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Justifying Livestock

Every so often some research findings come along that cause an “aha” moment.

An “aha” moment is not to be confused with a “eureka” moment, which is derived from the Greek expression “I have found it,” and denotes the discovery of something new and unique – like what Archimedes reportedly uttered in the 17th century when he hit upon a method of determining the purity of gold.

An “aha” moment is when we learn something about how things work that we didn’t know before, like how bees make honey, how nutrients function in the soil, or how to program the Blu-ray DVD.

When it comes to agricultural research, both are of equal importance. However, in the interests of budgetary constraints and the need to produce practical results, research priorities of late have leaned towards the “aha” rather than “eureka.”

What’s often missing from this, however, is context. Too often, the results of modern research projects are viewed in isolation from two key contexts, those of time and place. Modern agriculture is rife with examples of where that has led us astray.

A seminar hosted last week by the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE) delved into this realm with assistance from Henry Janzen, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge.

The topic was whether livestock is a help or a hindrance in renewing the Earth, but the discussion reached far beyond those boundaries.

For his part, Janzen presented the case that livestock are part of an “ancient contract” between humans and animals from which both have mutually benefited. They also play a key role as nutrient recyclers at a time when critical nutrients for food production are becoming scarce.

That said, he openly wonders whether relationship has taken a wrong turn in recent times as the livestock industry has intensified and severed its links to the land.

“The place of livestock is best examined from the vantage of land,” he says. “Livestock’s highest merit, it’s strongest justification, is its value in preserving and stewarding the land.”

In fact all of the problems, both real and perceived, assigned to modern livestock production relate to that severed relationship.

Specifically, modern practices have led to a distortion in the nitrogen and phosphorus equilibrium, turning key plant-growth nutrients into pollutants by concentrating them and releasing them in the wrong places.

For example, studies have found that two-thirds of the nitrogen contained in the feed in a typical feedlot is lost to the atmosphere as ammonia gas.

Meanwhile, 80 per cent of the nitrogen consumed by grazing stock is returned to the ground in the form of manure.

Neither bits of research conclusively settle the debate, although they are sometimes presented as such. They are pieces of information that can contribute to a better understanding of the whole system. But increasingly, policies and decisions are made by looking at the system as an assembly of parts.

“Are we becoming more expert at smaller and smaller pieces?” he asks.

Janzen said rebuilding the positive relationship between livestock and the environment will require research that moves away from linear thinking – such as how to make feed systems more efficient, manure management less harmful, or how to make crops yield more – to a more holistic approach that is less about data and more about vision.

This would allow for values that aren’t easily measured to enter the discussion, such as the value of seeing meadowlarks in the pasture, or baby calves in the spring, or young people returning to the farm.

Janzen said when he envisages what farming systems should look like in the future, he comes up with a set of attributes or guiding principles – rather than a model that can be universally applied. The system must be “prudently productive,” and capable of regenerating its environment in a loop rather than importing inputs and exporting outputs. It would be resilient, diverse and appealing to farmers, consumers and researchers. And it would need to be ethical. “It needs to be fair, not only in our own time, but across time.”

However, he warned that determining those outcomes requires engaging in a broader debate with the rest of society over non-scientific issues such as values and trade-offs.

Janzen is calling for an “aha” studies of how things work, but in the broader contexts of place and time. He stressed the same model won’t work in all places and at all times.

Janzen’s questioning and challenging presentation set the stage for a discussion among the 100 or so diverse perspectives in the room that was remarkably free of ideology, rhetoric and name calling.

Perhaps the most important role for NCLE is not to provide us with answers relating to livestock and the environment, but rather, helping farming and the rest of society connect the dots as to what questions should be asked. [email protected]

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