The beef with beef is spreading. It’s spreading myths. It’s spreading misinformation. And, it’s spreading a danger to the environment. A little bit of truth can go a long way toward making a lie seem right.
Concerns about beef most recently arose following a move by food publisher Epicurious. The well-known online food site has a prominent role in North American households, providing recipe and food guidance to consumers and food hobbyists.
Epicurious publicly turned its back on beef by announcing it would no longer post any beef recipes or cooking videos due to beef’s effects on the environment. It had quietly stopped providing beef information a year ago, favoring beef replacements or other meats, poultry, seafood and vegetable proteins in its editorial materials.
Despite the position of this online food site, Americans are eating more beef today than they have in recent times. Canadian consumption is relatively steady. Demand and prices are at high levels.
Even so, an underlying current of beef myths flows through the North American information stream, undercutting the beef base. They can’t be ignored. The few nuggets of truth within these myths makes them harder to dispute or dismiss.
The industry has long fought misinformation about the health dangers of red meat. Producers have invested well in showing consumers that beef is safe and healthy, on top of being enjoyable to consume.
Meat opponents and those who describe themselves as environmentalists have put up a strategic fight to keep beef’s origins bathed in an unflattering light now that the health issue has been put to rest.
Beef in the Canadian context is farmed largely on grass until finishing, when animals move to a feedlot where they get a mixture of silage and grain. Their early life on the range occurs almost exclusively on land that is unsuitable for grain crop production because farm margins dictate what is grown and grain pays better per acre.
The current best use for the land is animals and in many cases that means cattle raised on ecosystems that evolved from giant bison herds and periodic fire. Those two elements are gone. In their place are managed grazing and cattle production that is vital to the environmental and ecosystem health of grasslands, but it is a more complex tale to tell.
The most dangerous myths surrounding cattle production are related to water use. Most North Americans have seen the information graphics showing the amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef versus pork, poultry or legumes.
It’s compelling but deceptive.
The measurements are for all water that the land receives, including rainfall on dryland feed crops. In Western Canada, surface water is the main source for cattle production. Even well water typically comes from relatively shallow aquifers that are rain-dependent for recharge. The vast majority of water used in cattle production is recycled onsite and by cattle and irrigated crops.
People are not competing with livestock for water supplies, despite what most literature contends, including Epicurious.
Reduced beef production would result in more cultivation of grassland for crop production, releasing sequestered carbon and damaging biodiverse ecosystems that have thrived for years under grazing management.
Epicurious has underestimated the sustainability of beef production, particularly in the Canadian context, where major efforts have been undertaken to acknowledge and reduce the impact of cattle on the environment and to protect important landscapes through optimum grazing and land management.
Epicurious says it is not “giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders” and is thus removing beef from any future recipes and articles. But basing a decision on partial truths and poorly analyzed data, as Epicurious has done, makes it very wrong.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.