On December 11, 2023, CAPI hosted a webinar supporting its latest report: Forces Impacting Animal Agriculture in Canada: A Synthesis with Gentec-associated researchers Tim McAllister (AAFC) and Ellen Goddard (UAlberta) among the panelists who discussed the common challenges and opportunities surrounding sustainability in animal ag. Here’s a summary of their comments.
TYLER MCCANN, CAPI’s Managing Director reported that Canada’s livestock sector should be thriving thanks to a dedicated land mass, economics and efficiencies—but instead faces difficulties mainly due to the challenging policy environment. CAPI’s white paper, Forces Impacting Animal Agriculture in Canada: A Synthesis, was developed to inform the policy environment.
Source: CAPI Webinar, December 11, 2023
BRUCE SCHUMANN, Director of Sustainability, Regulatory and Quality Assurance at GVF Group of Companies stated that one of GVF’s roles was to empower farmers to produce meat, milk and eggs profitably. Livestock are being villainized because of methane emissions but Canada is already one of the most sustainable and most efficient producers in the world. We need to embrace and communicate that reality to the public and to our leaders, and to help other nations be more sustainable for the good of the world.
AL MUSSELL, CAPI’s Director of Research, summarized the report, confirming that ag is 10% of Canada’s emissions, and animal ag is about 50% of that. Over time, animal emissions have declined, consistent with the decline in the cow herd. Canada is also an efficient producer of feed. But there are complications. Emissions are not limited to GHGs but include nitrogen into the water table, phosphorus in the water and coliforms. Measures to reduce GHGs will not necessarily reduce those as well. Ruminants, especially, are governed by a biogenic carbon system that is circular. It is not NEW methane into the system. It should still be reduced because it is an important GHG but it is possible that the contribution of animals may have been exaggerated. Less animals on the grasslands impair the grasslands, yet the productive capacity of ruminants is conversely impaired without the grasslands. We cannot simply intervene at one level. So where does this leave us. The world has a food security problem and a climate change problem. Canada is one of the few countries that can influence both. How do we move to food policy that addresses that?
Source: CAPI Webinar, December 11, 2023
TIM MCALLISTER, Principal Research Scientist, Ruminant Nutrition & Microbiology (AAFC) reminded participants that climate change issues have been around since the Nineties. What is changing is a new appreciation for the systems approach like the interaction between livestock and their impact on biodiversity. No one scientist has the expertise to do that.
On December 10, 2023, the Government of Canada announced a new economic incentive to reduce methane emissions from beef cattle. Emerging technologies such as diet formulations and bringing animals to the finishing phase faster will help.
Information and databases are getting stronger, and there are more open data available. All countries need to pull together to make a difference, just like for COVID-19. Even regulatory agencies are sharing knowledge and pathways to assessment. It is not likely that one technology will work for all conditions. Technologies exist for animals in confinement but not for rangelands so work is going on there. So it is a sector by sector assessment.
ELLEN GODDARD, Distinguished Fellow (CAPI) said that, as the science gets more complicated, public perceptions are more nuanced and can be confused by the seemingly conflicting messaging from different directions. They look for ways to simplify their decisions by listening to those they trust (farmers, some NGOs and scientists). They want to be able to compare product A with product B on environmental impact or health impact, for example, at the store. Those common standards are not available yet so people are frustrated.
Record-keeping to monitor impacts that can be used consistently in labelling will engender costs. If consumers are paying $10 for ground beef today, will they pay $12 if it has a sustainability label? In fact, they might stop being willing to pay the $10 if the information is not available. Providing the information may be the cost for the industry to stay in the market, even at the original $10 price. Paying the same or more are all parts of the same decision to purchase the product.
The public remains cautious about genetic tools if called genetic modification but less so about other genetic technologies, and they desperately want those technologies used to improve animal health, their health and the environment. But a number of messages about how and why genetic technologies are used need to be distributed to get there.
KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, Vice President Government & Industry (Maple Leaf Foods) said that Maple Leaf was the world’s first carbon-neutral food company. Led by CEO Michael McCain, it created a blueprint and identified pillars to focus on: community, environmental security, animal welfare, food safety among them. The company is obliged to deal with the fact that it is an environmental protagonist. Generally, the public doesn’t realize that the company is made up of farmers (plant protein, poultry and pork). It owns and operates 200 hog farms and five feed mills, mostly in Manitoba. For pork, it runs the entire process from production to sales and international trade because it makes the company more reliable in terms of its footprint, how it is addressed and how all the pieces fit together. In 2019, Maple Leaf committed to reducing GHG emissions by 30% by 2030 (current carbon neutrality comes from buying carbon offsets and insets). That means dealing with manure in-house to reach the desired result. In Manitoba, the solution costs $0.5 billion and involves coordinating a lot of enterprises and players. The conversation is how to bring people together to do that.
RYDER LEE, General Manager (Canadian Cattle Association) said that defending cattle and sustainability is a local, national and international conversation. That entails producers working together, funding research on best practices, sending the CCA to engage with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and going to COP28 in Dubai. There, we hosted events on sustainability in Canada and on the grasslands.
Canada’s competitors are knocking at the door or at customers’ doors, asking what is being done, measured, and its impact. The National Beef Sustainability Assessment, first done in 2016, benchmarks the environmental, social and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry. It highlights the areas where industry is doing well and identifies opportunities for improvement. CCA also looks at peer-reviewed science on the gamut of environmental services, asking questions such as how are measurements done, what the measurement burden is and how to incentivize producers to make changes.
OVERALL TAKEAWAY MESSAGE. Canadian animal agriculture has among the lowest emissions intensities in the world. Policies that integrate sustainability, food security and growth can help meet climate targets, and build Canada’s comparative advantage.