Beef sector’s sustainability defended

Canada’s beef production system enjoys some of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef in the world, according to Tim McAllister, principal research scientist for Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge. | File photo

It is vital to separate fact from fiction when it comes to climate change and the Canadian beef industry, said an expert.

“Really, what we’re talking about here in most agricultural systems is trade-offs,” said Tim McAllister, principal research scientist for Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge. “There’s no one system that’s perfect.”

However, he said Canada’s beef production system enjoys some of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef in the world. He credited efficiencies created by the integrated nature of the industry’s forage and finishing feedlot systems.

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McAllister spoke at a recent online seminar on sustainable intensification in agriculture. It was hosted by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

He said a range of people who previously rarely talked to each other work together on sustainability.

“We’re always talking about trade-offs and in order to understand those trade-offs to the fullest extent, we need a variety of expertise around the table to contribute so that no one nuance that would represent a barrier is overlooked in terms of obtaining sustainability.”

As one of the six largest exporters of beef in the world, the Canadian beef sector has about 60,000 farms that generate about $33 billion per year for the Canadian economy, he said.

It requires 29 percent fewer cattle in the breeding herd, and 27 percent less for slaughter, to produce the same quantity of beef compared to 33 years ago, said McAllister.

The sector also needed 24 percent less land in 2011 compared to 1981, a period that saw a 15-percent reduction in the carbon footprint and a 17-percent decrease in water use, he said.

There was also 20 percent less ammonia emissions per kilogram of beef, he said. Ammonia from manure can naturally be converted into nitrous oxide, which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Such results are due to things such as improvements in the number of calves produced per cow, along with enhanced nutrition from better diet formulations and feed processing.

The most effective additives can result in five to 20 percent less feed for beef cattle. It means fewer crops need to be raised for feed, as well as producing less manure and nutrient excretion, helping cut greenhouse gas emissions, said McAllister.

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