Cattle producers and conservationists need to team up to defeat the perception beef is bad for the environment.
Unless they do so, both sides risk losing ground.
Why it matters: The conservation community and the cattle sector in Canada must put their differences aside and start telling consumers about the environmental benefits of eating beef.
That’s a plea coming from speakers from both sides of the fence during a species-at-risk convention in Winnipeg last week.
The need is becoming ever more urgent to put their differences behind them, said a beef producer from the Poverty Plains region of southwestern Manitoba who spoke at the convention.
Curtis Gervin, whose farm is near Broomhill, said he heard that loud and clear a month ago listening to newscasts about the new updated Canada’s Food Guide.
“We’ve got to do a way better job of communicating to the 99 per cent of people in this country who have no idea of the work that everybody in this room does,” he said.
“We’ve got a big problem right now. Just a month ago this went all through the news cycle… that ‘if you want a diet that saves the planet, eat beans, and don’t eat beef.’”
What that ignores is that grazing lands are a substantial portion of the habitat for many species, some at significant risk. It’s here the common ground could be found, but it’s going to require some movement on both ends of the debate.
The theme of the three-day Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg was ‘working landscapes.’ Gervin told his audience a cattle producer like himself views a working landscape somewhat differently than a wildlife biologist.
“To me it’s much more than a piece of grassland pasture with the wildlife on it,” he said. “It’s a complex chain of people, and we have to complete an entire cycle. I have to fund my operation somehow, and this cycle is not complete until that consumer walks by and picks my product off the shelf.
“That’s what’s funding the grasslands. When that transaction doesn’t take place, we have to wait for the next consumer to come.”
And if — or when — that wait gets longer, what’s hanging in the balance is producers’ ability to make a living. And fewer cows mean more shrinkage of Canada’s rangeland.
Even so, the level of antagonism between producers and industry and the conservation movement persists. Gervin likens it to a standoff.
“There’s been a lot of years where we’ve stared at each other and nobody’s trusted the other,” he told a standing-room-only audience of wildlife biologists, research scientists, and academics standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers and industry and community leaders.
“I’ve looked at you and said, ‘I think you’re just trying to steal my land. And you’ve looked at me and said, ‘I think you’re trying to ruin the land.’”
Tim Sopuck, CEO for Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, another speaker at the event, sees the problem from the other side of the fence.
Knowing what happens to land when it goes from cattle production to annual crop production, conservationists seem to appreciate that, at all scales, few strategic relationships are as important as the one developed with the cattle industry, he said.
But those in the conservation sector haven’t done a very good job of it, according to Sopuck.
It really boils down to what’s historically been offered to this critical strategic partner by the conservation movement, he said.
“What do we really offer?” he asked. There are, of course, lots of strategic plans for preserving grasslands, and then there are incentive programs funded with conservation dollars. But the benefits of these tend to accrue to individuals, not the industry as a whole, he said.
“And I think our words of support are mainly amongst ourselves and in meeting rooms,” he said.
“At the marketplace level, or in the marketplace of ideas, we really haven’t had an impact.”
To change that, the work ahead for the conservation community is to start asking, ‘what can we do and what can we say to advance the interests of your industry?’” he said. And to offer support to the sector “without precondition,” he stressed.
“What the industry often hears from us is that, ‘we’d be 100 per cent behind you if only you could… insert any number of phrases… just graze a little better, or if you’d only just let us tell you how to graze a little better.”
What conservationists instead need to do is become much more vocal and to make clear and unambiguous statements in support of the industry.
“We need to defend and advocate for beef,” he said. “And it needs to occur at many levels. We need to say that beef coming off the Northern Great Plains is an environmental choice product.
Gervin said what’s also needed is more investment and effort going into prioritizing keeping land in grass and developing grazing programs that benefit everyone.
The added urgency to all of this is the generational change looming, and vast amounts of privately owned rangeland soon to change hands, he said.
The beef industry contributes 68 per cent of the potential wildlife habitat on 33 per cent of total agricultural landscapes, and all of it is due to the high proportion of grassland, native and tame pastures these producers raise beef on.
“I’m 52 years old, but I’m one of the young ones right now,” he said. “Go to an auction mart and there are people 75 years old actively still doing this. In the next 10 years they won’t be.
“There is going to have to be a lot of creative solutions in the next little while.”
Gervin Stock Farms, which supports six of Manitoba’s most threatened grassland bird species at risk lies in the epicentre of some of the remaining tracts of habitat-imperiled grassland bird species in North America.
This is a part of Manitoba with producers actively engaged in the Species At Risk Partnership in Agricultural Lands program as well as other conservation programs.
Their own farm has engaged in these programs and has had good experience from these interactions, Gervin said.
Christian Artuso, ornithologist and the Manitoba program manager for Birds Studies Canada also spoke at the convention adding his thoughts on why improving the partnership between cattle ranchers and conservationists is so critical at this juncture.
Socio-economic and market forces are resulting in conversion of grassland to cropland at an alarming rate, he said. A partnership is not only a unique opportunity, but perhaps the only mechanism that’s going to save endangered grassland bird species, Artuso said.
“The last 15 years have been especially brutal,” he said. “Vast quantities of pasture have been converted to cropland.”
The conference attracted more than 300 Canadian research scientists, and conservation, industry and community leaders with presentations made on a range of topics, from the specifics of land and habitat management, restoration and planning, to public engagement, with special emphasis on building partnerships between agriculture and conservationists.
The meeting was co-chaired by Manitoba Sustainable Development and Manitoba Beef Producers.