The greatest challenge in the pursuit of sustainability is an ever-changing target. As progress is made, circumstances change and the goalpost keeps moving ahead. Canada has been a long-time leader in raising sustainable beef – defined as a socially responsible, economically viable, and environmentally sound product that prioritizes the planet, people, animals, and progress. To continue to lead the world, investment in research, supportive regulatory environments, and sustained efforts to conserve our endangered native grasslands are needed.
Farmers and ranchers have been operating with the goal of maintaining their land and businesses for the next generation long before sustainability became a common term in public discourse. Yet in the last few years, as consumers and agri-food businesses grew increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the food system, it became clear that a platform to align sustainability goals throughout the supply chain was lacking.
Setting the Standards for Sustainable Beef
Since 2014, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) has acted as a formal network to generate conversations about sustainability in the Canadian beef industry. CRSB members range from farmers and ranchers to NGOs, food retailers, processors, and academia. As a constituent of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, CRSB offers an avenue to ensure that the many societal benefits of our industry are recognized and that Canadian beef is appropriately positioned as part of the solution to sustainability challenges.
As part of Canada’s National Beef Strategy, seven national beef organizations came together to develop a set of 2030 goals to ensure the long-term success of the Canadian beef industry. These goals approach sustainability through a variety of lenses, from environmental stewardship to supporting the health and safety of people throughout the supply chain. The 2030 goals are ambitious and challenge the industry to make big strides forward.
Goal setting is key to aligning industry efforts, but targets are meaningless without a method for tracking progress. Through CRSB’s first core area of work, benchmarking advancements towards the 2030 goals are measured through the National Beef Sustainability Assessment (NBSA). This evaluation is one of the most robust sustainability assessments globally encompassing the whole supply chain from environmental, social, and economic perspectives. The NBSA is updated and is third-party reviewed by an external panel of experts every seven years. In addition, industry monitors progress towards the 2030 goals through regular working group meetings tailored to each topic.
As one of the earliest of 12 global roundtables focused on beef sustainability, the CRSB contributes substantially to Canada’s leadership by organizing perspectives from across the supply chain to create solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders.
How Sustainable is the Canadian Beef Industry?
Beyond this framework, the Canadian beef industry leads in environmental sustainability metrics. The results of the 2016 National Beef Sustainability Assessment showed that the carbon footprint of Canadian beef production is less than half the global average and that Canadian beef cattle are integral to the conservation of native grasslands that offer wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and protection of wetlands.
“The carbon footprint of Canadian beef production is less than half the global average and Canadian beef cattle are integral to the conservation of native grasslands.”
The Canadian beef industry has a lot to be proud of. However, we all know we cannot rest on our laurels and must continue to adapt and progress towards our goals and beyond. To continue as a global frontrunner, Canadian beef needs the support and participation of all stakeholders. Most importantly, we need solutions that work for cattle producers.
Driving Change at the Grassroots Level
One of the key drivers of progress towards the 2030 goals has been the willingness of primary producers to make changes on their farms and ranches that create sustainability benefits. Our farmers and ranchers have an inherent desire to keep their family businesses viable, which is dependent on the land and livestock in their care. Extension efforts nationally and regionally have allowed producers to sort through new technology and research opportunities to find sustainability solutions that make economic sense for their unique operations.
“Collaboration between academics and industry has allowed new practices to be tested at the grassroots level so that recommendations can be refined in real management scenarios.”
Research on Sustainable Beef
To maintain this momentum, our industry was the first to establish a national check-off to fund research and to partner with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada in the creation of research clusters. Research is essential to continue to find and develop best management practices along with extension resources to facilitate on-farm application. Collaboration between academics and industry has allowed new practices to be tested at the grassroots level so that recommendations can be refined in real management scenarios.
Can Canada Continue Being A Leader in Sustainable Beef Production?
The pathway to the adoption of new solutions does not encompass research alone. A regulatory framework that supports efficient approvals (and therefore efficient accessibility to new technologies and products), will help Canadian beef producers enhance their sustainability. A good example of a product not far on the horizon that will need regulatory support is 3-nitrooxypropanol, or 3-NOP. As a feed additive in research settings, 3-NOP has shown incredible potential to decrease methane emissions from cattle. 3-NOP is currently available on the market in the European Union, Brazil, and Chile, but will need to await regulatory approval in Canada.
“As a feed additive in research settings, 3-NOP has shown incredible potential to decrease methane emissions from cattle.”
