Cracking the sustainability puzzle

Cattle industry leaders say optimal animal welfare should be and always has been part of their business equation. | Mickey Watkins photo

The beef industry is faced with an interesting, yet frustratingly complex riddle: how to help feed a growing world population but still protect the environment and the animals, satisfy the consumer and create a reasonable living while addressing these matters.

The answer often put forward is sustainability, but this leads to many more questions. Can cattle producers be a part of the solution? How will the environment be affected and handled? Will an equitable level of profitability retain high quality agricultural people?

According to David Moss, general manager of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, this puzzle was one of the biggest challenges when the CCA, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and other global players first sat down together to discuss the topic.

“First, we had to define it, which took time,” said Moss.

“Basic principles around sustainability talk to the environment, social aspects and the financial basis. They must all work as three legs on a stool.”

He explained they came together to build the definition and ensured it kept the three basic pillars of sustainability intact. From a global and CRSB viewpoint, he said he believes the questions were answered to the satisfaction of all parties.

“Producers had a lot of apprehension around the word until it was defined. The key was getting them to understand it shouldn’t be seen as a threat. In fact, it’s an opportunity.”

Moss said it was helpful to explore ways the industry can be sustainable. Whether it be through a more intensive system of management or the building of new niches, diversity should be encouraged.

“It’s an opportunity to find new markets and innovative consumer demands. Never do we suggest for one second everyone has to produce the same way. That’s not how the industry works.”

Moss admitted the picture becomes more complicated when producers consider the next threshold of population growth and determine how they’ll provide enough food to match it. He noted efficiency is lost to an extent with organic, natural or niche type market programs, plus, ironically, the environmental footprint increases.

“It takes longer to produce an animal or a product, and that’s more feed, more greenhouse gas production. As long as consumers are aware of this and understand if we embrace niche markets entirely and move away from the intensive side of the equation, we will have trouble feeding the increasing population.”

According to Moss, this is tricky to manage but also one of the more important aspects of the entire topic. From the Canadian perspective and the CRSB certifiable framework, intensive operations can produce in a certified sustainable manner while gaining production efficiency and financial reward.

“The challenge is getting the awareness in the consumer’s hands. These conversations don’t have to oppose each other but can actually be an ‘and’ conversation. It’s achievable,” Moss said.

He said technical responses are too often delivered to emotional questions when a better strategy is to foster two-way conversations.

“The old adage, ‘I can’t hear you until I know you’re listening to me’ applies. We need to do a better job of listening, earning trust and only then have the conversation about how we produce beef. Telling people something might not be the best way. But, when they ask for information because of a trusted environment, that’s when we make headway with people feeling both heard and enlightened.”

Moss said the Canadian beef industry has an exceptional story to tell. It’s sequestering carbon and creating biodiversity over its grasslands. Canada is among the most efficient beef producers in the world, he said.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the beef industry contributed to only 2.4 percent of the nation’s total emissions, less than half of the global average for beef production.

While the numbers tell a story of how consumers and producers should feel proud of raising and consuming beef, Moss said optimal animal welfare should be and always has been the other part of the equation.

He cited the code of practice for the care and handling of beef cattle, which the beef industry has had in place for more than 20 years.

“It’s part of best practices. We have a verified beef system certifying care is built in. Good practices have a positive financial impact. It’s not like we’re asking them to do something financially detrimental.

“There’s a correlation in caring for and handling cattle well, and them producing and optimizing efficiency. Part of the code and everything coming from these best practices is based in science and proven research, reviewed to ensure the ideal outcome for the animal and also meet production realities in Canada. It’s definitely not only feasible but built into what we do and have been doing for a long time.”

Moss said the complicated aspect when presenting a positive message is many consumers hold an image of their father’s or grandfather’s farm dear to their hearts, and it is difficult for them to understand those types of operations simply wouldn’t be able to feed the expanding world population.

The Canadian cattle industry has ambitious sustainability goals and Moss said technology will help achieve them.

Among them, greenhouse gas emissions are targeted for a 33 percent reduction by 2030.

“We can’t do it without genetic enhancement and the opportunities technologies provide. It doesn’t have to be gene editing, or genetically modified organisms. For example, selecting genes for calving ease or for polled cattle instead of having to dehorn. There’s a lot we can do fundamentally in today’s world.”

He said new feeding mechanisms and products go hand-in-hand and with constructive conversations some of the perceived fears of GMOs are removed.

“We’re starting to see it now with non-governmental organizations coming on board saying GMOs are actually a solution, not only to climate change but to feeding a growing population.”

Moss acknowledged some conversations with the public present intensive livestock as negative for the world, but it provides an opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint and enhance environmental controls.

Larger intensive operations include more oversight because they’re easily seen and must be closely managed. Water, feed and greenhouse gas intensity are reduced.

“If we have our conversations in an enlightened way, we can show we won’t lose the aspects of sustainability, animal welfare, farm environment and goodness with intensity.

“We are striving to deliver an environmentally, socially and financially sustainable product. If we have this strong conversation, how could anyone object? It’s a win-win for everyone.”

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