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The next transformation

Rapeseed has a long history. It was used for thousands of years as a lubricant and as a fuel but contained a high level of toxicity. After the Second World War, acreage diminished but innovation with the plant did not. Canadian scientists worked with the seed to develop canola which has high nutritional qualities without the dangerous levels of toxicity found in the original plant. What will the next agricultural transformation for Canada be, particularly in the beef industry? Where will it come from and who will drive the bus?

With such a large portion of our population foreign born, now 55 per cent in Toronto and 45 per cent in Vancouver, it would seem redundant to continue to grow and process the same beef product that we all grew up on. New Canadians bring with them their wonderful basket of food needs. They are used to less volume presented in a more flavourful way.

There is also strong evidence to support that we have graduated from the experience economy (having the party) to the ethics economy (reading the story), an economy in which consumer focus is on our social licence to produce. The ethical economy may not say that beef is bad or bad for you. It does declare that decisions are made on other attributes of the product, that it makes a difference to folks on how the animal was treated and where it lived. Canadians are sensitive, informed and vote with their dollars. Even at the burger shop they respond and that is why food service and retail are scrambling to define and deliver the story behind what consumers want to buy.

In some circles, there is a feeling that disruptive innovations will displace beef. The Dutch, for example, have knitted together a complex digestible protein that tastes and digests like beef made from tomato fibre. It is promoted as an ethical alternative to beef. In many international food forums that I have attended the Dutch have repeatedly indicated that this product will replace beef. The question we then must ask from a systems perspective is — is this transformational?

A knitted protein comes with other complexities that may be less desirable. Growing a tomato requires intensive farming with equipment that uses fossil fuel, irrigation, coverage, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide and extensive labour, cooling and transportation systems. As for cost benefit to the consumer, fresh vine tomatoes in Canada cost the same as sirloin steak.

An ethical discussion would focus on the use of natural resources to produce food in a way that leaves a small environmental footprint. Grasslands are large carbon sinks and producers manage grasslands with cattle. The appropriate use of grazing technique encourages root development and that is an important carbon sink. Cattle leave behind valuable nutrients. Vigorous grasslands host birds, insects and wildlife; they clean water, mitigate erosion and decompose waste. Grasslands are essentially health reservoirs.

This leads to the discussion of leading the transformation of beef. While there are great initiatives to create the story behind the product, what the consumer also wants to know is, “what has changed?” or more importantly, “why hasn’t it changed?” Our last disruptive innovation that was totally transformational was the shaping of ground beef into a hamburger patty. Since that time, the beef industry has made great advancements for full carcass utilization, such as beef medallions and flat iron steak — but we have yet to again revolutionize beef consumption.

While the industry has talked “differentiation” for a long time, there is no real buy-in here. To be identified through a narrow lens as a grain-fed protein is not of relevance to the ethical buyer, nor is it transformative for the industry. Will we continue to produce beef without differentiation and put beef at the same risk as wheat? Wheat varieties grown today are inferior in the bakery because of the focus on blending in export markets. Canadian processors cannot use many new varieties of Canadian wheat for further processing. Is beef travelling the same road?

This is an important question because when processors can’t use or technically buy what we domestically produce, our international buyers eventually won’t either. For beef, this means that asking the question is more important than providing a solution. In the big picture, it is Canada’s $6-billion food-processing deficit that we should be looking at because the glaring hole is in value-added meats. The fact that Canada owns a mere 1.1 per cent of the world’s cattle inventory should be reason enough to get back to the research lab.

People know more about food than they ever did and they have an abundance of affordable choices. Caring and resourceful, we must fully appreciate that however our buyers perceive beef to be is their reality. The solution is with the people and they drive the bus. We must respect our youth, small family and foreign-born Canadian dynamic in our research and decision-making process. They hold our social licence.

As for canola, it looks like apomixis will be the next transformation. Finding the genomic sequence that allows plants to produce seed without fertilization is a naturally occurring disruptive innovation that breaks the dependency on seed companies and is highly favourable to consumers. The ethical economy is all about natural selection and supports farmers keeping their own seed. Beef needs to be in that space of finding ethical, acceptable keys which radically transform the industry.  c

Brenda Schoepp is a Nuffield Scholar who travels extensively exploring agriculture and meeting the people, who feed, clothe and educate our world. A motivating speaker and mentor she works with young entrepreneurs across Canada and is the founder of Women in Search of Excellence. She can be contacted through her website www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2014

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Contact Brenda through her website: www.brendaschoepp.com. All Rights Reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2018

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