It’s no secret the beef industry is under attack from environmentalists and activists — or that they frequently distort the truth.
“They have an agenda that they are trying to gain information to support — they’re looking for things that have gone awry in the industry, and there have been problems,” renowned Alberta cattle researcher Tim McAllister said at the inaugural Canadian Beef Industry Conference.
“They’re looking for those mistakes to build up as much press coverage to build up those issues as much as they can… They often exaggerate the outcomes of those events and they are very narrow in scope.”
Those comments had the audience nodding in agreement, but McAllister also had frank words for the crowd of several hundred ranchers and industry players.
“I’d like to say all those people are absolutely 100 per cent full of crap, but the truth is, they’re not,” said the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist.
“There is data, there is science that supports their position as well. Maybe not to the extent that they’d like to make everybody believe it does, but there is science to support their position.”
And that means the cattle sector has to respond.
“There are things we do that upset the public,” he said. “We have to be aware of those things ourselves and those are practices that will have to stop. Those things we stop will have positive impacts on our production systems.
“The times are changing and the industry has to evolve with it. If we don’t evolve with the way the consumers are coming, with the Internet and the level of education they are achieving, this industry will suffer. I don’t know if it will go extinct, but it won’t be good for it.”
A complex picture
But the cattle sector also has to speak up and confront myths about beef production, said McAllister, who is currently studying greenhouse gases, climate change, carbon sequestration, use of water by beef cattle, and the impact of cattle on biodiversity and ecosystems.
While animal agriculture is blamed for rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and global warming, the real culprits are coal and energy production along with land use change, he said.
“It took 50 million to 100 million years to put that carbon in the ground and create that oil and gas,” he said. “So to think that we can offset all the carbon that is being released by changing our agricultural practices and increasing our carbon sequestration is unrealistic.”
While increased food production means agriculture’s carbon emissions are slowly rising, emissions per kilogram of meat produced have decreased because of improved efficiency. McAllister’s research has determined that between 1981 and 2011, Canada, the U.S. and Australia reduced the carbon footprint of beef production by 15 per cent.
“This makes us among the most efficient producers of beef in the world on a carbon footprint basis,” said McAllister.
But the wider issue is more nuanced.
Because methane is produced in the rumen when cattle digest the fibre in forage, they produce more greenhouse gases than other livestock.
“The amount of methane released per kilogram of feed is lower for grain-based diets than for forage-based diets,” he said. “But when we talk about the intensive system of forage-based diets, we can argue that we’re using feed that has absolutely no value as human food.”
Grasslands filled with forage also sequester millions of tonnes of carbon, and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.
However, if projections that global consumption of meat will double by 2050 prove accurate, then emissions from livestock production will rise sharply. But McAllister argued that production of methane and carbon dioxide, as well as water use in livestock agriculture, should be considered in cycles.
“We’re not talking about it disappearing or being generated and staying forever. It’s always moving from one form to another. If you look at carbon dioxide as a whole on a global basis, there is three times as much carbon in the soil right now as there is in the atmosphere. That’s a significant store of carbon.”
Doing it better
That also means cattle producers should be managing their pastures properly and not overgrazing. And that’s another practice that is good for both the environment and the bottom line.
“Overgrazing will result in a reduction of carbon sequestered in the soil in the form of roots. It can also result in plants that won’t grow as well,” said McAllister.
Manure application can increase the amount of carbon in the soil while delivering micro-organisms not found in chemical fertilizers, he added.
When it comes to the water footprint of beef, it depends on how you make the calculation. Critics often claim it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef, but that’s deceptive, said McAllister.
Most of the water used in beef production is related to evaporation and transpiration, and is incorporated as part of the water cycle.
“About five per cent of the water is used by the cow-calf sector, the feedlot, processing, retail, and the consumer,” he said. “The rest of it is used for feed production. The logic of attributing all the water use to beef doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The greatest improvements will come from sustainable intensification and using advanced technologies to improve efficiencies, which is what caused the improvements between 1981 and 2011.
“We cannot return to the way we farmed in 1950 and produce the same amount of food that we do today,” said McAllister. “Everyone has a right to their own position and their own decision, but we need to make them aware of the impacts that the removal of these technologies will have on the industry and on the environment as a whole, so that when they make that decision, they’re making it from an informed position.”