As the Canadian beef industry struggles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ducks Unlimited Canada is among the conservation organizations advocating on behalf of producers.
“History has shown that the potential of an economic fallout within the beef industry is a risk we simply cannot afford to take,” said Karla Guyn, Ducks CEO, referencing the toll the BSE crisis took on Canadian beef producers and the ecosystems in their care.
Why it matters: The devastating impact of the BSE crisis on both individual beef operations and the Canadian Great Plains isn’t something Guyn wants to see happen again. “For many, ranching no longer provided a sustainable and profitable means of preserving their land, and as a result Canada lost nearly 27,000 ranching operations and with that nearly 5 million acres of grassland,” she explained during a webinar hosted by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef on May 19.
With the current pandemic creating challenges for the beef supply chain, Guyn is worried about the potential this crisis has to put farmers and ranchers out of business. “As we witness the debilitating effects this pandemic is having on them, we’re concerned,” she said.
“Simply put, the actions that impact cattle, grasslands, wetlands and wildlife all go hand-in-hand, and without a successful beef industry, conservation in Canada will not continue at the rate or the scale in which it’s so desperately needed.”
In April, Ducks, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Birds Canada sent a letter to the federal government to “(express) our growing concern about the impacts of COVID-19 on beef farmers and ranchers and the very real threat this poses to the country’s grasslands, wetlands and other ecosystems,” said Guyn.
Ducks Unlimited Canada plans to continue working with its beef industry partners in meeting these challenges. “Looking back on the BSE crisis, we never expected how quickly hard economic times for beef producers would transcend into habitat loss,” she said.
“Today, we have a far better understanding of the consequences and more importantly we have a far better chance to avoid them…The decisions that we make today are going to have important implications for the beef industry and grassland conservation for years to come.”
An opportunity to build consumer trust
With this situation bringing the agriculture industry together, some beef stakeholders see this as a vital time to increase engagement with consumers and build trust in Canadian agriculture and food production.
“For me, the most significant opportunity that COVID has provided is people are suddenly very aware of food and the food chain,” said Bob Lowe, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president. “We have a very narrow window of opportunity when the general population is really aware of where their food comes from.”
With concerns about food shortages, including beef, Lowe views this as a valuable chance for everyone in the supply chain to step up and share its story.
“We need to take this opportunity to really show the general population the value of the food chain as it pertains to them,” he said. “People are watching and waiting, I believe, for agriculture to assure them that our food supply is stable.”
CCA is among the several commodity groups that have partnered with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) in launching a new advertising campaign to promote Canadian agriculture and food production, targeting audiences in Toronto and Vancouver.
“There needs to be more of these initiatives by more players in the industry. Initiatives like this will help increase the awareness, but along with that we need to increase the level of trust in the system,” he said. “We in the cattle industry, from producer to retailer, have an obligation to lead the rest of the food chain in this endeavour.”
These efforts need to take place as soon as possible, said Lowe. “I believe if we get this right, agriculture will get the recognition it deserves because…everyone will feel they have a stake in Canada’s food production.”
While raising awareness of the agri-food industry benefits all its stakeholders, Lowe noted that if the public cares about agriculture, chances are governments will become more interested, too. The focus of the CFA-led campaign, he said, is “to make the general population more aware, which in turn will put pressure on government to ensure that we keep a viable industry.”
Guyn echoed this sentiment, adding that the letter sent by Ducks and others to the federal government highlighted the role of beef production to some of the latter’s goals, such as protection of species at risk and climate change mitigation.
“They need the cattle industry there, whether they know it or not, in order to actually achieve some of the federal government’s key objectives.”