Comment: A world without Canadian beef would not be good for the planet

The ‘beef is bad’ narrative ignores environmental gains by the sector and its critical role in preserving grasslands

In a world that is quick to malign businesses impacting climate change, the beef industry has been tagged as a major contributor.

The notion that ‘beef is bad’ has infiltrated popular opinions of the commodity, making it difficult for alternate perspectives to break through the fog of negative rhetoric.

So here I clearly state: Beef is not all bad; beef may be part of the solution.

The emissions generated in Canadian beef production are among the lowest in the world. While it is true that Canadian agriculture emissions as a whole have increased, the beef industry has achieved emissions reductions. For each kilogram of live weight, Canadian beef produces just 11.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide — less than half of the international average.

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As well, from 1981 to 2011, the production of one unit of beef saw a 17 per cent decrease in water usage and a 15 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This progress will likely continue, as the future adoption of mitigation strategies is estimated to produce a 20 per cent decrease in emissions, with an additional five per cent eliminated, should we half food waste.

The land that is reserved for Canadian cattle grazing contributes greatly to the mitigation of climate change, trapping 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon in its soil in a storage process that is long term and durable. The amount of carbon contained beneath the surface of one hec­tare of uncultivated fescue prairie equates to the removal of around 150 cars for an entire year.

In addition, pasture land is intimately connected to the preservation and conservation of grasslands and wetlands ecosystems. These biomes, protected by pasture land reserves, support endangered species while livestock provide important processes of nutrient recycling.

The key role that cattle play in protecting these ecosystems has led Ducks Unlimited Canada to launch its Revolving Land Conservation Program. This initiative takes wetlands and grasslands restored by the organization and sells them to producers with conservation easements in place.

Such collaborations allow for the protection of threatened ecosystems on a scale that could not be achieved by either conservationists or ranchers alone, and illustrate the potential benefits of the beef industry’s inclusion in the pursuit of climate solutions.

Agriculture extends back in my family for five generations, so I have witnessed first hand the degree of stewardship that producers demonstrate.

Ranchers have an unparalleled connection with the environment, as their livelihoods depend on it. It is therefore in the interest of beef producers to ensure that the methods they employ are sustainable. Ranchers have cultivated conservational agricultural practices over time, coupling practical methods (such as grazing management techniques) with scientific research to achieve industry improvements and emissions reductions.

Therefore, we need to stop targeting beef producers as the instigators of the climate crisis and recognize the potential benefits that these stewards provide.

Despite these facts, critics continue to push the narrative that ‘beef is bad.’

However, I invite them to consider a world without beef.

A world where the 50 million acres of pasture land — a great portion of which is not suitable for crops — would conceivably be converted for industrial purposes, and its stored carbon released into our atmosphere. A world that experiences the subsequent collapse of wetlands and grasslands ecosystems as a consequence of pasture land’s industrial conversion.

Without beef, these biomes will encounter the removal of the nutrient recycling process and the habitat protection provided by grazing cattle. Imagine a world where an entire industry of environmentally passionate and driven people have their livelihoods ripped away — where a multigenerational and centuries-long way of life is eradicated.

Is this the world we are striving for?

Instead, I encourage critics to envision a world where beef producers become woven into the positive story; a world where ranchers continue to work hand in hand with climate scientists and conservationists to harness the beef sector’s capacity to mitigate climate change; where lush grasslands and wetlands filled with beef herds carpet the Earth, sustaining human populations and threatened species alike.

I invite them to imagine a world where carbon sequestration processes, industry improvements and best practices are employed by producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the creation of a more sustainable world.

It is imperative that we stop pointing the finger at the beef sector and honour its capacity to generate positive impacts, for we are vilifying the very thing that could help save us.

Society must navigate its way through the negative campaigns and accept the truth. After all, when we get to the meat of the issue and the facts are presented, there should be no beef about it.

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