Farmers. Corn. Beef. It all sounds so wholesome, these icons of American tradition and industry. One would think that any combination of the words, such as farmers feeding corn to cattle raised for beef, would be honest and wholesome as well. Americans have grown so accustomed to buying beef that is boldly advertised as corn-fed that most people simply assume that corn-fed beef is somehow better than the alternative, like premium gasoline or Grade A maple syrup. This is arguably not an accident, given the number of regional organizations dedicated exclusively to promoting corn-fed beef. The reason they may feel compelled to pay for their De Beers-like publicity campaign is simple, but shocking nonetheless:

Cows are supposed to eat grass, not corn

Corn? Grass? Is there a difference, you ask? Absolutely. God made cows with ruminant stomachs so they could get all of their energy and nutrition from grass. When a cow is fed corn instead of grass, its finely-tuned digestive system is sabotaged, often with a buildup of mucous that clogs the pathways between its four stomachs. It is not uncommon for corn-fed cattle to develop ulcers and infections from such an inappropriate diet, which is typically why they need to be fed antibiotics in the first place.

Clearly, cattle ranchers wouldn't engage in such a dangerous switch without good reason, and that reason is (you guessed it) profits. Grass doesn't grow year round, and it takes a lot of grass to feed a cow. Corn ends up becoming a much cheaper substitute, given its dense weight, high energy content, and long shelf life. It also doesn't hurt that the federal government pays out staggering subsidies to corn growers, thus ensuring a perpetual abundance. As ranchers get absorbed into a sharecropper existence by cost-cutting agribusiness conglomerates, or instead expand their herd to try to keep up with falling beef prices and shrinking profit margins, feeding their cows with grass becomes less feasible and more expensive. Some ranchers even convince themselves and their customers that corn is the right way to go because its inherent saturated fats contribute to the flavor of the meat.

The problem is that corn is not only bad for cattle, but it is also facing serious problems as a crop in its own right. Corn growers are locked into a cat-and-mouse game where they try to stay one step ahead of insects and diseases that continue to adapt, rendering many pesticides ineffective. The problem has gotten bad enough that companies like Monsanto are splicing new genes into corn to create a form of natural pesticide. However, environmental organizations are worried about the effects of genetically modified corn on cattle (that eat it by the barrel) and ultimately on people who eat the resulting beef. Many corn growers are systematically being denied the ability to iteratively breed and cross-breed their corn crops, since popular genetically-modified crops have been intentionally neutered in a sinister plot to ensure repeat business for the corporation that holds that particular GMO patent.

As fundamentally bad as corn-fed beef is, you may have a hard time finding grass-fed beef at any price. Organic grocery stores are a likely spot to find healthier grass-fed beef, as well as the farmers' markets that continue to pop up up in across the country. Once you seek out and cook a nice piece of grass-fed beef, you may quickly discover the complexity of flavor introduced by the grass that grew in a specific part of the country, just like the cheeses and butters from Europe that reflect the subtle flavors of their home regions.

Sources: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and essays by The Sierra Club

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