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Flipping the script on environment and nutrition

Two experts discuss public perceptions and misinformation around beef production, and what the industry can do about it

Environmental impact and nutrition are two major public trust issues facing beef production, with misconceptions and false information widely promoted. An expert in each field spoke at the 2019 Alberta Beef Industry Conference about opportunities for the Canadian beef industry in these challenges.

Environment

Dr. Frank Mitloehner knows well how animal rights activists cite climate change to further their cause, even though their arguments are scientifically inaccurate. Mitloehner is a professor and air quality extension specialist with the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis.

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He sees an opportunity for beef producers to share the real facts related to agriculture’s impact on the environment, but he argues that rather than doubting the science, they need to use it to their advantage.

“Many people in agriculture doubt the existence of climate change. Let me tell you: there is no doubt whether climate change exists,” he says. “The question is not ‘does climate change take place’ but what the human contributions to global warming (are).”

While animal rights activists incorrectly state that agriculture is the primary cause, climate scientists have found that burning fossil fuels is the greatest source of greenhouse gases.

Mitloehner explained that three greenhouse gases — methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide — differ in how long they stay in the atmosphere.

“CO2 and nitrous oxide… are so-called long-lived climate pollutants. Once they are in the atmosphere, they stay there for centuries,” he says. However, methane only stays in the atmosphere for about 10 years, which is important to know in light of inflated claims about the role of cattle in producing greenhouse gases.

Agriculture is also part of the carbon cycle, due to photosynthesis, whereas burning fossil fuels add new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Of all greenhouse gases generated in the United States, nine per cent is attributed to all agriculture, while animal agriculture only accounts for 3.9 per cent, he notes.

“We have the lowest carbon footprint here in North America for the milk we produce, for the meat we produce, for the eggs we produce,” says Mitloehner, noting that modern production practices have allowed agriculture to become much more efficient.

“But if you ask the people in your communities, they think the opposite is true. They think modern and efficient livestock production systems are the most polluting ones.”

Many consumers incorrectly believe that antiquated production practices were more sustainable than modern technologies, and the marketing of food products sometimes supports this belief.

“Why is it that the 1950 dairy is on every creamery truck you’ve ever seen, with the red barns in the background and cows on pasture, telling each other stories? We are romanticizing agriculture, we are humanizing livestock, and that’s a huge mistake.”

Showing the public that the industry cares about the environment will buy plenty of good will, Mitloehner says.

“When society cares about a topic like that and your industry has done a lot to find out what your contribution is, inform yourself,” he says. “Don’t argue with the public over whether or not climate change happens… but say, ‘I understand this is an important issue, it’s important to this country, we have quantified it and we are further committed for further reductions.’”

Nutrition

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is professor and scientific director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Laboratory. Charlebois was part of a study by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph on Canadians’ perceptions of the updated Canada Food Guide. The study, released in March 2019, included 1,500 respondents across the country, both rural and urban.

The study found that the perception of not being affordable is the top barrier to adopting the updated Canada Food Guide. The researchers then compared the cost to follow the old food guide versus the new version, calculating the cost for a family of four to eat for one day, cooking at home.

“The difference is that a family of four will actually save money by following the new food guide versus the old one. So a family of four can feed itself with $26.51 every day by following the food guide,” Charlebois explains.

However, the researchers ran a model to predict how this cost will change in the next 20 years, and the findings aren’t promising.

“That gap will narrow and disappear by, we expect, 2022,” he says. “The savings aren’t going to last. You may actually compromise the food security of families by aiming for an ideal.”

Charlebois sees this as an opportunity for the Canadian beef industry. “You will become an affordable protein source, but most importantly, you’ll become a perceived affordable protein source. You can’t buy that,” he says. “Economics are very powerful.”

The study also found the majority of Canadians don’t know how to put the new Canada Food Guide into practice because they don’t believe it’s realistic. Charlebois states that while the committee members that updated the guide are knowledgeable in their fields, “they overlook the economics of food. They overlook the history. They didn’t see how our way of life can affect our ability to eat well.”

This offers a chance for producers to humanize the guide.

“Forty-nine per cent of Canadians believe that Canada’s new food guide is an important document that influences food-related behaviours, which means that the majority of Canadians are orphans. You need to go and adopt them as soon as possible,” he says. “You get a good bang for your buck on protein… You can marry your product with other things that are becoming more popular. You can actually increase your market share.” c

Piper Whelan is a field editor for Canadian Cattlemen based out of Calgary, Alta.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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