Canadian beef industry gets high marks in sustainability assessment

Industry needs to reduce meat waste and improve labour practices, but does well on greenhouse gas emissions

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It’s finally complete.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has crunched the numbers and can detail the full impact of what it takes to produce beef in Canada. The National Beef Sustainability Assessment — a first-of-its-kind study — took a comprehensive look at the environmental, social, and economic aspects of beef production.

Fawn Jackson
Fawn Jackson photo: Supplied

“Throughout the sustainability assessment, we really did have an overarching goal: We want to build a stronger and more united beef community,” Fawn Jackson said at the recent Global Conference for Sustainable Beef.

The assessment, which will be reviewed every five years, will help the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef refine its sustainability strategy and highlight areas where improvement is needed, said Jackson, the roundtable’s executive director.

Deloitte and Touche along with CanFax Research Services conducted the assessment, which took two years to complete and was reviewed by a third-party panel of experts. Seventy-seven producers from farms across Canada completed surveys as part of the process. Through the assessment and consultations, the Canadian roundtable — which has 93 members, including McDonald’s, Cargill and the World Wildlife Fund — has created industry goals and action items for the next few years.

The sustainability assessment, as well as data from McDonald’s global pilot project, will be used to create a “verification framework,” which will be unveiled sometime next year.

The good news

The assessment has a good news story to tell in terms of soil carbon sequestration (cattle producers store 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon in their land) and wildlife habitat.

“Although we only use about 30 per cent of the agricultural land, the beef industry contributes about 68 per cent of the wildlife habitat capacity,” said Jackson, who is also manager of environment and sustainability for the Canadian Cattleman’s Association.

“We know that there is a very important role that the beef industry in Canada plays in biodiversity and habitat preservation.”

The environmental component was broken down into two main areas: A “life cycle” assessment and a land use assessment. It looked at climate change, fossil fuel use, water use, and air pollution. It found that 235 litres of water were used per kilogram of live weight (the farm stage of the life cycle), and 631 litres were used to produce one kilogram of boneless beef (which covers all stages from farming to consumption). Both figures are considered low.

The greenhouse gas footprint was 11.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for live weight and 30.8 kilograms for boneless beef, which is also relatively low. The farming stage of production is responsible for 74 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions during the beef life cycle.

The Canadian beef industry also performed well on social assessment, with high marks given for animal care; handling practices; sickness and disease prevention; and responsible antimicrobial use. The assessment also found the industry demonstrates strong social and economic commitment to rural communities.

Areas to improve

There’s an opportunity for improvement when it comes to meat waste. For every 1.24 kilogram of packed boneless beef, only about one kilogram is consumed.

“This has a large impact,” said Jackson. “If we could cut meat waste by about 50 per cent, we could save up to three kilograms of CO2 equivalent and about 60 litres of water per kilogram. So meat waste is a big issue for us here in Canada and North America.”

The industry also scored low on the rights of foreign workers.

“This is high risk because Canada is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention of Protection of all Migrant Workers and their Families,” said Jackson. “This is a standard indicator for assessing this, and we didn’t do great on that.”

The workload for beef producers was also seen as a liability, since 54 per cent of respondents surveyed indicated that they worked more than 48 hours a week more than 30 weeks a year.

The economic sustainability of producers was also concerning, with more than three-quarters of the cow-calf producers relying on off-farm income.

“I think there’s lots of conversations around that number,” said Jackson. “People have mixed farms. People have all sorts of reasons or ways that they are able to make an income. But that was one of the biggest numbers that really hit home for me in the sustainability assessment. When we’re working on sustainability, we need to make sure our producers are able to continue producing beef. There are some really tight margins in which they’re working.

A summary of the full report can be viewed at crsb.ca.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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