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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’.

Working together to learn about conservation and agriculture

The Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area, about 15 minutes southwest of Calgary, has long been a favourite field trip destination for local schools and educators.

Now, thanks to a collaboration with Inside Education – a non-profit group supporting multiple perspectives on environmental and natural resources in Alberta – the area could become a site for ongoing agricultural education.

“Inside Education and Cross Conservation bring complementary expertise to agriculture education,” said Kathryn Wagner, program director at Inside Education.

Inside Education has a suite of agriculture education programs, including classroom presentations, agriculture career summits, school garden grants and teacher professional development programs supporting the K-12 curriculum. In the coming years, they hope to add a provincewide youth agriculture education summit, field-based programs and classroom resources.

Cross Conservation offers experiential nature and discovery programs to children of all ages.

How a collaboration could work

The collaboration came through an introduction by the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA).

Kathryn said initial ideas include credit-based programs, an agriculture demonstration site for both student programs and teacher professional development, and field trips that use the conservation area, local producers and other sites.

The goal is to provide up-to-date, relevant and meaningful agriculture education to inspire young people to be engaged environmental stewards and responsible decision-makers. 

“Working together with Cross Conservation, we can encourage students and teachers to consider how environmental, societal and economic values can be balanced on the landscape,” Kathryn said.

Representatives from Inside Education and ACFA plan to tour the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area this summer.

You can learn more about agriculture education in How student-managed farming is teaching the next generation of beef producers, and How Olds College is preparing agriculture students for the future.

This is the third post in our Agriculture Education series. 

From oil sands to oil seed: How inter-industry collaboration is good for Canada

Two major Alberta industries — agriculture and oil and gas — are collaborating to generate novel ideas that will benefit the environment and improve sustainability.

The collaboration was triggered by a March 2017 announcement that the federal government would provide up to $950 million in funding under the Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

The “supercluster” concept encourages small, medium and large companies, academic institutions and not-for-profit organizations to come together to generate bold ideas. The potential outcome of these collaborations is more well-paying jobs, groundbreaking research and a world-leading innovation economy.

An agricultural cluster – Smart Agri-Foods Supercluster (SASC) – was formed in response to the federal announcement.

What SASC is working toward

SASC is an open system for collaboration across all sectors of the agri-foods value chain, including agri-foods producers, processors and research, as well as players from outside the traditional agriculture sector.

By providing a venue for these participants to join across diverse fields and from different parts of the country, the SASC is facilitating innovation and research that otherwise might not happen.

Four initial “innovation communities” were established:

  1. Digital Connectivity – intended to develop technologies and tools for today’s (and tomorrow’s) smart farm.
  2. Genetic/Processing – including soil and root intelligence, protein and processing innovations and photosynthetic efficiency.
  3. Sustainable Livestock – to more efficiently and sustainably produce premium meat protein.
  4. Bio Economy and Sustainability – to improve sustainable performance, farm management and trading platforms.

Collaborating with oil and gas

Bill Whitelaw, chair of the SASC steering committee, suggested to the group that the agriculture and oil and gas sectors collaborate on some of their joint challenges. Bill is also president and CEO of JWN Energy and vice-president of Weather Innovations, so his knowledge of both sectors is extensive.

“Agriculture and energy share many of the same environmental and sustainability challenges,” said Bill, “so it makes sense to bring in the oil and gas sector on the basis of air, water and land innovations. As part of that collaboration, we invited Joy Romero, head of the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) to join the SASC board.”

Why the partnership is the way forward

Bill used water as an example to explain how a collaboration could benefit both industries.

“These are two sectors that use huge amounts of water in their operations and produce huge amounts of waste water. There is an opportunity for the two industries to get together and share innovations or research when it comes to water management or treatment,” he said.

“For instance, technology developed to clean waste water from a fracking operation could be just as effective in a feedlot. Joint solutions could help the sectors to manage their costs and to take a joint view on managing our resources.”

It also gives the industries an opportunity to demonstrate that they are taking these issues seriously and actively developing solutions.

Government funding

Although the SASC was one of nine superclusters shortlisted for funding, they were not among the final five selected.

“But we still exist and all the original companies are still active in the supercluster,” Bill said.

“We have made our home in Olds College and are using their smart farm to create demonstration projects. Potentially, you could see an oil sands company working with an agri-fertilizer company to fund an initiative under the air, water and land banner.”

Agriculture and oil and gas are two core industries in Alberta – and both sectors are working with our key natural resources. The groundbreaking collaboration between these two sectors, and academic and research institutions is an exciting development for the industries themselves and Canadians generally.

We will report on their progress as projects unfold.

Why water management is vital to rural and urban residents

We all rely on the health of our water systems for survival. Every day we use water for drinking, cooking and cleaning and to grow the foods we eat and nourish the plants and wildlife around us.

The Oldman Watershed is a large water system that covers 23,000 square kilometres in southwest Alberta and 2,100 square kilometres in Montana. Given Alberta’s semi-arid climate, the management and maintenance of this huge water system is crucial for the 230,000 people who live in the region, for agricultural and industry, and to keep the rivers healthy.

The Oldman Watershed Council

The Oldman Watershed Council (OWC) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to encouraging watershed management under the province’s Water for Life Strategy.

Shannon Frank, executive director of OWC, explained that the watershed supplies all the water the residents of the region use at home, at work and on the farm, so it is critical that we protect it.

Urban and rural residents can adopt many best practices to lessen their impact on the watershed.

“For urban people, their biggest impact is in storm water runoff and being careful what they do in their yards – things like picking up pet waste, using fertilizers and pesticides carefully so they don’t run off,” said Shannon.

She added that some people believe storm water is treated but that’s a myth, and it goes directly into our rivers and creeks. 

“For rural people and agricultural producers in particular, the key is leaving buffer zones around water bodies. Keeping cattle away from water bodies and leaving or seeding vegetated buffer zones between water and crops is also important. These practices keep bacteria, nutrients and pesticides from running off and into our water.”

One of the ways the Council encourages investment in best practices is by offering grants.

The Watershed Legacy Program

Through the legacy program, agricultural producers can apply for a grant to cover up to 50 per cent of the cost to buy materials like fencing, watering units or biocontrol bugs.

“Those are the types of projects we typically see, although we accept any projects that benefit the watershed,” said Shannon. “We have had a couple of applications for bridges or rig mats to create a hard surface for cattle crossings over water.”

The legacy program has been in effect since 2009, and since that time has funded 55 projects, each of which has helped improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

Watershed Legacy Program

“This year we aim to expand the program to include outreach, and provide education on what the best practices are,” said Shannon. “We want to celebrate those using them and share success stories to encourage further adoption.” 

Over the last few decades, Canada’s beef producers have made it a priority to reduce their water footprint. Between 1981 and 2011, they were able to reduce the amount of water required to produce one kilogram of beef by 17 per cent, primarily through the use of more efficient feeds and enhanced cattle rearing practices.

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.

How Project Clean Cow is reducing cattle methane emissions by up to half

Cows require an exceptional digestive system to thrive on a diet of grass and other plant materials.

These ruminants have a stomach with four compartments, the first of which is called the rumen. Micro-organisms in the rumen ferment the food and start the digestive process. Each time the cow regurgitates and re-chews the food, this microbial activity breaks down cellulose, fibre and carbohydrates into usable compounds.

An unfortunate byproduct of this digestive process is methane. Cows have been identified as a significant source of greenhouses gases, and the beef industry is committed to minimizing its impact.

Project Clean Cow is a 10-year research project that holds promise of a solution.

Spearheaded by DSM, a global science-based company and a world leader in the field of animal nutrition, the project has developed a feed additive that reduces the methane created through the digestive process of cattle.

“The current Clean Cow project started in 2007, as part of a bigger initiative at DSM called the Climate Change Induced Innovation Project,” said Hugh Welsh, president, North America, at DSM. “Our goal was to develop a feed supplement for ruminants which would reduce methane emissions by at least 30 per cent. This would substantially lower the GHG footprint of cattle, and potentially have a meaningful impact on global climate change-related emissions.”

The project started with input from biologists and chemists at DSM’s research and development unit in Switzerland, as well as experts in ruminant science and animal nutrition. It has since expanded to include an international scientific network.

The result is a feed supplement that consistently reduces the methane produced by ruminants (dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep) by 30 to 50 per cent.

What happens next?

“Our next step is to work hand-in-hand with industry and the scientific community for product launch,” said Hugh.

As a starting point, DSM has commissioned a large-scale field trial to demonstrate the viability of feeding the compound in backgrounding and finishing operations. Field tests by Viresco Solutions, an environmental consulting firm based in Calgary, AB, should be complete by the end of this year. Cattle will be fed with flaked corn, flaked barley and standard barley, in addition to the supplement, to see if there are any effects on animal performance, health or carcass quality.

“Viresco took the lead in applying to Emissions Reduction Alberta to share in the risk of testing at commercial scales”, explained Karen Haugen-Kozyra, President at Viresco.  “We call this ‘on the road to low carbon beef’ – if combined with regenerative ranching, increased feed efficiency and testing new feeding technologies, the entire sustainability story for beef production in Alberta becomes really attractive. We are proud that DSM chose Alberta to test their innovative approach.”

As we learned in a previous blog post, ammonia is another greenhouse gas emitted by cattle. Emissions research, conducted in Lethbridge by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, is helping us to understand ammonia’s environmental impact, and find ways to minimize it.

Cattle feeders’ Christmas crossword puzzle

We hope you had a wonderful Christmas filled with plenty of fun, family, friends and good food. In the spirit of the season, we’re having some fun with this week’s blog post – print out and fill in the crossword puzzle below to find out how much you know about the business of cattle feeding.

Hint: the answers can all be found on the website, but if you have any trouble tracking down the answers, just click the link in each clue for the information you need.

Cattle feeders’ Christmas crossword puzzle:

Across

3. Grasslands help the environment by sequestering _______________
5. Burger restaurant that proudly supports Canadian beef and is helping build a verified sustainable program
6. A greenhouse gas emitted during the digestive process of cattle
8. Award-winning veterinarian (first name)
9. One of ACFA’s four strategic priorities
10. An under-serviced market that is crucial to the growth of Canada’s beef industry

Down

1. New beef processing plant where innovation is setting new standards
2. An organization dedicated to teaching students about agriculture
4. First name of ACFA’s CEO
7. Trade deal between Canada, U.S. and Mexico that has produced a strong, integrated beef industry

crossword puzzle

Did you find all the answers? If you’re missing any of the answers, you’ll find them below. In the meantime, we wish you all the best of the season. See you back here in the new year!

 

Across answers:

3. Carbon

5. McDonalds

6. Methane

8. Joyce

9. Collaboration

10. Europe

 

Down answers:

1.Harmony

2. InsideEducation

4. Bryan

7. NAFTA

Environmental stewardship is a science at Harmony Beef

Canada’s beef producers care about the environment – after all, their livelihoods depend on the health of the land where they work. Through ongoing research, innovation and best practices, they constantly strive to minimize their impact.

In parts 1 and 2 of our series on Harmony Beef, we showcased the food safety and animal care innovations practised at the new beef processing plant north of Calgary. The plant’s environmental stewardship systems are also leading edge.

“We aren’t just in the business of producing beef,” said marketing director, Cam Daniels. “We want to create the most value and show exceptional regard for everything that is touched along the way.”

Sustainability practices at the plant include:

    • Cattle waste is collected, dried, composted and turned into fertilizer.
    • Packaging is eco-friendly.
    • Waste heat from the refrigeration units is captured and used to warm the floors and barn.
    • A recycling program ensures all waste is managed responsibly.
    • More than 94 per cent of the water used is recycled.

An industry leading water treatment facility

During the plant’s design, owner Rich Vesta traveled to Holland to purchase a state-of-the-art water treatment system. Installed by a Calgary-based company, the system cleans the waste water to a standard higher than Canadian drinking water standards.

Water used in production processes and equipment cleaning comes from the water treatment system, reducing water usage at the plant by more than 96 per cent. That’s a reduction from 500,000 gallons per day to 18,000 gallons per day.

Water treatment system at Harmony Beef“We’re very proud of our water treatment plant because it demonstrates our high technology and our commitment to environmental stewardship,” said Cam.

Check out the other two posts on Harmony Beef: ‘How a beef plant is setting a new standard in food safety’ and ‘How respect for the animals that feed us aligns with beef cattle production’.

4 things you should know about beef production and the environment

Canadians care about the environment, and want the facts. When it comes to the beef industry, it’s easy to find information about the environmental impacts of beef production, such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the digestive processes of cows. But it can be hard for Canadians to find balanced information – to learn, for instance, that beef production can also be good for the environment in a variety of ways.

Here are four ways beef production benefits the environment:

  1. Much of the land used for grazing cattle is unsuitable for crop production – for instance because it is too hilly, too stony, too boggy or too dry.
  2. Grasslands help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and support biodiversity.
  3. Much of the grain used by feedlots is not of a high enough quality for human consumption.
  4. Feedlots are able to use otherwise wasted by-products, such as waste from grain ethanol plants.

To help explain the environmental impact of the Canadian beef industry, Beef Advocacy Canada produced the following video which shows how beef production can actually be good for the environment:

As you can see, protecting the environment is a top priority for Canada’s beef producers. But there’s always more that can be done.

Striving for improvement

To find out how the beef industry is working to improve its environmental impacts, we spoke with Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Council. Reynold explained that the development and adoption of new production technologies, more efficient feeds and improved animal care has benefited people, cattle and the environment.

“Raising a kilogram of Canadian beef today generates 15 per cent less greenhouse gas than 30 years ago,” said Reynold. “We can also produce as much beef as we did 30 years ago using 29 per cent fewer cattle, and using 24 per cent less land.”

Check out the ways our members make environmental stewardship a priority in ‘How Alberta’s cattle feeders are helping protect the environment’, ‘Taking the heat off meat: the truth about GHG emissions’ and ‘The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?’