Wildeman is president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
At the time of writing, the 15th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference is taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark. Officials are working to agree to a new climate treaty as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Though the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by the agricultural industry in Canada is minimal compared to other industries, livestock, particularly cattle, has been targeted globally as a major contributor to GHG emissions.
It should be noted that while GHG and climate change is the driving issue, the media coverage includes other environmental criticisms and is increasingly being linked to human health — with calls to eat less meat to help the environment and improve human health.
In Canada, updated reputation management research indicates that consumer concerns about the environmental impact of beef production increased since the last study in 2006. Other polling confirms that the environment is a high concern with Canadians, even during the current recession.
GHGs are a measure of inefficiency in a production system. This holds true whether you are in a factory making cell phones or hybrid cars, in a car traveling to a hockey game, growing soybeans, broccoli, or blueberries or raising livestock. If we are going to live in a carbon-constrained society, we will have to learn to do more with less — specifically more production to satisfy a growing world population with less GHG emissions.
Research on GHG emissions and the Canadian picture
In 2006, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It has fuelled negative media coverage because of its claim that the livestock industry is responsible for 18 per cent of global GHGs — more than all of transportation combined. This one statement from the report’s executive summary is now being widely sourced by anti-meat crusaders, environmental activists and mainstream media.
However, in Canada the statement is not true. Here emissions from all of agriculture, livestock and cropping are less than half of all the transportation emissions. Livestock production alone is less than a third of transportation emissions. In 2006, agriculture GHG emissions were determined to be 69 megatonnes (million tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent, livestock at 36 megatonnes and transportation at 159 megatonnes. Canadian livestock production is vastly more efficient in utilizing resources, and subsequently produces much less GHG emissions.
The FAO’s report suggests several options for decreasing GHG emissions. Canada has already implemented those suggestions and is conducting research to become even more efficient, including selecting feed-efficient cattle and improving our grass management to sequester more carbon.
Will reducing your meat consumption affect climate change?
Some industry critics are claiming that reducing meat consumption (by having just one meatless day a week) will counteract the affects of climate change.
In reality, eating less meat is not the silver bullet to stabilize the climate. In fact, it will likely cause a lot of unintended consequences.
A sustainable food supply includes both cultivated crops and livestock. A balanced diet is good for people and it’s good for the environment. People need protein in their diet, and if they decrease their amount of animal protein, they need to increase their amount of plant protein. And that plant protein comes from cultivated crops — which means that less land is available for wildlife habitat and more fossil fuels are used, with their resulting GHG emissions. So has the planet really gained anything?
Millions of people don’t have adequate nutrition. To suggest that we remove such an important, nutrient-dense protein from the diet as a carbon action, would inflict uncalculated collateral damage on the world food supply.
About a third of Canada’s agricultural lands are in native grasses or some kind of domestic perennial grass. All of that land is also wildlife habitat and Canadian beef is raised on that grassland. Taking meat out of the diet would mean cultivating much of that grassland; land that is susceptible to wind and water erosion when cultivated.
The CCA’s work
The environment has been a core program area of the CCA for close to 20 years and in that time, several major projects have been undertaken.
We administered a federally funded Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program which demonstrated the beneficial management practices that mitigate GHG emissions and sequester carbon. Both those management directions improve the economic efficiencies of our industry.
The CCA has been instrumental in promoting the Alberta beef carbon offset protocols to the national level. Trading carbon will mitigate the increased costs of a carbon constrained society.
The CCA is also seeking federal funding support for a grazing technology program. More efficient grazing of grasses and forages improves both the economics and environmental resilience of the cattle industry. It sequesters carbon and maintains wildlife habitat.
In short, minimizing GHG emissions in all aspects of life is an energy efficient, smart thing to do — and the cattle industry is doing its part towards this endeavour.
Visit www.cattle.caand click on “Environmental Stewardship” to learn more.