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Focus on beef exports not water efficient: expert

Exporting food like potatoes or beans is more economical than growing forage to convert into meat, says professor

It’s all about water when it comes to food production, and putting Alberta’s supply into beef production is not an efficient use, says a University of British Columbia professor.

Hans Schreier, professor emeritus in the land and food systems faculty, said it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef.

“If we move more and more into a meat based diet, we’re going to need massive amounts more water,” he said.

“We should look at water efficiency. We should look at the environmental value and we should look at the economic value.”

Schreier told the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association water conference that Canada is well positioned to increase its exports and help feed a growing global population.

However, doing it smartly means paying attention to water use and its virtual export in food.

“I would argue that Canada has a tremendous potential to become a much bigger world leader in terms of the way we produce food and help the global situation, and the reason for that is climate change is actually going to help us,” he said.

“We’re going to have a longer growing season. We’re going to have less frost.… We’re going to have relatively low-intensive agriculture. You might not think so, but when you look around the world, we are not that intensive as far as production is concerned.”

He said southern Alberta, with its extensive irrigation system, would be better served in water conservation efforts by exporting more potatoes, corn, dry peas, beans and cereals.

Schreier made his remarks in Lethbridge, the most intensive beef production area in Canada.

George Graham, a director for the Eastern Irrigation District and co-owner of the South Slope Feeders beef feedlot operation, questioned Schreier’s figures in terms of beef water use.

Beyond that, Graham said the market dictates what Canada produces and exports.

“I think he was missing a key component to the whole picture and that is the marketplace is actually going to dictate what we produce. We’re going to respond to market signals. That’s how we conduct our business. That’s how we make decisions,” he said.

“And the market right now is trying to feed the world, and if in fact we’re going to be looking at producing twice as much food to feed the world over the next 30 years, I think beef is going to be a key component to that.”

In a later interview Schreier acknowledged that his beef message might not be embraced in Alberta’s proverbial “feedlot alley.”

“I never said you should go cold turkey on beef,” he said. “It’s perfectly fine to produce beef for the local market, but I don’t think it’s a very wise thing for export.”

Schreier said the entire industry is at risk from drought and disease, given that Alberta produces 73 percent of all beef exports. He advocated crop diversity.

“If we spend all our effort irrigating forage crops, that’s not a very efficient way of actually exporting food,” he said.

“We’d be far better off to use crops which are water efficient, high value, rather than going through these two stages, processes, where first you have to grow the crop and then you have to convert it into meat.”

Schreier said water-scarce countries are already reducing crop production in favour of importing food. His figures showed China has significantly reduced rice production as part of its water strategy.

“The data shows that they are saving massive amounts of water by importing water intensive food.”

Graham said conservation is part of the crop and beef production picture with significant investments made in better technology at the irrigation district and producer levels.

“I think we’ve got some challenges ahead of us,” he said.

“I appreciate what Dr. Schreier is saying, his viewpoint. That actually helps us, in that we know we have people that are questioning our practices and it helps us raise the bar in producing our product.”

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