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Think you know the facts about beef production and the environment?

If you think you’ve got all the answers about how beef production impacts the environment, test your knowledge in this fun quiz.

How did you do?

  • If you got up to four answers correct, you were probably surprised to learn that beef production is not as bad for the environment as you thought. In fact, it has many positive impacts on the environment.
  • If you got five or six answers correct,  you’ve got a pretty good handle on the true facts.
  • If you got seven or eight answers correct, there’s no fooling you!

To learn more, check out ‘4 things you should know about beef production and the environment’.

Will eating less meat benefit the environment?

We hear a great deal in the media about the negative impacts of livestock production on the environment. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story, and it’s time for people to take a more balanced look at how to best feed a hungry world.

Why plant crops are not the only answer

All agricultural activities have the potential to create both negative and positive environmental impacts. 

Beef cattle contribute approximately 2.4 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But beef production also has many environmental benefits: 

Carbon sequestration: One acre of healthy grassland can store more than 80 tonnes of carbon. Figures citing beef production emissions do not take into account the approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of GHGs naturally sequestered from the atmosphere by grasslands and pasture.

Biodiversity: Although cattle production uses 33 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land, it supports biodiversity and provides 68 per cent of the Wildlife Habitat Capacity of all agricultural land in Canada (CRSB, 2016).

At-risk species: Several at-risk species, such as burrowing owls, swift fox, greater prairie chicken, sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, and loggerhead shrikes prefer unbroken pasture as their habitat.

Water management: Grasslands help maintain watersheds, which in turn help prevent drought and flooding.

Erosion: Grasslands also help prevent erosion.

Regeneration of unusable land: Grasslands account for about 33 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land, but this is primarily land that is unsuitable for crop production. While beef production makes use of land that is too rocky, hilly, boggy or dry for crop production, it also naturally replenishes and adds nutrients to the soil.

Replacing beef with plant crops would require moving more land into cultivation. This will result in a loss of natural grasslands, the release of soil carbon, reduced biodiversity and the potential loss of several at-risk species. This does not take into account the environmental and financial costs involved in converting native grasslands to crops, then continually irrigating and replenishing the land to maintain those crops.

How did beef production get such a bad rap?

The oft-quoted negative impacts of beef production on the environment come primarily from two discredited sources:

‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ was a 2006 UN study that cites a number of incorrect facts, statistics and statements. For example, it asserted that 18 per cent of global GHG emissions come from livestock. Later studies conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) conclude that the true figure is only about five per cent. 

‘Cowspiracy’ is a 2014 Hollywood film which likewise uses incorrect facts and statements to argue that we should move away from a meat-based diet.

Despite the fact that these two sources have been emphatically discredited and disproved, they are still incorrectly quoted as ‘proof’ that livestock production is environmentally unsustainable.

Continued improvement

Like any responsible industry, Canada’s beef producers are dedicated to improving their impact on the environment. The true facts about Canadian beef’s contribution to climate change reflect this effort:

– Canadian beef has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world: 11.4 kg of carbon dioxide per one kg of live cattle weight.

– Cattle contribute very little to total Canadian and global GHG emissions: GHGs from cattle are 2.4 per cent of total Canadian GHG emissions and 0.04 per cent of total global GHG emissions. In Canada, 28 per cent of GHGs come from transportation.

– Canada’s beef industry reduced its GHG footprint by 14 per cent from 1981 to 2011. Canada now produces the same amount of beef with 29 per cent less breeding stock, 27 per cent less slaughter cattle, and 24 per cent less land.

Cattle feeding and the environment

In Canada, beef cattle are primarily raised on natural grassland and pasture for about 12 to 15 months, and then they are ‘finished’, often at a feedlot, using high-energy grain rations. 

85 per cent of the grain fed to livestock is unfit for human consumption and would otherwise be considered waste.

This combination of pasture followed by feedlot allows us to use less land, less water and emit fewer greenhouse gases, putting Canadian beef producers among the most efficient in the world.

Making up your mind with all the facts

Next time you’re faced with a delicious, nutritious steak, consider that beef production has many benefits for the environment, and that beef producers are working successfully to reduce any impacts that their activities do have. 

Not only is beef an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, it’s production also plays an important role in protecting our native grasslands and supporting Canadian wildlife and eco-systems.

