Measuring agriculture’s shadow

Conservation practices needed to improve environmental performance of livestock sector

The value of biodiversity to provide ecosystem services like pollination to agriculture is more and more recognized,” says Dr. Shannon R. White, a University of Alberta ecologist working with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI). “Measuring biodiversity is the base for valuing the ecosystem services responsible for purifying our air and water, and ensuring the productivity of our agriculture and forestlands.”

Alberta’s biodiversity monitoring expertise is being used in the seven new regional land use plans and was recently shared internationally in a workshop organized by the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The workshop is part of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) project that is looking to improve the environmental performance of the livestock sector. ABMI is now involved in the component working to develop indicators to evaluate biodiversity.

White says Alberta is fortunate to have this high-quality biodiversity information available to inform land use planning. Other countries at the LEAP workshop are finding the lack of equivalent data very challenging. White sees the potential of using the advanced work available from Alberta to help develop indicator proxies for other countries with less available data.

For more than 10 years, ABMI, a not-for-profit organization, has been monitoring biodiversity, providing a knowledge base for land use management planning. “We need to know what’s there to help us plan for what we want the landscape to look like in the future,” says White.

There are well-accepted indicators for the health of our economy but no such accepted indicator for ecosystem health. Alberta is one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the world to begin measuring and reporting on the state of ecosystem health.

“ABMI has permanent sample sites laid out in a 20-kilometre grid across the Alberta landscape with a total of 1,656 sites. All sites are sampled once in a five-year rotation,” says White. “Making sure there is appropriate sampling of rangelands is a challenge. In many areas the evenly spaced grid sample sites fall on cultivated land and supplementary sampling is needed to ensure the biodiversity of rangeland in the area is captured.

“ABMI doesn’t monitor absolutely everything,” says White. “Pollinators like native bees haven’t been monitored but there is discussion about changing that.”

ABMI data for over 2,000 species, including breeding birds, vascular plants and mites (soil invertebrates) provides a measure for the status of species. The status of habitat is assessed using remote sensing data focusing on the amount and distribution of major habitats such as grasslands and protected areas. The human footprint is also monitored to understand how development is impacting provincial ecosystems.

The 2011 South Saskatchewan Planning Region (SSPR) report presented the assessed status of 85 of the monitored species in the grassland region finding them to be 54 per cent intact. The percentage was lowest for grassland-associated species such as Sprague’s pipit, and Prairie crocus. Intactness is the measure of human influence with 100 per cent intact being no human influence.

Non-native weeds were found at some level at 100 per cent of the surveyed sites suggesting some decline in ecological health and agricultural productivity. Dandelion are found across 83 per cent and flixweed across 60 per cent of the grassland region of SSPR. Noxious weeds like creeping thistle (53 per cent), downy chess (18 per cent) and perennial sow-thistle (10 per cent) were also found. Since weeds give an indication of ecological health land managers are able to use this information in developing appropriate programs.

Silver sagebrush habitat, important in the life cycle of the endangered sage grouse, was found to be 30 per cent intact, information useful in the implementation of the species’ recovery planning.

No larger than the tip of a ballpoint pen, soil mites are an important ecological indicator of soil health monitored by ABMI. Mites play an important role in nutrient cycling in soils. The average intactness is 55 per cent. The next survey will show if the intactness trend for mites is going in the right direction.

An extension of the provincial biodiversity monitoring is a project called Ecosystem Service Assessment supported by Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. The project is developing tools that potentially could support domestic and international marketing of Alberta’s agricultural products documenting ecological integrity. The intent is to establish credible systems to map the value of ecosystem services such as carbon storage, pollination, and forage production. Tools like the biodiversity intactness index are created from the analysis of large amounts of information providing new capacity for people to make informed land management decisions for food production and for wildlife. This information also informs ABMI’s work within LEAP.

LEAP has its origins in the criticisms arising from Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006), which put a spotlight on the world’s livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The UN report was widely quoted for one particular statement in the executive summary that livestock were contributing 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases — allegedly more than the entire world’s transportation systems.

The report was widely criticized on a number of points including undue focus on GHG emissions without recognizing the benefits of livestock grazing. Many agriculture organizations, including the International Meat Secretariat, pressured the FAO to recognize taking a sustainable approach to livestock production meant understanding how to manage factors such as biodiversity. The work by ABMI in Alberta will help inform future international discussions about agricultural sustainability and improving livestock performance.

The stakeholders guiding LEAP are complementary to other international initiatives including the Global Agenda of Action in support of Sustainable Livestock Sector Development. Both encourage voluntary participation by the stakeholders when establishing long-term sustainable development in the livestock sector.

The development of frameworks to measure the efficiency of how resources are used is central to life cycle assessments. It is the basis of the sustainability discussions initiated by the Global Roundtables that have been set up to develop sustainable approaches for a variety of commodities including palm oil, seafood, and most recently beef.

The fact that ABMI’s expertise in assessing the impact of livestock on the biodiversity of a given environment is being recognized by the international community that is tackling these issues demonstrates the level of the Canadian industry’s commitment to developing a sustainable agriculture system.

About the author


Stories from our other publications