This week, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) released the findings of the National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy1—a two-year, ‘farm to fork’ study that benchmarks the environmental, social, and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry.

The Assessment also lays out a strategy for the CRSB to advance sustainability efforts in the industry and measure progress going forward. The Assessment is the first of its kind for the Canadian beef industry. It provides a comprehensive picture of the industry’s sustainability performance at the national level, said Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, a rancher from Jumping Pound, Alberta and Chair of the CRSB. “We examined all aspects of the value chain, from farming all the way through to consumption.”

With this science-based information, the industry will be able to communicate more effectively with partners, stakeholders, and the public. Looking forward, the Sustainability Strategy will help ensure the CRSB can focus its efforts in the most appropriate areas.

Standard environmental life cycle topics, such as climate change, fossil fuel use, water use, and air and land pollution potentials were examined in the Assessment, along with new areas including biodiversity and carbon storage. The Assessment also covered a broad range of social life cycle topics, including animal health and welfare and antimicrobial use, and economic sustainability from a producer viability and consumer resiliency point of view.

 “The results reflect positively on the Canadian beef industry,” noted Fawn Jackson, Executive Director of the CRSB. “However, there are still opportunities for improvement, as well as areas in which industry wants to continue to excel, which is why the National Beef Sustainability Strategy was created.”

The National Beef Sustainability Assessment was conducted by two consulting firms—Deloitte (environmental and social assessments) and Canfax Research Services (economic assessment). The process and data collected followed international best practices and guidelines, and was reviewed by a third-party panel of experts.

The Sustainability Strategy identifies goals, key performance indicators, and action items for the CRSB to help advance continuous improvement in sustainability. The goals set forth in the Sustainability Strategy and the benchmarks from the Assessment will be reviewed approximately every five years going forward, both to evaluate industry’s progress over time and to update according to new information as it becomes available. 

Snapshot of Results

Environment

Canada is a very efficient beef producer in regards to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with a total footprint of 11.4 kg CO2 eq. per kg of live weight. From a value chain perspective, the farming stage accounts for 74% of the industry’s GHG footprint, followed by consumption (10%); processing (6%); retail and transportation (4% each); and packing (1%).

Approximately 19% of edible bone free meat is wasted from secondary processing through to consumption because of trimming, spillage, discardment of expired meat, and other reasons.

Land used for beef production accounts for 33% of agricultural land and 68% of the potential wildlife habitat on the agricultural landscape. This land also currently stores approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon.

The blue water footprint of Canadian beef is 235 litres per kilogram of live weight, relatively low due to low rates of irrigation on feed and the presence of highly efficient systems. From a value chain perspective, the farming stage accounts for 74% of the industry’s blue water footprint, followed by consumption (10%); processing (6%); retail and transportation (4% each); and packing (2%).

Social

Industry scored well on the social impacts related to working conditions and very well on the animal health and welfare indicators.

Antimicrobial misuse was found to be a low risk in Canada due to the uptake of best management practices, training, and measuring and monitoring.

Economic

The beef industry is characterized by small margins at every production stage. In 2013, cow-calf enterprises covered short-term (i.e., cash costs) and medium-term (i.e., including depreciation) costs. Three of the four typical farms also covered long-term costs (i.e., including opportunity costs). In this case, opportunity costs largely represent unpaid labour.

Average long-term margins for a 200 head cow-herd provides an annual income of $17,559. Between 74% and 85% of cow/calf operations rely on off-farm income.

The ability of the industry to distinguish between trends and fads as well as respond to consumer demands were identified as important to the economic sustainability of the beef industry.

 

Quotes

“It is important to have a balanced approach when assessing the beef industry’s environmental performance, understanding both the impacts and the benefits. I feel like we achieved that balance with this study because we examined a very broad range of indicators. This study is grounded in science—we made sure the best data and methods were used—and the third-party review also lends additional credibility.”

Dr. Tim McAllister, Principal Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 

“This study was truly a multi-stakeholder, collaborative effort. It turned out to be a complex task, and one that would require the commitment and expertise of many stakeholders. I would like to recognize the steering committee, scientific and industry experts, Deloitte and Canfax teams, producers who completed the surveys, and others who put in countless volunteer hours, ensuring this study was as robust and comprehensive as possible. It shows the commitment of the industry to working together and how we are taking important steps towards the long term sustainability of the beef industry.”

Tom Lynch-Staunton, Issues Manager, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Chair of the Steering Committee tasked with overseeing the study

“The ABMI was pleased to participate on the steering committee and provide scientific advice in this ground-breaking initiative. The study undertook important research to better understand the relationship between beef production and biodiversity. Continued research in this area will improve the understanding of this relationship, as well as enable the further improvement of assessment methods and the implementation of sustainable management actions.”

Dr. Dan Farr, formerly Applications Director, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute

 “The social life cycle assessment results highlight the excellent practices being implemented by the Canadian beef industry. Working conditions, animal health and welfare, and antimicrobial use are all important topics for the industry. We are very proud of the results. Now we have the information we need to make further improvements and we can focus on implementing the Sustainability Strategy.“ 

Rich Smith, Executive Director, Alberta Beef Producers

“There is great diversity in the beef sector with a wide range between the high cost and low cost producers. There is no one right way. You can have low per unit costs and be profitable with high cash cost, due to the environment one lives in, with corresponding high productivity. Also you may focus on reducing cash costs if you are in a low productivity environment. We also know that there are times in the cattle cycle when margins are negative. Producers need access to risk management tools to navigate those years.”

Brenna Grant, Manager, Canfax Research Services