By Lisa Kowalchuk on August 7, 2019.
With increasing information in the media now about the environmental footprint of agriculture and greater attention around food sustainability, there is a need to provide education and raise awareness around where our food comes from and recognize the vitally important role of agribusiness.
Most recently, sustainable beef production in Canada has been a focus of many important discussions and we are finding that there is an increasing lack of awareness, education and information around this industry. In Canada, we define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes the planet, people, animals and progress.
To emphasize the importance of this industry, we have beef producers in every province with 68,500 beef farms, including cow-calf, background and feedlot operations. More than 98 per cent of beef farms are family-owned and -operated, with the Canadian beef industry contributing more than $41 billion to the Canadian economy, generating 228,000 jobs. In addition, the 2016 Census of Agriculture found fewer than one per cent of Canadians are farm operators, yet all Canadians participate in the agri-food sector when they go grocery shopping and make food choices.
Despite these economic considerations, recent conversations seem to be centred on factors such as greenhouse gas production, water consumption and management of different landscapes for ecosystem health, in addition to the nutritional value of beef.
All are topics worthy of a closer look.
Consider the relationship between raising cattle and biodiversity, and the types of feed that cattle consume. Native grasslands, like those found in our prairie provinces, are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. However, research shows that cattle grazing is a major contributor to the conservation of native grasslands and endangered species that depend on native grasslands, such as the burrowing owl, the swift fox and greater sage grouse, amongst others. By carefully managing these unique landscapes, ranchers help conserve these key species at risk.
These grasslands and pasturelands are the foundation of the Canadian cattle industry, providing 80 per cent of the feed used in beef production. This is also an important part of this ecosystem, as these pasturelands play a role in removing greenhouse gases from the air and storing them in the soil, storing about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon through carbon capture.
Additionally, many of these grazing landscapes are too steep, rocky, forested or susceptible to erosion for production of agricultural crops. By grazing cattle on grasslands, high-quality beef protein can be produced from land that cannot be used for growing crops to feed the human population. It’s also important to recognize that people and cattle do not compete for the same foods. Cattle don’t require high-quality feeds; however they do consume a lot of products that would otherwise go to waste. Beef production, therefore, makes use of what’s left behind – not food that would go straight to the table of a growing human population. Eighty per cent of the feed required for beef production in Canada is grass and other plants that are inedible to humans with much of this is grown on land that is too dry, rocky, forested or steep for crop production.
When we turn our attention from production to consumption and take a closer look at beef’s role in a healthy diet, we know that beef is a nutrient rich food that can help people meet their nutrient needs within their calorie goals, as part of an overall healthy pattern of eating. Beef is a source of 14 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium and potassium, with this protein source containing all of the essential amino acids we need in our diet.
There is extensive information around sustainable beef production and this nutrient dense food source, all pointing to the fact that the nutrients of Canadian-grown beef protein are produced in a way that supports grassland habitat conservation and sustainable food production. With these sustainable grazing practices, we can be confident in our beef industry playing an important role within our environment and our wellness in our thriving prairie communities into the future.
Agriculture in our region plays an important role within our economy and the sustainability of our region. It is for this reason that our Chamber has put a focus on fueling our agribusiness community and helping to educate consumers on where their food comes from, while making informed, science-based decisions regarding food safety, sustainability and health benefits, along with environmental considerations.
We appreciate that members of our agriculture community are stewards of our land. As farmers and food producers, they have been sustainable for generations, if not centuries. This is because the focus is to leave the land base better than when they received it, ensuring that this very small percentage of producers are providing Canadians with high quality, sustainably produced food that we can all enjoy.
Help us celebrate the food we love and continue to show our ag pride, celebrate our industry and be part of the food conversation every day.
If you are interested in learning more about the beef industry and some of the research available, please consider reading the following resources:
Sustainable Beef: https://crsb.ca/
Environmental Footprint of Beef Production: https://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/environmental-footprint-of-beef-production-6
Putting Beef in Perspective – Greenhouse Gas Emissions: https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/f1ef9cf3/files/uploaded/609.pdf
Nutritional Qualities of Beef: https://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/nutritional-qualities-of-beef-47
Environmental Impact of the Canadian Beef Industry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDSoZBmdudg&feature=youtu.be
Beef Cattle Research Council infographic on Beef’s Place in a Healthy Environment: http://www.beefresearch.ca/files/pdf/BCRC_infographic_beefs_place_healthy_environment_July2019.pdf
Lisa Kowalchuk is the executive director of the Medicine Hat & District Chamber of Commerce. For more information on this column or the Chamber, contact 403-527-5214.