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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?

How a verified quality assurance initiative that boosted Canada’s wine industry could have lessons for beef producers

This is the third post in our Spotlight on the Speakers series, featuring speakers from February’s Alberta Beef Industry Conference.

This week we spoke with Mark Sheridan, president of Hester Creek Estate Winery in B.C., to learn more about the Vintners’ Quality Alliance (VQA).

The wine industry’s VQA program was instigated in the late 1980s when NAFTA eliminated the differential tax structure. At the time, Canadian wine producers lost their preferential tax rates, and realized they needed a recognizable quality standard to give their industry an edge with consumers.

“It gave us instant credibility on the worldwide market because it’s a verified quality standard that is in line with other standards from around the world,” said Mark.

How a similar program could work for beef producers

The wine industry’s quality assurance program assures consumers that they are buying a product that will meet their expectations.

“Consumers are increasingly wanting to know the story behind the wine – Where is this wine from? Where were the grapes grown? What makes that area unique and important?” said Mark.

VQA

Consumers also want to know where their beef comes from, how it was raised, and how it was cared for. The beef industry’s Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program has the potential to provide consumer assurances in a similar way to VQA, but is currently evolving and has not yet attained certification from a recognized certifying body.

Another program that provides the assurances demanded by today’s consumer about animal health and welfare is the National Cattle Feeders’ Association’s Canadian Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program, which is certified by the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) and recognized by both the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the National Farm Animal Care Council.

How would a quality assurance program differ from beef grading?

In an earlier post we explained how beef grading provides a quality rating for individual cuts of beef. A quality assurance program could provide the deeper level of information increasingly demanded by consumers – for instance, where the beef comes from and whether it was raised humanely.

In a highly competitive global marketplace it would give a further edge to Canada’s beef producers. “We have the best beef in the world so let’s take advantage of all the good things we do and position our product to get the best return we can”, says Bryan Walton, president and CEO of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association.

McDonald’s verified sustainable beef – what does that mean for Canadians?

Sustainability is something of a watchword these days, but when it comes to beef, what does it actually mean?

That’s a question McDonald’s asked themselves when they made a commitment to source all their food and packaging from sustainable sources. Read more

The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?

In previous posts on the blog we’ve talked about the contribution the beef industry makes to Canada’s economy; about beef exports, young people in agriculture and more. These are all subjects that matter to Canadians.

The central issue of all these topics is ‘sustainability’ – our ability to operate profitably and for the long-term, without being harmful to people or the environment. That poses some big questions for us as an industry. How are we performing when it comes to our industry members, our animals, our environment and our consumers?

That’s why, in 2014, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) commissioned the National Beef Sustainability Assessment (NBSA) and Strategy. The two-year study assessed the environmental, social and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry, right from ‘farm to fork’, and identified areas where we could improve.

According to Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, chair of the CRSB, “we have created a sustainability benchmark to enable us to start measuring, and to be able to tangibly see, what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. We now have a national report that’s been measured coast to coast and encompasses all the components to the sustainment of the entire beef industry.”

The most inclusive model of its kind

“We created completely new models, for instance for biodiversity and carbon sequestration,” said Cherie. “It is the first, and most inclusive of its kind worldwide, and is now an internationally recognized model.”

A summary of the methodologies and results can be found in the newly released assessment and strategy report (PDF). In this post we’re going to take a look at some of the areas where room for improvement has been identified, and where goals have been set.

Environmental assessment

Alberta cowsFrom ranching right through to feeding or processing, our industry uses water, land and feed; our operations consume resources and release substances into the air and water. Cattle also release methane into the air as food ferments in their rumen, or stomach.

On the other hand, the beef industry also provides many benefits, such as sequestering carbon in the soil in the form of manure, providing natural habitat for biodiversity and maintaining wetlands on the landscape.

The study examined the environmental performance of the Canadian beef industry in the following areas:

  • Climate change
  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Air
  • Land use
  • Biodiversity
  • Water
  • Meat waste

Some of the main goals for our industry identified by the study are:

  • Reduce the greenhouse gas footprint for every kilogram of Canadian beef produced. Some of the ways this is being done are through optimized diets, manure management, increased carbon sequestration and genetics.
  • Enhance biodiversity on lands managed by beef producers. A need was identified for greater awareness of, and research into, the relationship between beef production, habitats and biodiversity.
  • Reduce the effects that the beef industry has on rivers and watersheds. Beef producers continue to encourage the completion of the National Wetland Inventory, and support knowledge and innovation in areas such as water use efficiencies, and the health of our rivers and waterways.
  • Reduce meat waste. Efficiencies at the processing stage, and improved packaging were both identified as areas where improvements could potentially be made.

Social assessment

rider herds cattle in feedlotThe social part of the study covered three main areas:

  • Working conditions
  • Animal health
  • Antimicrobials

The following goals were recommended:

  • Continue to promote farm safety, as well as a culture of diversity, inclusion and transparency.
  • Promote excellence in animal care, through the beef code of practice, including in such practices as transportation, pain control and branding.
  • Support and further develop best practices regarding antimicrobial use. This includes proper use in order to avoid resistances, as well as public education on the importance of responsible use of microbials for healthy animals.

Economic assessment

Producer viability and consumer resilience were the main areas of focus for the economic portion of the study. The two main goals that came from this were:

  • Increase the financial viability of beef producers in Canada with knowledge, efficiency and innovation.
  • Increase demand for beef within Canada by more effectively communicating the sustainability performance of the industry.

Moving forward

Cherie explained that the assessment will be an ongoing process, with updated surveys so that progress can be monitored.

This is a living document. It’s just a snapshot, and it will change for the next go round

“When you take a look at all the components of producing a pound of beef,” Cherie continued, “it’s given us the ability to really focus on the individual stages and see exactly how we can improve. It gives operators goals to focus on that are specific to their own part of the beef chain.”

If you would like more detail on the results of the assessment, the goals or the action items that will help us to achieve those goals, check out the National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy Summary Report (PDF).