Beef producers vote to keep refundable check-off

Alberta’s beef producers have voted by a narrow margin to keep the mandatory beef check-off refundable.

A plebiscite on the issue was held between Oct. 19 and Nov. 27. Preliminary results showed that 51.3 per cent of producers voted to keep the refundable check-off. Final results will be shared on Dec. 11, after a two-week period during which members can contest the results.

The check-off is a levy paid to the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP), which is used to fund industry research and marketing. The levy is mandatory, but producers may apply for a full reimbursement.

The Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA), and ABP were recommending a return to a non-refundable check-off to fund the New Era Beef Industry. Revenues from the non-refundable check-off would have been shared between ABP, ACFA and a new Alberta Beef Industry Development Fund (ABIDF), providing project funding for market development, research, education, consumer advocacy and industry collaboration.

Moving forward

Even though the plebiscite didn’t deliver the hoped-for result, it highlights the value of member-driven organizations that do not stand still. The organizations will now focus on moving forward with securing funding for industry research and marketing projects. ACFA will continue with its efforts in lobbying, advocacy, policy development, industry development, and other activites. As individual organizations and as an industry, the goal is to persist in the pursuit of continuous improvement.

“I want to thank everyone who took the time to engage in the discussion and to vote in the plebiscite,” said Ryan Kasko, ACFA chair. “ACFA will continue to work in a collaborative fashion with ABP, drive operational efficiencies, and work diligently with partners to ensure the health of the industry.” 

Alberta’s beef industry faces remarkable potential and ACFA will continue to take the lead and leverage opportunities for the benefit of its members, the cattle feeding sector, and the industry as a whole.

You can read more about how funds from a non-refundable check-off would have been used in ‘How funding for the new era beef industry will benefit all beef producers’.

The truth about beef production and sustainability

Canada’s beef producers want consumers to know that they are producing good, healthy food in a sustainable way. 

But, what does sustainable mean, and what are beef producers doing to foster responsible production? For answers to these questions we turned to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB).

CRSB is a collaborative, multi-stakeholder organization dedicated to promoting sustainability throughout the Canadian beef industry. They have three main pillars of focus: 

1) Sustainability benchmarking – a farm-to-fork assessment of the overall performance of the Canadian beef industry from environmental, social and economic perspectives.

2) The Certified Sustainable Beef Framework, which provides a tool for producers to attain certification against sustainability standards, which can then be communicated to consumers.

3) Sustainability projects, which help advance continuous improvement for sustainability in the Canadian beef industry.

“We define sustainability as a socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound product that prioritizes the planet, people, animals and progress,” said Andrea White, CRSB’s community engagement manager.

CRSB has adopted the same five focus areas as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB): natural resources; people and the community; animal health and welfare; food; and efficiency and innovation. 

Some recent projects which have come from the organization include the National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy (2016), CRSB Certified Sustainable Beef Framework (2018), collaboration on a Species at Risk on Agricultural Lands project, intended to maintain and enhance wildlife habitat, and a study evaluating consumer perceptions of beef sustainability.

How is the beef industry doing on sustainability?

“One of our priorities is to teach the public that beef production in Canada is already sustainable,” Andrea said. “There are a lot of loud voices out there telling very small pieces of the story, but they often don’t talk about the many ways beef production actually benefits the environment. By working together as an industry, we can tell the whole story, and demonstrate the good work we are doing.”

You can read about the ways beef production benefits the environment in ‘4 things you should know about beef production and the environment’.

Through a combination of sustainability projects and public outreach, the CRSB aims to support continuous improvement in the industry’s sustainability performance, while simultaneously creating public awareness of the true facts about the impact of beef production on communities, animal care and the environment. “Sustainability is a journey, not an end point,” said Andrea.

Cattle feeders and sustainability

Sustainability is a top priority for Alberta’s cattle feeders, so the appointment of Les Wall of KCL Cattle Co., in Coaldale Alberta, to the CRSB Council is good news. 

“We are pleased to have Les Wall, a progressive and innovative producer, join the CRSB Council,” said Anne Wasko, CRSB chair. “We look forward to his valuable expertise and experience in representing the cattle feeding sector on our multi-stakeholder leadership team, to help propel the sustainability of Canadian beef forward.”

To learn more about the work that cattle feeders are doing to improve the sustainability of their operations, check out ‘The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?

