Where does my food come from? That’s a question increasingly being asked by consumers, and it’s created a media storm of responses – many of which don’t flatter America’s modern farmers and ranchers.

Cassie Payne was among those pondering questions like:

• Is conventionally produced beef an eco-friendly, healthy and sanitary food product?

• Is grass-fed or grain-fed beef better for me?

• When I eat beef, am I consuming the hormones and antibiotics that the animal consumed?

• Should I only eat locally produced food?

Payne, who grew up in urban Dallas and taught high school Spanish in New York City, turned to the popular press for answers. Books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Robert Kenner’s film documentary, “Food, Inc.,” combined with her own family history of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, prompted her to question the safety and healthfulness of food produced by modern agriculture.

She recalls, “In 2008, Pollan was getting a lot of press in the New York Times for his column, ‘Farmer in Chief.’ His recommendation was that we return to a pre-industrial mindset for producing food.”

Payne was swayed by Pollan’s thinking. She even began volunteering on a “sustainable farm” outside New York City that featured a closed herd and on-site restaurant.

Those experiences piqued her interest enough that she decided to return to Texas to pursue her master’s degree in beef production at Texas A&M University (TAMU). Her goal, she says, “was to become a consultant on sustainable agriculture for Pollan followers.”

Myths debunked

But, after returning to Texas, Payne discovered there was more to the story – and the definition of sustainable – than what she had excerpted from mainstream media. For her, the biggest eye-opener was the benefits that efficiency and technology afford modern ag production.

“One of the first things I learned was that efficiency in modern farming is eco-friendly,” Payne says. The science from a 2010 Washington State University study by Jude Capper helped her grasp this reality.

Capper found that today’s beef industry uses 30% less land, 13% fewer cattle, and 20% less feed than in 1977 – all while producing more actual pounds of beef.

She also learned that to meet the nation’s beef needs via solely grass-fed beef would require 60 million additional acres of improved pasture under cultivation – even after all current fields of feed crops were converted to pastures. This, along with what she learned about range management, wildlife stewardship and animal care provided by beef producers, helped her recognize that today’s beef production methods are more sustainable than ever before.

“I realized modern ag is sustainable, but that doesn’t fit the nostalgic view people like me have of sustainability. We envision a red barn and have this old-time view of farming. But, with the increased world population, that view isn’t sustainable,” Payne says.

By studying the science, she also came to understand that hormones and antibiotics are used within the industry to improve efficiency, with no effect on human health.

Additionally, her belief that grass-fed beef – or even a vegetarian diet – may be better nutritionally was debunked. Rather, she learned that both conventional and grass-fed beef are nutrient-dense proteins that offer different health benefits, while both deliver the same essential nutrients via 29 lean cuts of meat.

Payne came to realize that the science behind modern methods of food production justify much of today’s ag practices for their economic, environmental and social sustainability. And, today, instead of questioning where her food comes from, she says, “I credit the beef industry for its environmental stewardship in the production of healthful foods.”