Producers must take note of consumer trends

Cargill’s launch of its BeefUp Sustainability program aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of beef production across the supply chain is a welcome initiative.

The goal is to reduce greenhouse gases associated with livestock by 30 percent per pound of product by 2030.

Conversion of its successful pilot program to a full-scale standing program is a milestone in the Canadian beef industry.

The imperative of creating a sustainable herd became obvious early in 2016 after the restaurant chain Earls announced it would source its beef from the United States in search of meat that was certified as raised and slaughtered humanely without antibiotics, steroids or growth hormones.

Earl’s backtracked and vowed to work with Canadian beef producers but the larger picture was unfolding: environmentally sustainable and humanely raised cattle would henceforth need a method of certification. Consumers were showing with their wallets what they wanted and retailers were responding.

To that end, Cargill’s efforts are in conjunction with the Verified Beef Production plus program, which is the certification body for the Certified Sustainable Beef Framework.

Cargill will focus on grazing management, feed production, innovation and food waste reduction.

The United Nations recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stresses the imperative of reducing livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gases — in the case of beef it is methane, which doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon, but it is much more potent. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 25 percent of methane produced comes from cattle.

Back in 2006, the UN’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options issued a warning about the effect of livestock cultivation on climate change. The report subsequently came under some criticism, and the science was not yet where it needed to be, but the politics of livestock and climate change were irrevocably changed.

It is now commonplace for reports to site livestock as a key contributor to greenhouse gases. The numbers vary, but it’s generally thought that livestock accounts for about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and more than half of this comes from cattle.

Whether everyone buys into the association between livestock and climate change is no longer an issue. It has become generally accepted knowledge and policy is taking shape. The result is the development of meatless meat in various forms to replace beef and pork. A meatless burger is not necessarily more healthy than beef — it contains about the same amount of protein and fat, but more carbohydrates and much more sodium. As well, while the vitamins in red meat are natural, vitamins in meatless burgers are additives, stressing the processed nature of the product. But vegans and environmental interests are pressing plant protein over meat.

The market for meatless meat is growing substantially. The good news is that while developing a sustainable cattle herd in Canada will be somewhat onerous and more expensive, it will open up markets under the CETA trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

There are many other initiatives now being researched to curb cattle emissions.

Producers would do well to give consideration to all this before the market gets too far ahead of them.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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