Why ‘Pasture-Raised’ trumps ‘Organic’

by Catherine Haug, June 12, 2012 and David Brown, November 2011

Most of us believe that Organic is the best you can buy, to feed your family. And it certainly is better than commercially-produced fresh and processed foods. But is it really the ‘best’ available?

I’ve posted on this topic before (see Related Posts, below). David Brown (avid gardener, compostor, and health researcher from Kalispell) writes about the advantage of ‘pasture-raised’ over ‘Organic’ when it comes to animal foods like meat, dairy and eggs.

Two Advantages of ‘Pasture-Raised’

by David Brown, November 2011

[This was originally David’s comment (on animal feed) to Alexis Koefoed’s post Pasture-raised or organic: Why we can’t do both on grist.org. Alexis raises chickens.]

Michael Pollan says, “You are what what you eat eats.” I believe that holds true for both plants and animals, and that animals can detect differences in the mineral content of plants. For example:

I improve the quality of the food my plants consume by introducing [via composting] the remains of many plants into the soil that my garden crops feed on. We’ve live in town and I’ve been gardening here for 20 years. The deer, however, didn’t become a problem until I went all out to improve soil tilth and fertility. Now they seem to enjoy almost everything I care to grow except California poppies. The deer will even mow off any weeds I let get too tall. Interestingly, they don’t touch the same variety of weed growing across the street on my mother-in-law’s property.

Basically, it is the mineral content of soil that is the limiting factor in terms of plant quality and size. For example, my pansies will grow 18 inches in height and diameter. I don’t see this happening elsewhere.

So here’s the deal. If I were raising livestock of any sort, I would spread composted leaf material on my pastures to increase the mineral content of the soil. If you’re familiar with the Brix  measurement of plant nutrient content you likely know that animals on high brix pasture will consume less food. Leaves are great for improving the quality of forage because up to a third of dry leaf weight is mineral. Deep rooted plants such as trees, shrubs, and alfalfa will transfer minerals from subsoil to topsoil gradually improving fertility. The process can be dramatically speeded up by repeatedly scattering composted leaves on the ground. Earthworms will carry the material into the soil. Eventually, the land develops higher carrying capacity. See my related article in The EssentiaList: On CompostingMulchingHumanure, & Sewage Sludge.

The other thing I would mention is the omega-6 content of animal products. Feeding seeds [like corn & soy] to animals boosts the omega-6 content of whatever is harvested, [because these seeds are high in omega-6 content]. However, buying whole seeds and sprouting them would likely generate animal products lower in omega’6s. I say “likely” because as far as I can tell there’s no research on this. I contacted some animal feed researchers a few years back inquiring about the matter. In their response they indicated that they didn’t know what would happen to the fatty acid profile of animal products but they did say that sprouting does not diminish feed efficiency.

So why am I concerned about omega-6s? You’ll find [some] answers in this promotional FoodAndBeveragePeople.com Welcomes its First Guest Writer – David Brown  and this article Edible Oil Industry Urged to Promote Positive Findings on Saturated Fats  or you can Google David Brown Omega-6.

Cat’s comments 

Omega-6 vs Omega-3 fats

David’s concern about omega-6 fats has to do with the overbalance of omega-6 fats relative to omega-3 fats in our modern American diet. Animals raised in pasture where they can eat grasses rather than seeds, have a higher level of omega-3 fats than those raised in confinement and fed a mixed diet of corn & soy seeds and hay. In other words, animals raised as close to their native diet as possible have a better fat profile in their meat, eggs and milk than those raised a modern diet heavily fortified with seeds.

Why is this important? Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are considered essential for humans because we cannot make them ourselves. Both are poly-unsaturated (more than one double-bond in the chain), but the position of the ‘omega’ (last) double-bond determines how the fat works in our metabolism.

  • Omega-6 fats, in general, promote inflammation, as a response to injury;
  • Omega-3 fats decrease inflammation once the injury begins to heal.

A dietary overbalance toward omega-6 fats is believed to lead to clogged arteries (from the pro-inflammatory response) and potentially to heart attacks and/or stroke.

In other words, we need both omega-6 and omega-3 fats but we need them in proper balance, which is believed to be 1:1. The modern American diet has these fats in a ratio more like 30:1.

Another factor that differentiates pasture-fed animals from confinement animals is vitamin content of their meat/eggs/milk. Those raised in pasture have higher levels of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K than those fed in a mixed seed/hay diet in confinement. This is because the grasses in pasture are rich in these vitamins, whereas the corn & soy seeds are relatively low in these vitamins. In other words, “you are what you eat eats.”

Pasture-Raised vs Organic

Ideally, a health conscious eater wants both pasture-raised AND Organic when it comes to animal products.

  • Pasture-raised for the better nutrient profile;
  • Organic for the absence of toxic herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMO in the animals’ feed (and ultimately in the animal products).

However, one is often faced with either/or, rather than both. In this case, which is better? I would go for ‘pasture-raised’ because these come from local farmers & ranchers, and are not usually found in the large chain supermarkets. You can find ‘Organic’ animal products in these supermarkets, but you don’t know what the animals are fed nor how they are raised (pasture vs confinement), so you do not know much about their nutrient profile until after you consume the product:

  • Eggs have dark yellow-orange yolks when they come from pasture-raised chickens;
  • Milk’s cream is more creamy-yellow in color and has a richer flavor from pasture-raised dairy;
  • It is much harder to tell the difference with meat, but I maintain meat from pasture-raised animals has better flavor.

When you buy these products from a local farmer/rancher, you can inspect his farm/ranch and investigate his practices to know whether his feed is laced with chemicals and GMO. In other words, to know whether his animals are raised on Organic principles, whether or not he paid for the Organic certification.

See also my post: Pasture-Fed Meats, Eggs, Dairy

Additional Information

Related posts on The EssentiaList

(All posts by Catherine Haug unless noted otherwise)

Related articles by David Brown

4 Responses to “Why ‘Pasture-Raised’ trumps ‘Organic’”

  1. Ronny Honthaas says:

    Right ON, Sister.: It is a sad truth to our times that the word “organic” has been usurped by industrialized agriculture and terribly diluted. Buy local; know your farmer; eat meats, dairy and eggs from happy animals living in good conditions; eat really fresh veggies; and grow some food……even if it is just in containers on the deck in your condo. Get connect to food. Get real.

  2. Ronny Honthaas says:

    Ronny here, again. Maybe next year we can have a valley wide deck/patio food garden competition. Might be a great way for folks to get inspired about all the great and beautiful food they can grown on their decks. How about It!

  3. Catherine says:

    Great idea, Ronny. I’ll bring this up with our core team. Are you thinking to do this at harvest time? Mid-season?

  4. Robert Speirs says:

    As Gary Taubes would say, what experimental evidence do you have to say that organic food – or pasture-raised – food is in any sense “better” for anyone than “regular” or, in my words, reasonably-priced food?