Myth or fact? 5 beef myths debunked

Have you ever heard people say that eating meat is bad for our environment and our planet? In this latest Myth vs Fact post, we’re exploring some common misconceptions about beef production, so you can eat that next steak with a clear conscience.

#1 Beef cattle are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions

Cattle account for only 2.4 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – compared to 28 per cent for transportation. Cattle in Canada also produce some of the lowest GHGs in the world thanks to best practices developed through ongoing research. 

#2 We don’t need to eat meat – we can simply substitute it with plant proteins

Plant proteins such as beans and lentils are wholesome, nourishing foods. But it is wrong to assume that they can provide the same amount of protein per unit of food as beef. One 75 gram (2.6 ounces) serving of beef contains the same amount of protein as about two cups of beans. The plant-based protein is also not as easily digested and is missing important nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and heme iron – the type of iron most readily absorbed by the body.

Like beef, plant proteins have an important part to play in a balanced diet, but they cannot be compared, portion for portion, as a substitute.

#3 We need to eliminate beef production for the sake of the environment

Eliminating beef production would help reduce our GHG emissions by a small amount, but there are other significant reasons why pastureland is good for the environment:

    • Only 26 per cent of our native rangelands remain intact in Canada, and those would be lost without grazing animals to maintain their health. As an ecosystem, those grasslands support biodiversity and help retain water.
    • Grasslands provide important habitats for migratory birds, species at risk and other wildlife.
    • Grasslands store carbon, which would be released into the atmosphere if they were cultivated.

The relationship between cattle and wildlife is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund in its ‘2017 Annual Plowprint Report’.

#4 Feeding cattle is a waste of resources that should be used to benefit people

Cattle and other grazing animals in Canada are typically raised on land, and fed foods that might otherwise be unusable:

    • Most pastureland is unsuitable for crop production.
    • 86 per cent of all cattle feed in Canada is not fit for human consumption. 
    • Only nine per cent of cropland in Canada is used to grow grain specifically for cattle feed.
    • Food animals also play a huge role in recycling the by-products of human food production. For instance, cattle are fed the leftover grains from the production of beer, whiskey and other alcohols, which would otherwise be considered waste.

#5 Our food production is being taken over by huge, corporate factory farms

Ninety-eight per cent of Canadian farms, both large and small, are owned and operated by families. Some have been in the family for five or more generations. These farmers have been raised on the land, and they care deeply about preserving it for their own children and generations to come. 

They work hard to raise their animals in comfortable, low-stress environments. 

They understand that if animals are unhealthy or stressed they will not grow to their full potential. Even in an intensive livestock setting, healthy, well cared for animals help ensure the health of the operation.

So, next time you’re at the grocery store, wondering what to make for dinner, you won’t do better than a good serving of Canadian beef. It’s good for you, and raised ethically, sustainably and humanely.

For more in our Myth vs Fact posts, check out ‘3 feedlot myths busted’ and ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.

How student-managed farming is teaching the next generation of beef producers

In part two of our agriculture education series, we’re visiting the student-managed farm (SMF) at Lakeland College in Vermillion, Alberta.

Josie Van Lent, dean of Lakeland College’s School of Agricultural Sciences, explained that the student-managed farm is a fully operating farm with multiple enterprises – crops, dairy, sheep, purebred beef, commercial beef and beef research.

Founded in 1913, Lakeland College was Alberta’s first agricultural college. Its agriculture diploma programs include everything from agribusiness and general agriculture to animal science technology, veterinary medicine assistant and western ranch and cow horse (horses that work cows).

During the first year of the two-year program, students are able to benefit from the hands-on learning afforded by working on the various farms. At the end of the first year, they apply for management positions on their choice of operation. “They have to go through an interview process, just as they would for any other job,” said Josie. “Then, based on their interview outcomes, they are divided into teams who manage such important farm business elements as production, finances, marketing, sustainability, public relations and advocacy.”

Each team has a strong set of goals and objectives for their year, and all teams report to each other every week.

“Students learn more than just the obvious skills required by their industry,” said Josie. “They learn professionalism, teamwork and communication,” she said. “They must be able to think critically, and then get their point across to other members of the team. They learn how to run a productive meeting, how to advocate for their industry and how to create an environmental plan.”

