you eat," which applies equally to livestock and humans in this case. Factory farms are designed to prepare an animal for slaughter as quickly and efficiently as possible, resulting in the widespread use of grain-based feed, such as GMO (genetically modified organism) corn, rather than their natural diets.
For example, cattle are most often fed corn because it’s inexpensive for the farm, and a good source of energy for the animals, causing them to fatten up faster. But cattle have evolved to graze on grass in their natural habitat.
Deprived of the food they were meant to eat, the nutritional content of the cattle declines. In fact, some studies have suggested that this nutritional deficiency is the true cause of the health problems associated with red meat consumption.
The nutritional difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef is substantial. USDA nutritional data reveals grass-fed beef is higher in many nutrients such as protein, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.
Also important to recognize are omega-3 fatty acids. These are important for the human body to maintain healthy biological processes, helping to regulate cell functions and cardiovascular health. However, we can only get them from food, such as meat and plant-based sources, including flaxseed and walnuts.
A study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that grass-fed cattle possessed "a significantly higher level of total omega-3" than cattle penned on feedlots, subsisting on a diet of grains. Meanwhile, grain-based feed has increased omega-6 fatty acids, which are also essential for the human body, but only if the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 are equal. In Western diets, the ratio is about 15-to-one, and grain-fed livestock is a contributing factor to this imbalance, leading to serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Beware of the Grain-Fed, Antibiotic-Laden Chicken
Chickens are another example of the factory farming quandary. The popularity of chicken as an affordable protein source helped poultry to become the most-consumed livestock in the world today.
Chickens are omnivores, eating a diet of plants, seeds, insects and worms. Yet factory farmed chickens and other poultry are given feed commonly made from GMO corn and soybean meal.
This feed is excellent at fattening up chickens, but lacks the nutrition they have evolved to live on, lowering the nutrient density of chicken meat as well as their eggs. A Rutgers University study found eggs from free-range chicken typically contained twice the number of omega-3 fatty acids, two-thirds more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, and a third less cholesterol than factory farmed chicken.
The nutritional decline in our meat is compounded by the fact that U.S. livestock is also legally allowed to be fed a range of materials. These include antibiotics, animal feces, plastic as a replacement for roughage, and even candy.
The use of antibiotics is particularly widespread on factory farms. Antibiotics are used to fend off disease and accelerate animal growth, but their overuse caused the World Health Organization to demand an end to antibiotics in livestock out of concern for the implications to human health.
Farmed-raised Fish: Contamination on the Rise
Some people, aware of the problems with feedlot-produced meat, have transitioned to a pescatarian diet. However, seafood is no exception to factory farming.
The demand for seafood has risen thanks to the health benefits of eating fish, which includes helping to reduce heart disease and stroke. But the popularity of some types of fish, such as salmon, has led to depletion of wild populations, and the need to shift to farmed fish, called aquaculture. Today, more seafood is produced in aquacultures than is caught in the wild.
But as wild fish populations have declined, so has the use of fish meal in aquacultures. Farmed fish are increasingly fed plant-based food containing corn, soy, and wheat. This changes the nutrients present in the fish. According to the USDA, compared to wild salmon, farmed salmon contain lower levels of several vitamins and minerals such as potassium, selenium, and zinc.
Adding to the changes in nutrient density, another issue clouds farm-raised fish: contaminants. Because animals in factory farms are packed in confined spaces, fish included, the conditions increase stress in the animal as well as disease transmission, necessitating the use of antibiotics.
As a result, studies of farmed salmon have shown elevated levels of contamination compared to wild salmon. The problem prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to warn that farmed fish can contain higher levels of contaminants than wild fish.
All Atlantic salmon is farmed since it’s an endangered species in the wild. So avoid eating Atlantic salmon.
Raise Your Awareness
Awareness of factory farming’s pitfalls is growing. Senator Cory Booker has described the existing U.S. food system as "a system that is severely broken," and the United Nations held its first food systems summit in 2021 to help transform global food systems. As consumers demand changes, our food systems must transition to sustainable methods of farming, such as regenerative agriculture.
You might also consider the value of “happy animals” positively impacting the environment, and your own sense of well-being. What are “happy animals,'' you ask? Kate Martignier, writer for the Permaculture Research Institute defines them this way:
“Happy meat,” by my definition, comes from animals that live (or lived) contented, satisfied lives engaging in their natural behaviors without stress caused by confinement, loneliness, boredom, crowding, rushing, or inappropriate feeds or medications. (I include dairy products and eggs as well in this “happy meat” description.)”
“Choosing to eat happy meat is a vote for balance and sanity, and it indicates a willingness to strengthen those aspects of ourselves that are built to handle the difficult stuff, the uncomfortable stuff, that makes up an essential part of the fabric of Life.”
Take a Proactive Step
In the meantime, you can take action to increase the nutritional benefits from the food you eat. Buy local whenever you can, and read the labels to determine the most nutrient-rich options available.
Here’s a brief guide to the various labels you might come across:
- Grass-fed: This means the animal was fed a natural diet of grass instead of grain. If the animal was fed a mix of grass and grain, the percentage must be clarified on the packaging, such as "85% grass and 15% corn."
- Grass-finished: The term "finished" refers to food consumption in the final stage of an animal’s life. Grass-finished means the animal ate grass and forage throughout their life. Grain may have been used prior to the finishing stage, so look for labeling that states the animal was "100% grass-fed and finished" to ensure no grains were used.
- Pasture-raised: This term refers to how the animal was raised. Rather than being cooped up in a feedlot, the animal was given the freedom to roam pastures and forage for food.
- Free-range: This term also describes the conditions the animal was raised in. Free-range animals are given access to the outdoors, and when indoors, are allowed freedom of movement "to exhibit natural behaviors" per the USDA.
- Organic: This term means the animal was not treated with antibiotics and growth hormones. Also, the animal’s feed must not contain pesticides, and agricultural processes must be environmentally sustainable. Look for a USDA organic seal to verify the meat went through the process to be certified organic.
Know Thy Local Farms
Learn where your food comes from in order to make informed choices about what you feed your family and yourself. This includes visiting your local farms.
A number of other actions are available as well, such as donating to causes fighting to transform industrial agricultural processes. Sentient Media, a nonprofit journalism organization focused on the use of animals in our society, offers a comprehensive list of actions you can take to affect change.
By making the decision to stay away from factory farmed meat, you’re upleveling the nutrients you’re consuming from your food source, while incentivizing the agricultural industry to shift to sustainable practices.
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