The conversation around red meat in our diets is often singled out in environmental discussions. But there are many little-known facts and benefits about raising beef that don’t make the headlines. Animal agriculture continues to be singled out as a significant contributor to climate change related to resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; however, there’s no simple black and white answer as to whether plant-based diets are more sustainable or better for the health of the planet. In Canada, raising cattle accounts for only 2.4 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, whereas transportation accounts for 28 percent.¹

Although they might seem at odds, agriculture, environmental, and conservation efforts have overlapping interests and collaborative benefits. In fact, when it comes to protecting habitat for wildlife, cattle play a key role. Just as bison kept grasslands viable and healthy for centuries, grazing cattle contribute to healthy soils and natural nutrient cycling in the grasslands and wetlands. In maintaining these natural habitats, cattle help preserve the unique ecosystem that many wild birds and other species call home.

Cattle play a unique role in mitigating food waste by consuming crops and crop byproducts that humans aren’t able to eat. As cattle are primarily raised on grass-based pasture and native grasslands, the majority of their food comes from these natural forages. More than 86 percent of cattle feed isn’t suitable for human consumption.1

Furthermore, cattle are raised on lands that are not suitable for growing vegetables or crops – land that is too rocky or hilly to cultivate - so ranching actually gives Canadians the benefit of gaining a powerful protein food from that land. And because only nine percent of cropland in Canada is used for growing cattle feed crops — including barley, oats, corn, and wheat — raising cattle is often the best and most environmentally-beneficial use of these lands.¹

Advances in sustainability

For the last few decades, gains have been made in the reduction of the environmental footprint of raising cattle. Feed efficiencies and other technologies have resulted in a 14 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions per kg of beef produced since the early 1980s.

There is continued investment funding in research to find further improvements.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) was formed in 2014 to promote beef sustainability in Canada. The multi-stakeholder organization (including cattle ranchers, government and environmental groups) is focused on continual improvement and best practices in raising cattle from environmental, social and economic perspectives, achieved through collaboration, benchmarking and recognizing sustainable practices on Canadian farms and ranches, and right through to the consumer via a third-party certification program. The CRSB has developed collaborative working relationships with conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada and Bird Studies Canada.

¹ Legesse, G., Beauchemin, K. A., Ominski, K. H., McGeough, E. J., Kroebel, R., MacDonald, D., McAllister, T. A. (2015, December 23). Greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian beef production in 1981 as compared to 2011. Animal Production Science. Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. (2016). National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Summary Report. Calgary: Work/NBSA/290ae9c611/NBSA_and_Strategy_summary_report_web1.pdf

Ducks and Cattle Are Better Together

Kristine Tapley, Beef Specialist, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Ducks Unlimited Canada is a charity that aims to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and other habitats critical to North America’s wildlife.

Let Them Eat Grass

Dr. Christian Artuso, Director, Manitoba, Bird Studies Canada

Similar to Ducks Unlimited Canada, cattle ranchers and farmers also have a unique and innovative partnership with Bird Studies Canada, a national bird conservation organization.