Decision-making for the beef producer

An example of the kinds of decisions the students must make and justify, is how to handle weaned calves. “Students must decide whether to keep them on the farm or sell them. They explore all the options, do break-evens, and work out where the best potential for profit lies,” she said. “They’re taking what they’ve learned in the classroom, and applying it in the real world, where they will then get to experience the consequences and outcomes.”

Technology

The SMF has up-to-date technology thanks to sponsors and supporters, including New Holland Agriculture, Agri-Trend and Farmers Edge.

Technology changes all the time, and we expose the students to it at every level of the farm,” said Josie, “Customer support is excellent, and the students get the hang of new technology very quickly.

“I think, in many ways, the most valuable skills we’re teaching them are the ones that don’t change very much – skills like critical thinking, decision making, financial management and succession planning,” Josie continued.

Lakeland College is hoping to supplement its two-year diploma program with a four-year degree program, accepting students from their own or other schools’ diploma programs.

Check out the first article in our agriculture education series: ‘How Olds College is preparing agriculture students for the future’.

6 issues cattle feeders will discuss at the Alberta Beef Industry Conference

Beef producers from all over Alberta will convene in Red Deer next week for the Alberta Beef Industry Conference.

This annual event is a chance for industry members to find out what’s new and network with others in the industry. As the event approaches, here’s a look at some of the pressing issues ACFA has been following, and that industry members will likely discuss.

#1 The Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP)

The government has allocated $3 billion to invest, over the course of five years, in five areas: innovation and research; environmental sustainability; risk management; product and market development and diversification; and public trust. ACFA will look at devising projects and programs to advance the cattle feeding industry, which could attract funding under CAP.

#2 Labour

The Federal Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) is currently reviewing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program is a life-saver for cattle feeders when they are unable to find workers from within the Canadian workforce. Past government reviews have accepted ACFA recommendations but there is still room for improvement.  ACFA will continue to be engaged in this file.

#3 Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)

Last month the government announced it will sign onto the new CPTPP trade agreement. This is good news for the beef industry and should result in reduced tariffs in a number of export markets, especially Japan. ACFA will continue communicating with government to stress the importance of the agreement for Canada’s beef industry until it is fully approved and ratified by Parliament.

#4 Other trade issues

NAFTA and trade with China are two other pressing trade issues of great importance to cattle feeders. In June 2016, the U.S. secured approval from China for greater access to that market. Canadian producers need the same access. A new pilot program to export fresh and chilled Canadian beef to China is expected in 2018, but ACFA will continue to press for the same access given to the U.S.

#5 Competitiveness

About 10 years ago, ACFA commissioned a study to assess the competitiveness of cattle feeding in Alberta. The industry’s ability to compete effectively in the international market will continue to be a priority and there will be discussions about whether it is time to update this study.

#6 Industry governance and financing

The mandatory levy on beef sales, known as the check-off, is used to fund research and marketing activities on behalf of the entire industry. ACFA and the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) have come together to devise a new governance and funding model for the provincial beef industry, and its use of check-off dollars. A plebiscite may be required later in 2018 for a final decision.

As well as conversation and networking, the conference also features a full program of speakers, including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

For anyone interested in Alberta’s beef industry, its challenges and opportunities, this is a must-attend event.

Excellent reasons to attend this year’s Alberta Beef Industry Conference

On Feb 21-28, members of Alberta’s beef producing industry and their suppliers will gather at the Sheraton Red Deer Hotel, along with journalists, politicians and others interested in beef and the people who bring it to our tables.

The 15th annual Alberta Beef Industry Conference is a chance to find out what’s new, learn about the industry’s achievements and challenges, and make connections.

As always, the conference is packed with a great lineup of speakers. Here are a few highlights:

Andrew Ramlo: This strategic management consultant specializes in helping organizations develop strategies to address industry challenges and opportunities. He will be sharing his insights into everything from the changing consumption patterns of domestic and export markets, to issues of production and labour force trends.

Mark Sheridan: The president of Hester Creek Estate Winery will speak about the evolution of B.C.’s wine industry and the value the Vintners Quality Alliance has brought to wine producers in British Columbia.

John Weekes: As a senior adviser with Bennett Jones, John has worked with the National Cattle Feeders’ Association on many trade files, providing business and strategic advice. He will comment on NAFTA, Canada’s trade agreement with the United States and Mexico; the EU and the implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA); efforts to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) into force without the U.S.; and trade relations with China and India.

