Beef gets good sustainability grade

BANFF, Alta. — A wide-ranging report assessing the sustainability of the Canadian beef industry shows producers are going in the right direction, says the chair of one of the committees involved.

The national beef sustainability assessment and strategy took more than two years to complete and is expected to give groups such as the Canadian Round Table on Sustainable Beef a platform on which to build and make improvements in the areas of social, economic and environmental impacts.

“This is an exciting point for us in the roundtable,” Calgary area rancher Cheri Copithorne-Barnes, who is chair of the Canadian roundtable, said at the global conference on sustainable beef held in Banff Oct. 4-7.

“It is bringing together all the information of our country and giving us a quantitative start of where we are in regards to sustainable beef.”

The report looked at the status of a wide variety of factors from greenhouse gas emissions to farm workers and will be used as a base line for subsequent studies. It also offered recommendations for improvement.

Good grades were received in many areas, but there is a need for improvement in the economic viability of producers. Most ranchers work more than 48 hours per week and often rely on off-farm income to achieve a living income.

“When we are working on sustainability, we need to make sure that our producers are going to be able to continue producing beef,” said Fawn Jackson, executive director for the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef.

“There are some very tight margins where they are working.”

The roundtable formed in 2013 and has 93 members from agricultural producers to major food corporations. The roundtable commissioned the study in 2014.

The next step is launching a verification format next year so that producers can prove their actions are sustainable and demonstrate continuous improvement.

The study, which was conducted by Deloitte, is national in scope and attempts to consider the production and landscape differences from coast to coast.

The following presents highlights and analysis of the assessment.


The beef industry uses 235 litres per kilogram of live animal, or 631 litres for one kilogram of packed boneless beef. From a value chain perspective, the farming stage accounts for 74 percent of the industry’s blue water footprint, followed by consumption at 10 percent, processing at six percent, retail and transportation at four percent each and packing at two percent. The study considered blue water use, which is the volume of surface and groundwater consumed as a result of production of a good or service.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The beef sector is responsible for a total footprint of 11.4 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of live weight. Soil carbon stock is 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon stored in the land from cropland to native grassland. The average stock per acre of carbon in cropland is lower than grassland’s capacity.

Land use

Land used for beef production accounts for 33 percent of arable land and 68 percent of the potential wildlife habitat on the agricultural landscape. That means 51 million acres of land are required for beef production, and most of it is pasture on marginal land not suitable for annual grain production, said Brenna Grant, research manager for Canfax, which contributed information to the study.

“We wanted to look at land use recognizing the beef industry and cattle on the landscape have a really important role to play in terms of ecosystem function, mineral cycling, water cycling and the contribution the beef industry plays there,” she said.

A wide range in the number of acres required to produce a kilogram of beef was taken into account because of differences in production, precipitation and locations such as short grass prairie or the lush fields of Eastern Canada.

Native rangeland and unimproved rangeland provide the greatest opportunity for biodiversity. Less than 20 percent of Canada’s native grassland remains intact.

Forty-four percent of species have disappeared, particularly grassland birds, said Grant.

“Having healthy rangelands is important and stewardship and management by beef producers contributes to that,” she said.


One kg of beef is consumed for every 1.9 kg of beef produced, and the rest is wasted because of shrink, processing losses, throwing away spoiled meat and consumer waste.

“If we cut meat waste by 50 percent, we would save up to three kg of CO2 equivalent and 60 litres of water per kg,” Jackson said.

Social assessment

Social assessment considered production practices as well as workers, local communities, value chains and regulations from farm to the finished product.

The industry has invested in training and policies to ensure health and safety, but there is room for improvement.

The rate of fatal and non-fatal agricultural injuries across the country averages 2.7 per 100,000 employees.

The roundtable has set goals to further promote farm safety and working conditions.

The study showed excellent animal care practices have been implemented, but continuous improvement must be the goal.

Antimicrobial use has been responsible, but there is support for further development of best practices.

Economic assessment

The long-term cost of production shows an industry struggling with low profit margins.

“There is a very distinct cattle cycle in North America, so there are years where producers are going to have negative margins,” Grant said.

“Producers need risk management tools to survive those down years.”

The average cow herd is 62 head, and many producers have a mixed operation or off-farm income to stay afloat. Seventy-four to 85 percent of cow-calf operations rely on off-farm income.

Cost of production is estimated at $120 per hundredweight on a cow-calf operation and $106 per cwt. in a feedlot.

Average cow-calf profitability is $93.03 per cow but minus 20 cents at the feedlot level.

The ability of the industry to distinguish between trends and fads as well as respond to consumer demands were identified as important to the economic sustainability of the beef industry.

Strong domestic demand has been encouraging in recent years, along with strong international support in export markets

“We need a consumer who actually wants to eat beef,” said Grant.

The full report may be viewed here. (PDF format)

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