Ranchers to meet with Weather Network after online beef over video about eating less red meat

The online uproar over a video about decreasing beef consumption is unnecessarily pitting agricultural producers and environmentalists against each other, says a sustainable food researcher.

The uproar needlessly pits agriculture against the environment, says one researcher

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2013 file photo, various cuts of beef and port are displayed for sale in the meat department at a discount market in Arlington, Va.  Cattle groups from the U.S. and Canada are upset that a new Farm Bill passed by the House on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, fails to make changes to country-of-origin labeling requirements. The rules require detailed labels about the origins of beef, pork and chicken sold in U.S. stores.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association and The Weather Network are set to meet about a video by the media company that tackled research on how reducing beef consumption can help the environment. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

An online uproar over a video about decreasing beef consumption is unnecessarily pitting agricultural producers and environmentalists against each other, says a sustainable food researcher.

Leading Canadian cattle producers are set to meet with The Weather Network on Monday to discuss sustainable beef production in response to the media company's video which was posted online on Thursday.

"We will raise the high level of concern felt by our members," tweeted Bob Lowe, vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.

People respond this way when they either feel like they're being told what to do or they're being threatened.- Philip Loring, University of Guelph

The Weather Network video cites research done in co-operation with a group of international multi-governmental agencies that focuses on food sustainability heading into 2050, when the world's population is expected to reach approximately 10 billion.

"If you want to save the planet you might want to think about cutting back on the amount of beef you eat. So how much do you need to cut back?" the video's narrator said. "How about a burger and a half each week? That's the latest research from the World Resources Institute."

"Cows require about 20 times more land and they make more than 20 times more greenhouse gas than growing certain plants do. Cows also grow and reproduce slower than pigs and chickens so they need more food and water," the narrator said.

After the video was posted to Twitter on Thursday, some agricultural producers tweeted photos and videos of themselves deleting The Weather Network app. Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall tweeted that he would no longer follow the media company.

Philip Loring, an ecological anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Guelph, said there's a more complete picture of cattle as part of the food system than was shown in the video, but that its basic assertions are fair.

"I know that there's a lot of contention over the discussions people are having around eating less meat. Eating less meat is not eating no meat, but some people take the argument to the extreme," he said. 

Many criticized the video's statement that beef production is a large contributor to emissions, citing a 2019 study in the journal Agricultural Systems which estimates that beef production represents only three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

But those criticisms didn't take into account the Institute's research which addresses the discrepancy — that emissions associated with setting aside land to be used for agriculture are not included in the three per cent estimate.

Beef production contributes 41 per cent of all agricultural emissions, which account for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Others asked the media company to stick to reporting the weather, although it regularly covers other news stories related to climate and the environment. 

The Weather Network said in an emailed statement that the video highlighted a World Resources Institute report. 

"This report discusses a possible strategy of reducing beef consumption, as one of many methods to help assist with achieving food sustainability for the future," the statement reads.

"We, The Weather Network, will not actively advise people on their food consumption choices. The purpose of this article was merely to focus on sustainability and upon further review, we determined that our video and post did not reflect our intention."

(CBC News and The Weather Network have been part of a content-sharing agreement since 2014, that allows weather-related stories from CBC News to appear on The Weather Network's platforms, while CBC News features forecasts provided by The Weather Network. This video does not appear to have been posted by CBC News.)

Video was 'well-meaning,' says researcher

"I think that the video was well-meaning and I think the challenge that we have — in thinking about how to solve this complex issue regarding climate change — is that we've become very polarized around individual solutions and we still lose sight of the middle ground," said Loring.

Loring said while there's no doubt raising cattle is a major contributor to climate change, it's not that cut-and-dried because there are ways to raise cattle that have a much lower carbon footprint — like grazing the animals at a small scale on lands that can't be used for other purposes. 

"People who make their livelihood in ranching feel threatened by a lot of the rhetoric around climate change and not eating any more meat," Loring said.

"I think the emotions are important. People respond this way when they either feel like they're being told what to do or they're being threatened."

He also said that while it's great people are thinking about changing their diets to be more environmentally conscious, there are plenty of cultural or financial reasons that would make it inappropriate to suggest people cut back on meat. 

"It goes back to this 'either or' question … I think the lesson is, we need to bring back globally how much we are consuming, we need to sort of balance our diets in a different way. But when you're suggesting stopping eating meat, that threatens people's livelihoods, so of course people get emotional."

There's a lot of different research on both sides of things.- Jill Harvie, Canadian Cattlemen's Association

Jill Harvie, the public stakeholder and engagement manager with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said the association is hopeful The Weather Network will "recognize the World Resources Institute report does not paint an accurate picture of cattle in Canada or Canadian beef.

"Asking people to reduce their beef consumption to mitigate climate change fails to capture the essential ecological services grazing cattle provide," Harvie said, pointing to carbon capture techniques that give Canadian beef a lower greenhouse gas footprint than beef produced in many other countries.

The association disputes that lower beef consumption would be an environmental boon, or at least lower consumption of Canadian beef.

"There's a lot of different research on both sides of things," Harvie said. 

In Canada in 2017, agriculture accounted for 72 megatonnes out of the country's total 716 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Agriculture was the sixth largest emitter by economic sector, behind industries like oil and gas and transportation.

The World Resource Institute's research states that if red meat consumption in high-consuming countries decreased by a burger and a half per week, it would essentially eliminate the need for more agricultural expansion and deforestation globally.


Sarah Rieger

Former CBC digital reporter

Sarah Rieger worked with the digital team at CBC Calgary from 2017 to 2021. She previously worked at HuffPost Canada.