Bruce Cameron: This veteran pollster will explore the challenges our democracy faces in a world where truth is relative. Using timely examples, he will show how integrating new social media metrics with established polling techniques offers a way to reduce margins of error and restore truth in politics.

The conference promises to be packed with great information. To learn more about these and other speakers, visit the conference program page.

Why ‘hormone-free’ beef is no better for people or the environment

Last week on this blog we busted some common myths around beef production, including the ‘hormone-free’ myth. This week, we offer more facts about hormones and beef.

Foods and hormones

Dr. Roy Lewis, a veterinarian at Westlock Veterinary Center in Westlock, AB, told us that roughly 98 per cent of cattle in Canada are implanted with hormones, but in quantities significantly lower than would be naturally present in an intact (uncastrated) bull.

“In fact,” he continued, “many healthy, nutritious foods contain more hormones, serving for serving, than beef – foods such as cabbage, eggs, alfalfa sprouts and soy”.

Hormone levels in foodsNo one would suggest eliminating these healthy food options because of their naturally occurring hormones, and yet beef contains considerably less.

Research has also shown that hormones consumed in food are broken down in the stomach during digestion. They do not result in hormone spikes, even when consumed in high levels.

The environment and hormones

Cattle are implanted with hormones to promote growth. “This allows beef producers to produce more beef using less grain, less water and less time,” said Dr. Lewis. “The environmental benefits of producing more with less are significant.”

How marketing creates misconceptions

“There is no such thing as ‘hormone-free’ beef,” said Dr. Lewis. “All animals and plants produce hormones as part of their natural life-cycle.

The ‘hormone-free’ movement is a marketing scheme that attempts to create a differentiation that doesn’t exist. It seems to me that we’re taking a step backwards to promote this as something special, because there are no food safety benefits, and they’re suggesting that a less sustainable production method is somehow superior.

You can learn more about beef hormones, and read about food safety research on Alberta Beef’s Worried about Hormones? web page.

Check out the other myths we addressed in ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.

Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts

When it comes to the food you eat, you want to know the facts. Is it sustainably and ethically produced? Is it good for you? Unfortunately, the many misconceptions surrounding beef production make it hard to get accurate, reliable information. Here are five of the most common myths:

Myth #1 Pastureland is a waste of good agricultural land

Most cattle are pastured on land that is unsuitable for crop production, for instance, because it is too hilly, stony, boggy or dry. Those grasslands also help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and support biodiversity.

In the feedlot, the animals are typically fed grains that do not meet specifications for human consumption and would otherwise be wasted.

Myth #2 Beef is bad for your health

Red meats are the best source of high-quality dietary protein relative to caloric intake, as well as being rich in nutrients, such as zinc, iron and Vitamin B12.

Recent research has shown that the advice to eat less red meat could result in an increased incidence of iron-deficiency anemia – and it has been documented that Canadians, on average, are not consuming the recommended serving of red meat within the current Canadian Food Guide recommendations for meat and alternatives.

Myth #3 Antibiotic-free beef is better for you

The use of antibiotics in food animals is strictly regulated, and feedlots work closely with veterinarians to ensure they are used appropriately. There are mandatory withdrawal times between the use of an antibiotic and the harvesting of an animal, to ensure the meat is antibiotic-free.

Without the use of antibiotics, animals can get sick, suffer and die, even though there are no known food safety benefits.

Myth #4 Cattle in feedlots are kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions

Cattle in feedlots are provided with spacious pens that allow each animal ample room to move and interact naturally. To ensure the cattle are comfortable during their stay, bedding is added regularly for resting as well as warmth in the winter. Timely removal of animal waste helps keep animals healthy and ensure their well-being. Cattle are also given ample amounts of clean, fresh water and a nutritious, easily digestible, high-energy diet consisting of 80% grains and 20% forages.

Myth #5 Hormone-free beef is better for you

Research has shown that any hormones in the meat we consume are broken down by digestive enzymes and stomach acid. Very little reaches the bloodstream. For those concerned about hormones, there are two important points to note:

    • No meat is hormone-free! All animals have hormones naturally occurring in their systems.
    • When you eat a burger, there are more hormones in the bun than in the meat.

Next week on this blog, Roy Lewis, of Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, will explain why the use of hormones in food animals is not just safe, but also an environmentally responsible way to raise food.