THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES to the feedlot system. Case in point: Prather Ranch, located in Northern California's lush Butte Valley at the base of the Siskiyou Mountains. Founded in 1964, Prather Ranch raises cattle that are certified organic by the USDA. To achieve that status, the cattle cannot be raised with hormones or antibiotics; the feed must be organic, with no manure or mammal content allowed; and the land must be organic as well, meaning it's been free of designated pesticides and chemicals for at least three years.
"We are committed to sustainable practices," declares Doug Stonebreaker, owner of Prather Ranch's direct retail arm. "Unlike at feedlots, we don't pollute our watersheds, and we rotate the land so it remains healthy. With these practices, we'll be able to keep cattle on these 15,000 acres for generations, and the land will remain healthy and intact."
While production of organic meat is still very limited, sales are on the rise; organic beef sales soared 80 percent in 2004 from the prior year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Although organic beef, poultry and fish cost more--organic beef can run up to $6 per pound, about double the cost of its conventional cousin--such products will be the largest growth category in organic food over the next few years, according to OTA forecasts.
"I recommend that people buy organic if they can find it," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies,and public health at New York University. "While all meat contains some saturated fat, which can put you at a higher risk for some diseases, organic meat does not have antibiotics or hormones. And it is clearly better for the environment."
If it's true that "we are what we eat," then the same goes for cattle. If we consume their meat, we need to care about what they're fed and how they're raised. "We don't exist in a vacuum," says Wallinga. "Our health is a reflection of the health of the world we live in--what we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe."