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Why Alberta’s farmers are crying out for a plastics recycling program

Plastics are commonly used on Alberta’s farms, for instance in the form of baler twine, bale wrap, silage tarps, and feed bags. But how to responsibly dispose of them is an ongoing problem as their use increases.

To date, much of this material cannot be recycled because it cannot be burned or buried, leaving farmers with the problem of what they should do with it.

Working group addresses issue of plastics recycling

In December 2016, a working group was formed to find solutions to the problem of agricultural plastics recycling. The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group consists of representatives from the following organizations:

Because the provincial government has not provided direction on a policy for Extended Producer Responsibility for agricultural plastics, the group decided at its December meeting to start by bringing stakeholders together on the topic. From January to June 2017, the group met with more than half a dozen producer groups (representing dairy, beef, and crop farmers, among others) to discuss the topics and issues of ag plastics waste and recycling.

One of the group’s conclusions was the need for a provincial stewardship program to provide a responsible, sustainable solution for agricultural plastic recycling. This need was also identified by Alberta’s Agricultural Service Board. It had passed a resolution in 2016, that the Ministry of Environment and Parks and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Research) should develop and implement an agricultural plastics recycling program modelled after the pilot program in Saskatchewan.

Drafting a policy framework

The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Association decided at a meeting in June 2017 that its next step would be to host a half-day meeting with all interested stakeholders to work on a draft policy framework to present to the provincial government. This meeting took place in August 2017. Alberta Environment and Parks provided a provincial update while discussion points included program examples from other jurisdictions, and the technical realities of manufacturing agricultural plastics.

Producer groups were given an opportunity to provide feedback on what they need from a plastics recycling program. ACFA noted there are a host of stewardship programs for other materials that could inform the agriculture community about how to deal with handling and recycling plastics. While most of these programs are user-pay, ACFA pointed out that there needs to be some involvement and commitment from suppliers in any program. This may be in the form of providing infrastructure such as plastic rollers and bins, to helping with initial start-up costs or awareness advertising.

How would a provincially regulated stewardship program affect Alberta producers?

A provincially regulated recycling program would ensure that producers in all agricultural-intensive regions of the province would have access to recycling programs. It’s understood that there will likely be an Environmental Handling Fee applied to agricultural plastics purchases to fund the recycling program, but this is a problem which requires an affordable, responsible and sustainable solution.

Environmental stewardship is one of the four primary pillars on which ACFA focuses its activities. You can read more about this on our Environment Pillar page.

How Inside Education is bringing agricultural insights to the next generation

Producing food for a hungry world is an important job, and one farmers have been managing for generations. But today’s farmers have considerations that didn’t concern their predecessors – such as how to produce food while demonstrating their concern for the environment, and how to deal with a chronic labour crisis.

One organization is supporting Alberta’s agriculture industry by introducing these considerations to grade school students. Inside Education is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to inspiring and engaging young stewards by incorporating environmental and natural resource education into their classrooms.

Kathryn Wagner, program director at Inside Education, explained that our society is often polarized about issues that matter most. “Our ability to balance a healthy environment with a productive economy demands a careful look at the range of values at play — the spectrum that lies between black and white,” she said. “Our unique programs immerse learners into the big picture, giving them a balanced look at key issues. We challenge everyone to become responsible citizens by understanding the science, technology and issues that affect our world.”

How Inside Education works

For over 30 years, Inside Education has been teaching students about the diverse natural resource topics and issues affecting the agriculture, energy and forestry industries. They have four program areas:

“It all culminates in us bringing current, accurate, locally relevant information, to teachers and students across Alberta, to complement the curriculum,” said Kathryn.

“There are lots of different places where these sorts of topics align,” she said, “from science and social studies to food systems, sustainability and careers.”

Inside Education and cattle feeders

Inside Education works directly with more than 25,000 students every year, in 80-plus communities. In its recent agriculture program, 28 teachers participated in a feedlot tour so they could see firsthand what the industry looks like and what happens in a cattle feeding operation.

“Agriculture is such a fundamental topic of conversation here in the province – it guides our society, our economy, and our environment,” said Kathryn. “If we can provide these experiences and this information to young people, then we will have young stewards who are ready to go on and shape what our agricultural landscape will look like for years to come.”

Careers in agriculture

Organizations such as Inside Education could also play a role in helping alleviate the agricultural labour shortage. “There are so many misconceptions about what it means to work in agriculture,” Kathryn explained. “Students may want to leave their communities, and we can show them opportunities available in their own backyards and how they can contribute to sustainable agriculture in Alberta.”

In 2016, the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA) attended Inside Education’s Youth Summit, in Brooks, Alta., where junior high school students were introduced to careers in agriculture, including the cattle feeding sector. It’s events like these that can help excite students about the many career opportunities in farming.

In earlier blog posts, we have written about other organizations or programs that are helping educate young people about the opportunities in agriculture, including Agriculture in the Classroom and Career Connections.

4 ways proposed changes to the Canada Food Guide could be bad for our health

For 40 years, Health Canada has urged Canadians to follow its dietary guidelines, and using the Canada Food Guide is considered a basic reference when it comes to healthy eating.

As we learn more about nutrition and health, it makes sense that recommendations will change over time, and the Guide should be kept updated. But recently proposed changes have many people, including doctors, worried.

Of particular concern to Canada’s beef industry is a recommendation that Canadians eat less meat. They are encouraged to replace animal proteins with plant-based proteins, partly for health reasons and partly for environmental considerations.

Why 717 Canadian physicians disagree with Health Canada

In July 2017, a group of 717 Canadian physicians and allied health professionals sent an open letter to the Canadian Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion expressing their concerns about several aspects of the new Guide, including the recommendation to eat less red meat. These health professionals have been successfully using food and diet to help reverse disease and made the following points:

    • The Guide continues to recommend reducing consumption of saturated fats, despite “essentially overwhelming evidence now that saturated fat is not harmful in the diet and does not cause heart disease, but rather that the low fat dietary pattern has very likely caused harm”.
    • The caution against red meat does not stand up to “rigorous clinical trial data which does not demonstrate any negative health consequences from eating meat.” The physicians cited a recent review which shows no negative influence on cardiovascular risk factors with red meat intake of more than 0.5 servings per day.

“The advice to eat less red meat may already be having some unintended consequences. A recent report by Public Health England shows that 25% of working age women do not have enough iron in their diet, and that almost half of teenage girls are at risk of iron-deficiency anemia. Encouraging all population groups to eat less red and processed meat … is not helpful and places women at risk of iron deficiency and related anemia.”

You can read the full letter here.

Four ways the new Guide could be counter-productive

    1. The Guide plans to eliminate the meat category and replace it with a proteins category. The implication that all proteins are created equal is misleading – red meats are the best source of high-quality, dietary protein relative to caloric intake.
    2. Red meats are an excellent part of a balanced diet because they are so rich in nutrients such as zinc, iron and Vitamin B12.
    3. Saturated fats are now known to play an important role in a healthy, balanced diet.
    4. Dietary guidelines should be first and foremost about nutrition, rather than environmental considerations.

Why environmental considerations don’t belong in nutritional recommendations

Nutrition and the environment are diverse issues that should not be confused. According to Tom Lynch-Staunton, issues manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, “it’s absolutely important for us as an industry to look at ways to improve our environmental impacts, but the food guide should be about nutrition; about human health, which is complex enough.”

“The Guide should provide recommendations for a variety of different diets so that people can get the best nutrition possible, and not confuse that with other issues such as the environment.”

Tom also explained that the environmental impacts of agriculture as an industry are incredibly complex.

“It’s very misleading to look at one measurement, such as greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef,” he said. “Although the data suggests that cattle produce the most methane emissions of any livestock, we also know that cattle can provide great benefits to the environment – they use food sources that we can’t use, such as feed grains or crop residues, and they are able to graze natural grasslands that aren’t very well suited to farming crops or vegetables. We also know that grasslands promote biodiversity, providing wildlife habitat, a water filtration system and nutrient dispersion, as well as storing huge amounts of carbon.”

You can read about some of the research into greenhouse gas emissions in these blog posts:

From oil and gas to bovine gas, measuring GHG emissions is an important part of setting targets

We know that livestock contribute to GHG emissions. What we don’t know for sure, is exactly how, or to what degree. In this blog post we’re taking a look at a recent study designed to close some of the gaps in our knowledge.

Read more

What do you know about cows and GHG emissions?

You may have heard people say that cattle contribute to global warming due to their gassy digestive process — but what does that actually mean?

Read more

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

3 feedlot myths busted

What happens to cattle once they reach the feedlot? Because this stage of the cattle rearing process is conducted largely ‘behind closed barn-doors’, there are many misconceptions and a great deal of misinformation about what actually goes on. 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).

How technology is helping improve feedlot efficiencies

If you’ve spent any time at a feedlot or on a cattle ranch, you might have noticed the numbered ear tags worn by each animal. More than a simple numbering system, these tags are sophisticated tagging and tracking devices that contain detailed, up-to-the-minute information about each individual animal.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are part of an industry-driven program, administered by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, and have many different purposes, such as age verification and traceability. But they are helping with more than just tracking. At Cattleland Feedyards, RFID tags are an integral component of a Residual Feed Intake (RFI) research program being conducted in their Integrated Beef Research Station (IBRS).

To learn more, we spoke with Sarah Van Schothorst, a research assistant at Cattleland:

Q: How is RFID technology used to monitor cattle feeding?

Sarah: Here at Cattleland, we use a feeding system created by GrowSafe Systems to measure individual feed intakes. Each animal eats at a feed bunk, which is a large feed tub on weigh bars, or load bars, which measure the food given. The system automatically reads the tag and starts collecting data on the amount consumed. The data is wirelessly transferred to a panel in the feedyard and then to a computer.

Q: Why is it important to measure intake in this way?

Sarah: We use the technology to help us monitor the feed efficiency of potential breeding bulls. We are able to determine which animals are gaining weight while eating less, through the calculation of feed to gain ratios. This is called ‘residual feed intake’, and it’s an inheritable trait. Having technology available that allows us to monitor individual intakes allows us to select genetic lines that will be more cost effective and more environmentally friendly due to less consumption of resources during the animal’s production life.

The technology also allows us to identify individual animals with reduced intakes, leading to earlier detection of animals that will need treatment.

Q: Who monitors the data, and what actions might follow?

Sarah: This technology is fairly labour intensive. GrowSafe Systems monitors all of their systems and records the data for each trial, and for each cattle pen. At Cattleland, I work with the GrowSafe support team to ensure that the animals are in the best condition, feeds are delivered properly, and the system is in working order by doing necessary maintenance and any repairs. The bunks need to remain clean and the load bars free from debris that may affect weighing of the feed or data collection.

Q: How long has this technology been used?

Sarah: GrowSafe Systems developed the technology in Canada starting in the mid- to late 90s. Cattleland implemented its use in 2002-2003.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts where we will continue our technology theme, and look at other ways innovation is helping make the cattle feeding industry more efficient and more sustainable.

Taking the heat off meat: the truth about GHG emissions

Global warming is a hot topic these days, and livestock producers sometimes get a bad rap for their contribution. In fact, the methane released by cattle through their digestive process is a factor oft quoted in the media. Read more