Beef from corn-fed, CAFO-raised cattle is actually far better for the environment than the uber foodie-chic, grass-fed variety. Or is it? That’s the question raised by a recent and highly publicized story on Fox Business Network, based on a paper – by a professor of animal sciences at Washington State University – that flies in the face of today’s green diktat, conventional foodie wisdom, and the many derivative threads of Michael Pollan’s much-discussed 2002 article, Power Steer. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the real world, the more one asks the question, the more complex the answers become, so this will be a two-part post: Today, we’ll talk about the kerfuffle over the Fox story, and tomorrow, or maybe the next day, we’ll buck the trend and actually consider the evidence.

Personally, I have no particular environmental axe to grind with corn-fed beef per se, and – at least until I started researching this post – I had committed a highly limited share of my severely limited RAM to the lively if shoddily clad debate between the corn-fed and grass-fed camps, mainly because I’m an economist and a true fan of liberty and I therefore prefer to let markets, not government fiat, dictate the allocation of resources via competition and the price system. No, I eat almost exclusively grass-fed beef, from ranchers that respect their animals, not because of any environmental cause or concern, but because it tastes better (maybe you don’t agree, but it certainly tastes different), it’s healthier (some health claims may remain unsubstantiated, but the comparative lipid profiles are unequivocal), and, while I eat meat without apology, I do believe that there are important ethical considerations related to the treatment of the animals that die for our dinner.

That being said, I also believe that consumers should make informed choices, so when a good friend of mine – a friend who takes his food seriously, who understands much more than a little about economics and markets, and whose politics veer just right of la famille Paul – sent me a link to John Stossel’s column (Stossel is the tool that shilled the piece for Fox – yeah, shocker, it turns out to be a shill piece, but more on that later), it made me realize just how little hard data I’ve seen from either plaintiffs or defendants in grass-v.-corn: Neither the argument that “grass-fed is better because it’s natural”, nor that “corn-fed is better because it’s efficient”, holds much water for me, and it shouldn’t for you, because the incidence of perfectly perverse economic intuition (Where do I even start? Rent controls, farm subsidies, progressive taxation, racial profiling, renewable fuel standards, Medicare, immigration, TARP & ARRA, public sector unions… I’ll run out of disk space before I finish the list) has, like some virulent cocktail of willful ignorance and self-serving hypocrisy, gone epidemic in 2010 America.

Still and all, within the galactic blur of “reporting” and “opinion” that constitutes our readily accessible news media, I like to give credit where it’s due, and Fox remains the Starship Enterprise: To boldly editorialize as no reporter has ever done before, to gallantly stream politicized editorial invective behind the gossamer veil of a fair-and-balanced catch phrase. But I like data, I like facts, and I value critical thought, so I bristle equally when either the hookah-left or the jackboot-right proffers up opinion masquerading as science – spend about 90 seconds googling “grass-fed, corn-fed, beef, environment” and you’ll quickly discover that there are orders of magnitude more heat than light – and thus figured I’d better go and read the original source material before making up my mind.

Unsurprisingly, I seem not to have much company, because Stossel’s column on Townhall.com has more than twice as many comments as the original research paper it cites has views; in other words, everyone has an opinion on the topic, but nobody has bothered to think about it – including, quite evidently, Stossel and Fox, because it took me about two minutes to ascertain that the paper was co-written with (and almost certainly funded by) Elanco. Who, or what, is Elanco, and what does it do? Elanco is the agricultural arm of Eli Lilly, and it makes its money by selling the drugs (such as antibiotics and growth stimulants) that feed-lot operations require. In other words, the study was written by the ultimate beneficiary of its conclusion. Now, maybe I’m guilty of a hopelessly antiquated definition of journalism, but it seems to me that such a critical conflict of interest might be relevant to the story, and that any reporter or news medium reporting on it ought at least to mention the salient facts.

The other thing I discovered is that the “paper” is not really a paper at all: It is a one-page, Powerpoint slide, full of unsubstantiated claims, virtually empty of methodological details, and entirely lacking in any of the underlying calculations. I spent a significant amount of my time in research academics, and this “paper” does not even come close to the most basic requirements for original research. It doesn’t even  make much sense from the authors’ point of view, because the usual approach – particularly when making a new and potentially controversial claim – is to err on the side of providing more supporting detail, precisely because the authors expect skepticism, but have confidence in their work and want to convince people that they are right.

So, we have a commentator and a news channel that don’t check sources, based on primary source material written by one of its principal beneficiaries, who then published it with virtually no supporting data. None of this makes the research definitively wrong, but it hardly inspires confidence. Unfortunately, this post has already gone on for far too long at this point, so I’m going to punt the rest of the analysis over to my next post.