By Keith Roulston
Unless we’re setting out to study an issue by reading a book or article, most of us pick up casual information in bite-sized bits.
So when TV viewers see the A&W restaurant chain’s saturation campaign about its hamburgers made with beef from grass-fed cattle, they probably have just a simple reaction. The restaurant chain, of course, wants people to think about burgers made extra tasty because the secret ingredient is that the cattle eat grass and hay. They also hope people will absorb the halo effect of the meat seeming natural.
I’m sure when many urban customers see the images of cattle wading through waving fields of knee-length grass (not exactly prime fodder but it makes better pictures than a properly trimmed pasture) they think that at least cattle are being raised the way they were meant to live rather than part of some “industrialized” feedlot process.
Even though some of the ads in the series make a point, while talking to supposedly typical ranchers, that there’s a recycling process as the cattle eat grass then fertilize the ground to grow more grass, I’m not sure the message will get through about the invaluable role cattle in particular, but all livestock, play in reducing climate change.
That’s not the usual message they get, of course. Usually livestock farming is portrayed as part of the climate change problem. Cattle in particular get a bad rap because they burp methane while digesting roughage. Those who don’t think animals should be raised for food zero in on this to try to widen their support among people who worry about the environment.
Speaking during a webinar, part of the Horizon series presented by the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation, the University of Guelph’s Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle noted agriculture accounts for 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock contribut-ing half and crop production one-third. But cattle, she reminded viewers, “convert the food we can’t eat into nutritious food we can eat, plus methane as a side product”.
What’s more, agriculture can actually contribute toward the solution to climate change, she said as she presented an estimate that showed how if perennial crops like pastures remain at their current levels and are not converted to growing annual crops, 62 per cent of the carbon emissions produced by Canada’s beef sector could be offset.
What’s more, Dr. Wagner-Riddle said, many big companies like Microsoft are turning to agriculture to make up their carbon offsets to reach their goals of becoming carbon-neutral or negative.
The anti-animal agriculture crowd loves to claim we can get all the nutrition we need from plant-based products imitating meat, milk and eggs. But if your concern is for the climate, annual crops don’t sequester carbon in the soil as wells the roots of perennial crops. Corn, for instance, may take in 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare but half of that is removed as food or feed and remaining half only stores carbon for a year or so. Many growers of annual crops counter that, of course, with cover crops that help build the soil.
The ways carbon can be buried are through regenerative agriculture principles, she pointed out: having pastures and grazing animals; diversifying crops, using cover crops, increasing crop yields and returning residues to the soil.
A year or so ago A&W riled many beef farmers when it mounted a massive ad campaign for its plant-based burgers. That campaign prompted McDonalds and Tim Hortons to also hop on the plant-based meat bandwagon.
Imagine if you could get the message across to environmentalists that they’d be doing more to combat climate change by eating grass-fed beef than plant-based burgers.◊