by Joan Namkoong

Sustainability is a word we’ve all come to know and embrace. It describes a thought and decision- making process that meets the needs of the present while insuring that future needs can be fulfilled. Whether it be an ecological
system, an energy system or a food system, careful consumption and stewardship are critical elements in what we do
to maintain a sustainable future.

When it comes to food in Hawai`i, we can practice sustainability on one front: eating Hawai`i-produced beef. While
many prefer not to eat beef at all, those who do should consider the advantages of consuming our homegrown supply of grass-fed beef.

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Most of the beef in our supermarkets, about 90 percent, is imported from the mainland United States and other beefproducing countries. Most of Hawai`i’s beef cattle producers run cow-calf operations, shipping their calves to mainland Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) designed to hold a large number of cattle in limited
areas and to increase their weight as quickly as possible. Because of the concentration of animals, these feedlots take an environmental toll on the air, land and water surrounding them.

Beef cattle at CAFOs forage on grass until they go to feedlots, where they are fed a diet of grains—mostly corn, a high-starch, highenergy food. Corn production has negative environmental effects, too, requiring high levels of fertilizers and herbicides that run off into water systems. Corn production, subsidized by tax dollars, tends to be concentrated in the Midwest, requiring oil-fueled transportation systems to get the corn to the feedlots.

Beef cattle are ruminants whose digestive systems prefer grass and forage, not corn. A diet of corn and other grains can lead to health problems in the cattle and can promote the growth of E. coli in the digestive tract. Antibiotics are employed to mitigate these problems, taking away from the supply of antibiotics for humans and contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Once beef cattle from CAFOs are processed for food, the product must be shipped to Hawai`i, a journey of at least
2,500 miles, again requiring fuel and increasing the carbon footprint on our environment. Seems ironic, doesn’t it, that we ship our calves to the mainland then import beef to Hawai`i?

We don’t have enough pastureland for all the calves born in Hawai`i to remain here, nor do we have the facilities to process all the beef cattle raised in Hawai`i. But if we look around us, there are many ranchers keeping more of their cattle on our aina, supplying naturally raised, grass-fed beef for consumers.

The idyllic pasturelands found on many of our islands are the source of nutrition for beef cattle raised in Hawai`i. All grass, however, is not created equal; different varieties offer different nutritional profiles. Grasses vary from mauka to makai, offering different nutritional values for cattle. And while green pastures may have been the norm in the past, changing climate patterns have affected the availability of healthy pasture, requiring some ranchers to irrigate their large parcels of open land to optimize the forage available for their cattle.

Those open pasturelands are an important part of the visual beauty of our islands, something we’ve come to expect and admire more than housing developments and shopping centers. More importantly, pasturelands help to minimize erosion into streams and waterways that feed into the ocean; grass, trees and plants help with the absorption of water into our aquifers, all helping to protect our watersheds. Green lands also help to support Hawai`i’s biggest industry, tourism.

Ruminant cattle that feed on grass and freely roam open pastures are healthier than their CAFO counterparts. They require no antibiotics to treat health problems associated with what they eat. Grass-fed animals require a longer time to fatten up; growth hormones are not administered to speed up the process.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to eat Hawai`i’s grass-fed beef is that it has a better nutrition profile than grain-fed beef. In general, beef has many beneficial nutrients: iron that helps to deliver oxygen to cells to produce energy; zinc that boosts the immune system and helps wounds heal; protein that builds and maintains strong muscles; B-vitamins that help turn food into energy.

Grass-fed beef tends to have higher concentrations of a couple of important vitamins in its muscle tissue than found in grain-fed beef: beta-carotene that converts to vitamin A in the body and vitamin E. Grass-fed beef also has more of the essential fatty acid omega-3 than found in grain fed beef. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in beef, lamb and dairy products, is more prevalent in forage-fed animals than in grain-fed animals. In ongoing studies, all of these elements promote good health and help in the body’s defense against disease.

Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner than grain-fed beef, which means lower in calories. Of course, we need fats in our bodies to transport vitamins, help build membranes and regulate functions that help to prevent disease. And fat provides the tenderness we expect when we eat a steak. But a lower fat profile can help to lower cholesterol levels and calorie intake and still provide tasty morsels.

Another reason to eat Hawai`i-grown grass-fed beef is that it is good for our communities and our economy. There are about 800 ranching operations in the state; supporting our ranching families supports our neighbors and it keeps dollars in Hawai`i instead of sending dollars to communities far away. And eating our own beef lessens the carbon footprint we leave when we transport food thousands of miles.

Last but not least, the price of grass-fed beef is becoming more comparable to commodity beef from the mainland and elsewhere. With the rising demand for corn for biofuels, the cost of corn for animal feed is rising. Higher feed costs and the rising cost of fuel to ship corn, beef cattle and finished meats are all contributing to the higher cost of commodity beef. Grass-fed beef, for all its virtues and sustainable features, is a good value.

Where to find Hawai`i grass-fed beef? Look for it in smaller island- based grocery stores on all islands. On O`ahu, look for it at the KCC and Kailua Farmers’ Markets. On Hawai`i Island, KTA and Foodland carry grass-fed beef regularly, as do a number of smaller grocery stores around the island. Grass-fed beef can also be found on a
number of restaurant menus throughout the state. Ask for it when you shop and dine out. Consumer demand will increase a more sustainable grass-fed beef supply in Hawai`i.