The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) held its annual general meeting in mid-March in downtown Ottawa. Beef producers and industry folks from across Canada and even some from the U.S. gathered in a Hilton on Queen Street for committee meetings on everything from emergency planning for a livestock disease outbreak to improving risk management programs.
During one break, I sat down with Bob Lowe, the freshly minted president of the CCA. Lowe and his brother run a feedlot and cow-calf operation near Nanton, Alta., as well as a grain farm. He also has a ranch in Manitoba’s Interlake region.
COVID-19 was on everyone’s minds, as the World Health Organization had declared the disease an official pandemic during the AGM, and the prime minister went into self-isolation. So it’s no surprise that when I asked Lowe what he sees as the biggest potential threats to the beef industry, his first comment was coronavirus.
Lowe then added that he sees a lack of acknowledgement of agriculture by governments as a risk. “We need governments to support the production of food, to support agriculture.”
On the consumer side, there is a loud contingent that says that animal ag in particular is a “bad, bad thing,” Lowe said. “And if you hear things enough, sooner or later you’re going to start believing it.”
Cattle producers are now telling their stories, he added, and so are retailers such as McDonald’s and Loblaws, who have signed up with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). But, Lowe said, we need government vocally supporting and acknowledging agriculture, something he didn’t hear in the last federal election from any parties.
“In a time when food is the most important thing on the planet, for the next 20 or 30 years, we’ve got the opportunity in Canada to be one of the few countries in the world that can export food.”
Earlier the same morning, Marie-Claude Bibeau, our federal ag minister, had met with CCA at the AGM. Lowe felt that one of CCA’s jobs was to help her raise agriculture’s profile within cabinet.
“I know it doesn’t have nearly as high enough profile as it should have,” he said.
Trade was also going to remain a top priority for the CCA, he added, as so much of what we produce is exported.
“But I think maybe we better focus at home a little bit, too and try to get the profile of agriculture raised — in the schools, in government, everywhere.”
Lowe also sees great opportunity for Canada’s beef industry.
“I’m more excited about the beef industry than I’ve ever been. We’re in a world that’s protein deficient. We produce a very high-quality protein and although the markets don’t look like it now, overall that’s got to be a good thing,” he said.
Lowe sits on both the Global and Canadian Roundtables for Sustainable Beef, organizations that include several supply chain stakeholders. Their goal is to advance sustainability within the beef industry through benchmarking, certification and sustainability projects. For example, producers who have verified their operations (either through VBP+ or Where Food Comes From), and received a per-head payment after their cattle have been processed at Cargill’s High River plant, are part of the CRSB’s Certified Sustainable Beef Framework. There are more details on this in our Stock Buyers Guide from August 2019.
Based on his experience on these roundtables, Canada’s beef industry is a leader in sustainability and transparency, said Lowe.
“We are the model for the world. To me, sooner or later that’s going to be recognized and it’s going to turn into dollars in our pockets.”
To me, it seems like the beef industry is becoming more collaborative, and Lowe agreed with that observation. Asked what he thinks is driving that collaboration, he said that it’s “younger producers who don’t have the mindsets that people my age might have. And it’s nothing but good.”
For example, two weeks before the CCA AGM, Lowe was in Ottawa for the National Cattle Feeder’s Association (NCFA) meeting. CCA has a member on NCFA’s board, and vice versa. Lowe sees this as positive, as although each group has its own mandate, they have more power working together than separately.
In the midst of the pandemic
Back to Lowe’s comment about coronavirus being a threat to the beef industry; as I write this the week after the AGM, the U.S.-Canada border is closing to non-essential travel, although there are not supposed to be trade interruptions for any live cattle moving between the countries, nor any other aspects of the beef supply chain. Lowe’s earlier comments about raising agriculture’s profile within cabinet are key right now.
The CCA has released statements reminding people that there’s no evidence of livestock spreading COVID-19, and that they are working to make sure live cattle trade isn’t interrupted. Any exporters or importers having issues are encouraged to contact CCA at [email protected]
Right now, I don’t want to guess what will happen in three days, never mind two weeks or a month. I’m a little worried about people I know with underlying health conditions. I don’t even want to think about the long-term economic effects of all this.
Bob Lowe has picked up the reins at the CCA at a very interesting time. Let’s hope the rest of his term is a little less interesting.