What do cows eat anyway?

I’m not terribly involved in health or environmental issues, but reading this article on Gristmill did make me think a bit more about the food I eat.

I grew up in a rural area in the Netherlands so I’m quite used to seeing cows in pastures. If you’d ask me what cows eat, grass would be my first answer. I know there aren’t enough pastures to feed all the cows we need for the enormous amount of meat the market demands (if you need a reason to boycott places like McDonalds just remember they allow rainforest to be cut down to rear cows, which incidentally emit huge amounts of methane, being a major contribution to global warming etc.), but still my answer instinctively would be grass.

Cow (nose) by .eti
Image of a cow (nose) by .eti

My wife was a vegan for several years and her motives for doing so helped me understand a bit more about what we are doing to animals and the environment to satisfy our appetite for meat, dairy and other animal products. Her current job also shows me many issues with the way we produce all sorts of items with blatant disregard of public health and environmental issues (chemicals in children’s toys, food modification, air pollution etc.) causing a massive rise in various diseases like cancer, which is a huge financial burden on society. Money is a perfect motivator, so thanks to the insurance industry public awareness is increasing (just like with global warming, which causes more natural disasters, which cost a lot of money).

Meat at the grocery store (image by Diane Duane)

But still many people are unaware of what it is exactly they purchase. So when I buy beef, where does it come from?

Julia Olmstead was strolling by the meat counter at her regional mid-sized grocery chain and thought, “hey, I should ask for grass-fed beef, ’cause they’ll only carry it if they perceive demand”.

I can identify with this as my wife often wants to alert a lack of biological products in grocery shops or she simply wants to point out more environmental friendly ways to do things at various place we go.

Anyway, this is how the conversation between Julia and the butcher went:

Me: Hi, do you have any grass-fed beef?
Butcher: Hmm, grass-fed? I don’t think you can feed grass to cows.
Me: Well, they’re ruminant animals, so I think that’s what they’re supposed to eat.
Butcher: [sympathetic-but-authoritative head shake] I don’t think so. They need vitamins and minerals and stuff.
Me: Uh …
Butcher: Now this [points down at large, marbled slab in meat case], this is corn-fed beef.
Me: Yeah, well, um, thanks anyway.

Check Julia’s The Myth of Grass-fed Beef at Gristmill for more on this and many interesting comments following her post.