1. Streamline approval processes for products with environmental benefits
To streamline this process, regulatory agencies need guidance from the government to develop a standard approach to approvals of environmental products like 3-NOP. Simplifying the procedure for approving products with an environmental benefit will shorten the time and investment required between the stages of research and release.
2. Provide financial incentives to ranchers for adopting sustainable innovation
Additionally, financial incentives for farmers and ranchers will be necessary to achieve widespread adoption. With a supportive regulatory environment and research conducted in collaboration with farmers and ranchers, solutions like 3-NOP can further propel the Canadian beef industry as a global leader in sustainability.
3. Support extension programs to help producers test solutions
Making the domestic regulatory environment more conducive to product development will also attract sustainability-focused investors and researchers to Canada. In general, demonstrating federal and provincial support for innovation and investment will draw research and development to our domestic beef industry. Producers rely on extension programs to help decipher which solutions are practical for their farms and ranches, so support for these efforts will ensure that these projects make it to the finish line.
4. Solutions for sustainability must be made economically viable
One of the practices that helps make the Canadian beef industry a global leader is finishing our cattle in the feedlots after raising calves on pasture. Environmentally, each sector contributes to the sustainability of our industry. Feedlots minimize the time cattle spend on feed and the emissions they create by feeding them higher energy diets with human-inedible by-products, while our cow-calf sector is integral to the conservation of Canadian grasslands that sequester carbon and provide numerous other ecosystem services.
“Policies intended to enhance sustainability cannot impede the viability of businesses along the beef supply chain.”
To continue as a leader in beef sustainability, Canada needs to prioritize economic sustainability alongside environmental and social priorities to keep all sectors competitive. Policies intended to enhance sustainability cannot impede the viability of businesses along the beef supply chain, or we will lose a piece of the puzzle that contributes to our net sustainability success. Keeping this harmony intact will require that policies do not bring unnecessary burdens onto industry.
The Future of Sustainable Beef in Canada
The entire Canadian beef industry is a major contributor to the national economy. Beef ranches and feedlots generate 347,352 jobs across Canada, with every job within the sector yielding another 3.9 jobs in the economy. Investment in Canadian beef multiplies into benefits for the entire domestic economy and will bolster economic sustainability for the industry.
According to Canfax, Canada’s source for cattle market information, capacity in the feedlot sector has grown by 19% since 2015. This growth is a positive indicator of economic sustainability in the supply chain, and it is important to maintain economic viability through strong business risk management tools and the expansion of the labour force.
In Canada, farmers and ranchers care for the majority of our native grasslands, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, less than 20% of our native grasslands remain, due to pressure to convert them to other uses such as crop production or urban development. Land cared for by Canadian beef cattle farmers and ranchers stores 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon and provides 68% of all wildlife habitat on food-producing land in Canada, while representing only a third of total agricultural land. Losing grasslands negatively impacts both Canada’s sustainability and biodiversity goals, threatening numerous species at risk.
“Preventing grassland conversion is the single greatest opportunity for natural climate solutions in Canada.”
A study by Nature United reported that preventing grassland conversion is the single greatest opportunity for natural climate solutions in Canada. Existing partnerships established between the Canadian beef industry and conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada have demonstrated how collaboration can meet the sustainability targets of multiple stakeholders. These partnerships will continue to play a key role in helping Canada lead the way in beef sustainability.
Beyond working with conservation partners, policies and programs that reward and incentivize the maintenance of grassland ecosystems through sustainable food production like beef cattle are needed. Without incentives, the financial pressures are often too much to justify keeping grasslands intact. We have seen it before – in the years following BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), over 5 million acres of native grasslands were converted after many families were unable to continue raising beef cattle.
“Securing favourable trade agreements and continuing to market the Canadian beef advantage around the world will maintain our status as a sustainability leader.”
Finally, to stay socially and economically sustainable, we want consumers around the world to feel good about eating Canadian beef. Domestically, farmers and ranchers are doing a great job of sharing the positive impacts our industry has on sustainability at home in Canada. Internationally, we want customers to recognize the benefits of Canadian beef and seek out our product. The world needs more Canada. Securing favourable trade agreements and continuing to market the Canadian beef advantage around the world will maintain our status as a sustainability leader.
Looking back on the past few decades, the Canadian beef industry has come a long way in organizing its efforts toward achieving environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Moving forward, we need to keep stakeholders working together to find creative ways to strive toward the ever-advancing goalpost that is sustainability.
References are available upon request.