You have heard it on the news, seen it in the headlines and clicked it on social media: we should reduce meat consumption to decrease our individual carbon footprint and protect the environment. Recently, restaurants and food websites have removed beef from their menus and recipes in claims to be doing their part to become more climate conscious.
Could it possible that in some parts of the world, raising beef cattle actually preserves endangered ecosystems, provides valuable wildlife habitat and promotes carbon sequestration? In Canada, these are the environmental benefits from the land cared for by beef farmers and ranchers and their livestock. With less than 2% of Canadians directly involved in agriculture, it is not surprising that these immense benefits are not well known by the average consumer.
Recently it has been suggested that reducing beef consumption by 25% would result in a 10% reduction of livestock-related emissions. A narrow definition of sustainability, based on greenhouse gases alone, could lead us to believe that a reduction in emissions is good at any cost. But greenhouse gases are just one sustainability metric: only one way of looking at the carbon footprint of our diet.
A full Life Cycle Assessment encompassing environmental, social and economic perspectives for the Canadian beef industry was completed by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) in 2016. The environmental assessment calculated that the beef industry contributes 2.4% of our total national emissions. So, if we were to reduce our beef consumption by 25% and thereby livestock related emissions by 10%, our national reduction in emissions would be about 0.2%. Not negligible, but certainly not the silver bullet that has been suggested – especially if we consider the unintended consequences that would follow from reducing the Canadian beef herd.
In Canada, 35 million acres of native temperate grasslands are cared for by beef farmers and ranchers. This ecosystem is one of the most endangered in the world, with less than 26% remaining. To survive and thrive, grasslands need (yes, need) a large grazing herbivore, as they were shaped by the massive herds of bison that historically roamed the prairies. Suggestions to reduce beef consumption by 25% could potentially mean nearly 9 million acres of native temperate grassland being converted to other uses.
Lands where beef cattle are raised also provide the majority of wildlife habitat on all food producing lands in Canada – close to 70%. When grasslands are lost, species that depend on them for survival suffer. Reducing the beef herd by 25% would lead to around 18% less wildlife habitat across this country, impacting some of the most at-risk species including the swift fox, burrowing owl and greater sage grouse.
Finally, back to carbon – the central point in the climate change conversation. Grasslands with beef cattle currently store 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon in the soil. Cultivating or developing these lands could lead to upwards of 50% of that stored carbon being released. In the scenario of losing 25% of these lands, the result would be 190 million tonnes of carbon emitted – more than one third of Canada’s total annual emissions. A recent study led by Nature United suggests that “avoiding grassland conversion and the resulting preservation of soil carbon stocks represented the single largest opportunity in Canada” for natural climate solutions. In other words, a decrease in the national cattle herd would release much more soil carbon into the atmosphere than we would ever save from the reduced cattle emissions.
A food system’s sustainability is more complex than a single metric can convey. Looking at greenhouse gases alone overlooks the ecosystem services provided by having cattle on the land – not any land, this land. Canada’s grasslands and vast pastures, which benefit from a keystone grazer, make beef an environmentally sound, sustainable source of protein. Undoubtedly, there are large regional differences and impacts associated with raising cattle in certain less well-suited parts of the world. For Canada, preserving grasslands and wildlife habitat should be our priority. When we look at the whole complex story, reducing beef consumption could cause more harm than good.
Anne Wasko is Chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), a Market Analyst and raises CRSB-certified beef in Saskatchewan.