Separate from the subject of greenhouse gas emissions, which we’ve covered in depth here, there are other environmental costs that can be associated with the use of hormones, feed lots and grain in cattle farming.
Beef from New Zealand doesn’t incur these same environmental costs because it’s raised on pastures year-round, grass-fed & finished, without hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics.
Grain-fed cattle in the US are typically raised in massive feed lots where huge numbers of cattle are concentrated together into a relatively small area to increase efficiency and reduce the cost of beef production. These feed lots create a lot of obvious pollution that can be seen or smelled by passersby. “In terms of air pollution, water pollution and odor, concentrated feedlots are a disaster. In terms of other environmental impact, there is no question that grass fed is better.” (Marshall, 2010).
However there are also more hidden environmental costs:
Hormone Use in Grain-Fed Cattle:
Estrogen, TBA, and other hormones are frequently used in feed-lot beef production.
These hormones end up in cattle waste and can eventually show up in runoff & the water supply where they can be absorbed by other organisms, “…these persistent chemicals eventually wind up in the waterways downstream of feedlots, where scientist have found fish exhibiting abnormal sex characteristics” (Pollan, 2002).
For more info, see Why are Hormones Used on Conventional Cattle?
Nitrogen Runoff From Grain Production:
Not only does corn represent a massive amount of expended fossil fuels and released greenhouse gasses, but the extensive fertilizer use leads to nitrate runoff into rivers, streams and lakes…all of which eventually flows into oceans.
The runoff leads to rising nitrogen and oxygen levels, fertilizing algae blooms. Those algae blooms (along with other microorganisms encouraged by the runoff) deplete the natural oxygen content of water. During the prime season for these blooms, areas of the ocean can be depleted to the point they become “dead zones” – areas where “no fish or typical sea life can survive” (Biello, 2008)
As measured in & around 2008, the Gulf of Mexico had a summer dead zone measuring over 7,700 square miles…approaching the size of the state of New Jersey (Biello, 2008).
Biello, D. (2008, March 14). Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Steams and Rivers–Creating Vast “Dead Zones”. Retrieved November 1, 2011, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fertilizer-runoff-overwhelms-streams
Marshall, J. (2010, January 27). Grass-Fed Beef Has Bigger Carbon Footprint. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from Discovery News: http://news.discovery.com/earth/grass-fed-beef-grain.html
Pollan, M. (2002, March 31). Power Steer. Retrieved October 31, 2011, from Michael Pollan.com (previously published in NY Times Magazine): http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/power-steer/