Canada's cattle ranchers rebrand as grassland protectors to counter beef's bad rap
Cattle grazing preserves grasslands, improves biodiversity, industry group says
Inside an agricultural exhibition building at the Calgary Stampede, kids practise rotating cattle through different areas of pasture, earning "carbon points" as they go if they can avoid under- or overgrazing the land.
They're playing Guardians of the Grasslands, a computer game that was produced with funding from a government grant program, the charitable arm of the Canadian Cattle Association (CCA) and Ducks Unlimited Canada, which conserves and restores wetlands. The game is based on a short documentary of the same name that was produced by the CCA, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Ducks Unlimited.
Both the game and the documentary are part of the industry's broader goal to push back against beef's bad rap and to instead promote the idea that cattle grazing can be good for the environment — a way of preserving native grasslands (which can, in turn, act as a carbon sink).
"Sometimes, what you thought was the problem is really the solution," the documentary's tagline reads.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, agriculture is responsible for 30 per cent of Canada's total methane emissions — and 71 per cent of that is attributed to beef production.
Improving the industry's environmental reputation could be an uphill battle, as concerns mount about the impact of methane emissions, and popular science articles frequently tout reducing beef consumption as a simple way to cut one's carbon footprint.
But ranchers say sustainability is a long-standing priority for them — something that has become more important as consumers become further removed from the process of food production and more concerned about the impact of the food they eat.
"It's just something that I think has risen to the top of the conversation with the rest of the society," said Ryder Lee, general manager of the Canadian Cattle Association. "Instead of being busy ranching, we have to answer that call."
While beef demand remains strong, the industry is well aware of the criticism around the carbon intensity of producing beef and is ramping up its public relations campaign to win the hearts and wallets of Canadians.
Whether that message resonates with consumers remains an open question that could have high stakes for the roughly $22-billion industry.
Cattle and grasslands
The Guardians of the Grasslands film says beef cattle can be positive for the ecosystem, as cows have taken on the role that bison historically played in grazing the prairie grasslands and maintaining their equilibrium.
"With 74 per cent of Canada's native grasslands now lost forever, preserving what's left is critical," the documentary says.
The computer game version, which is intended to be played after viewing the documentary, was launched in the spring.
"We've had beef industry resources before, but nothing that was gamified," said Amie Peck, the CCA's stakeholder engagement manager. "We're really hoping that that's of interest to teachers."
Tim McAllister, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada based in Lethbridge, Alta., said the Grasslands documentary makes a point: Cattle do play a role in maintaining grasslands — which play a role in sequestering carbon — and in preserving the biodiversity of these areas.
"If we cultivate up those grasslands, we end up releasing a lot of carbon as a result of that cultivation process," he said.
The impact of the beef industry, McAllister said, involves more than just the environment: Raising cattle is a way of life for many people, and the tradition around the industry can benefit communities.
'No one perfect food production system'
Strictly looking at emissions, though, the environmental impact of beef production is "much higher" than for any other kind of animal protein, said Jim Dyer, an agro-environmental consultant in Cambridge, Ont., who's studied the environmental impact of proteins for more than a decade.
That's partly due to the methane emissions that come from cow burps, he said, and partly because cows are simply a much less efficient animal to raise than other sources of protein, such as pigs and chickens.
Raising beef cattle on grass can help sequester carbon and benefit biodiversity, he said, though the amount of carbon sequestered this way doesn't make up for the greater overall emissions produced in raising beef.
Dyer suggests people should generally choose pork over beef when they want to eat red meat, and opt for grass-fed over grain-fed beef when possible.
As for McAllister, he said it's up to people to decide for themselves what to eat, whether that includes meat and how much.
"But they need to realize that there's trade-offs. There's no one perfect food production system," he said.
Plans to boost beef exports
Beyond pointing out the role that cattle play in preserving grasslands, the industry has also pledged to reduce its carbon intensity overall, including a commitment to cut a third of its primary production greenhouse gas emission intensity by 2030.
Asked about progress made toward that goal, the chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, Ryan Beierbach, said in an interview that an assessment has just wrapped up and results will be released to the public soon.
The federal government, for its part, has expressed a vote of confidence in the industry and its sustainability objectives. At a funding announcement held at the Calgary Stampede last week, officials applauded the Canadian cattle sector — with a representative for the federal agriculture minister saying the industry has done a "tremendous job at raising beef sustainably."
In a news release, the government touted a figure from the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which said the overall greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian beef production have a total footprint of 11.4 kilograms CO2 equivalent, which it says is less than half the world's average.
"That's the story that we want to tell the world, and today's announcement is actually going to help tell that story around the world," MP Francis Drouin, parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, said at an announcement that pledged $12 million for research into sustainable agriculture.
Drouin said the notion that people should simply stop eating beef to reduce their environmental impact is a "failing strategy" and that the focus should instead be on decarbonizing the process of cattle production.
While Canadian beef exports still lag behind other countries, such as the United States and Brazil, the federal government hopes to ramp them up in the years ahead. Japan has reopened its doors to Canadian imports, and Ottawa plans to open a new Indo-Pacific Agriculture and Agri-Food office in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
"The world is looking for Canadian beef, [and] we know that we have a tremendous great story to tell," Drouin said.
How much does sustainability matter?
Back at home, though, it's not clear if consumers' perception of beef and sustainability will make much of a difference to the industry's bottom line.
Kevin Grier, a livestock and meat market analyst based in Guelph, Ont., said while consumers may say environmental issues matter to them, taste and price tend to beat out those concerns when it comes to choices at the grocery store.
Despite rising rates of vegetarianism, Statistics Canada data shows that Canadians' demand for beef has remained "very, very strong," tempered only slightly by high prices, he said.
Those prices are expected to continue to move higher as western Canadian beef producers deal with drought conditions and some ranchers cull their herds. Fresh and frozen beef prices rose nine per cent in the past year, outpacing other protein sources.
"That's the issue I think that's interesting, is what role beef is going to play in the meat case in the next couple of years," Grier said.
As for Ryder Lee, the CCA's general manager, he said talking about sustainability has become a priority whether it translates to sales or not.
"Public opinion builds up over time," he said. "If we just stick to our knitting and raise cattle and don't talk about what we're doing, what we've found is decisions get made for us.
About 17 Alberta schools have so far registered to use the Guardians computer game. The organization hopes to offer versions tailored toward other provinces so they can be used in classrooms across the country this fall.