Why is Grass-fed Beef More Expensive? Or is it?

By David Jessup

Grass-fed beef is more expensive than grain-fed, feedlot beef.  At least that’s been the pattern until recently.  Now, it appears, the price gap is narrowing. 

Consumers have been able to partially overcome the price difference by buying grass-fed beef in bulk directly from ranchers.  By purchasing a whole, half, quarter, or eighth, you save between 15 to 26 percent of the cost of individual cuts and an even greater percent over what you would pay for grass-fed beef at the grocery store. Often friends and family will split a bulk purchase to get the best value. (We call it “cow-pooling.”)

The reason grain-fed beef has been less expensive is that cattle in a feedlot beef can be fattened more rapidly on a diet of cheap grain.  You’d get fat too if you ate nothing but carbs for three months straight.  It takes longer to raise cattle on grass, which adds to their cost.  In addition, Corn has long been subsidized by taxpayers through the farm bill, so that has lessened the expense to the feedlot owner. 

But as Michal Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, points out, industrial beef isn’t so cheap when you consider the external costs to society:

How cheap, really, is cheap feedlot beef? Not cheap at all, when you add in the invisible costs: of antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease, E. coli poisoning, corn subsidies, imported oil and so on. All these are costs that grass-fed beef does not incur. 
New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002 (Click here for the full article) 

More recently, with the rise in demand for corn-based ethanol, corn prices have risen dramatically, from $2.50 a bushel in 2002 to as much as $8.00 a bushel.  So has the cost of diesel fuel and fertilizer needed to grow grain in mass quantities.   Profit margins have shrunk for both feedlot operators and packing houses. 

Many consumers have been willing to pay more for grass-fed beef because of its health and environmental benefits.  Now the trade-off isn’t so great.  You can have healthy beef and eat it too – affordably.

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