Many consumers have made the choice to limit or even eliminate beef from their diets, as animal agriculture is often considered highly inefficient, and a major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHG). But findings published in December, from the first part of a Beef Science Research Cluster project, demonstrate emissions from the Canadian beef industry have lessened in a recent 30-year span.

According to the report, Canada produced the same amount of slaughter weight in 2011, as compared to 1981, but with 14% fewer GHG emissions per kilogram of liveweight (or 15% per kilogram of beef). More specifically, there was a 14% decline in CH4 emissions, a 15% decline in N2O emissions and a 12% decline in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. In both years, enteric CH4 (methane produced by animal digestion) accounted for 73% of the industry’s total GHG emissions.

“We’re working to get a more accurate assessment of the Canadian beef industry’s environmental footprint and these results indicate that the footprint per kilogram of beef produced is getting smaller,” said Tim McAllister, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge and one of the study’s principal investigators, in a release. “The decreased emissions and reduced resource requirements to produce beef over the past few decades, due in part to enhanced production and feed efficiencies, crop yields and management practices, wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for investments in research and development, and the industry’s ability to adopt those technologies.”

How does this compare to other industries? Well, Canada’s contribution to the United Nations’ National Inventory Submissions, reported that roughly 8.3% of the GHG production in this country stems from agriculture as a whole, with 4.6% as a result of both enteric fermentation and manure management.

Globally, the numbers are staggered.

A 2010 report by the United Nations pegged agriculture as responsible for 14% of global GHGs, while other studies have argued animal agriculture alone contributes anywhere between 10% and 51% (it’s no wonder environmentally-conscious, yet omnivorous, consumers aren’t sure what to do).

The vast range of numbers are often disputed based on how the calculations are made. Is transportation accounted for, and if so, is it accounted for in every other industry being assessed? Is CO2 respired by the cattle included, and if so, is its use by forage species accounted for as well? Is deforestation included? If so, is range improvement under livestock presence also considered?

“Unfortunately, perceived concerns of negative environmental impacts of beef often overshadow the beneficial impacts of the beef industry,” said Tim Oleksyn, a Saskatchewan cow-calf producer and chair of the BCRC. “Beef producers are inherently motivated to be more efficient, which most often has social, economic and environmental benefits. Now that we have resource use and GHG emission benchmarks, we can move forward as an industry and more strategically target our efforts to improve.”

Future phases of the industry environmental footprint study will evaluate water use, biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services. The results from these phases are expected to be published in 2018.

The study: Greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian beef production in 1981 as compared with 2011

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