Story telling

Cattle production victim of widespread stories

Cows are not the new coal and they are not the new Tesla.

As catchy as Time Magazine’s recent headline, “Cows Are The New Coal,” got to be, that’s not true. But it fits nicely into a well-crafted and biased narrative that is now plaguing the cattle industry.

Carbon is used by plants to create feed for livestock. Livestock release this carbon, except for what remains in the soil, and it is part of a continuous cycle.

Coal, on the other hand, was once plants. When we burn coal, there is no cycle. He remains free. Even when we burn coal to generate electricity to power Teslas, as we do in Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is no carbon recycling.

To be fair, the Time Magazine article takes its title and quote from a report by the Jeremy Coller Foundation, Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return, an organization that monitors intensive animal agriculture.

Coller is a world-class fund manager, philanthropist, and lifelong vegetarian who appears to have leanings toward a much-reduced animal agriculture industry worldwide. But even he suggests that animal agriculture has potential under the right conditions.

While equating beef production with coal is not helpful for the beef industry, it highlights serious vulnerabilities in the industry. There are several sources of beef cattle in this world. Some involve intensive production from calf to slaughter, based largely on the use of groundwater to irrigate silage, hay and grain. In other countries, much of this is supported by large government grants.

There are also major carbon-emitting livestock herds that are raised on pastures obtained by cutting old-growth or tropical forests and by slash-and-burn agriculture.

Then there is the type of beef production we are most familiar with in Canada, where cows and calves are raised primarily on rainfed pastures that are unsuitable for other uses, and where the calves end up in pens. fattening where surface water is irrigated. for silage and almost all the grain that is fed comes from arid land fields.

Many citizens of the western world might find a headline like “Cows are the New Coal” acceptable because it reinforces a feeling they can harbor after hearing and reading tons of pseudoscience and environmental outcry related to cattle farts and burps. combined with the dangers of methane as a greenhouse gas and the waste of fresh water resources.

But vast acres of pasture would not be used for other purposes if cattle did not graze them. They would be more likely to be plowed for unsustainable crops or left dormant, losing biodiversity and productivity. They would also be more exposed to grass and prairie fires, which would release stored carbon – precisely what we are trying to avoid.

It’s complicated to explain all the concepts that cattle are becoming more efficient – through genetics, research and feed value – and that they have carbon life cycles that are better than the natural processes of countryside. A sustainable farming system without livestock also challenges recent trends towards regenerative agriculture.

Zero-carbon cattle farming systems are within reach of the Canadian cattle brand and, in fact, can already be achieved in some cases. Telling this story and differentiating it from less environmentally sustainable beef production in other parts of the world will be crucial for the future of the industry.

Can cattle production as we know it survive if pastures and rain-fed production are exploited with forms of farming that are less acceptable to the environment? Maybe not.

But again, coal-powered Teslas are very popular on the Prairies.

Karen Brière, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine contribute editorials to Western Producer.