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Editorial: Who needs convincing?

Maybe it’s just a guilty pleasure or maybe you can justify it by saying it’s good mental exercise, but one way or another I confess — I watch “Jeopardy.” One of the benefits of being semi-retired is that you can be home to watch it at 4:30. Considering the U.S. drug commercials (with their terrifying “Do not take if…” and “may cause…” warnings) that come on at that time of day, it seems the advertisers assume that most of the viewers are retired seniors.

But there are no “may cause…” warnings for some other commercials on at that time of day, which are for fast-food offerings for meat in gigantic quantities that would probably constitute an entire senior’s daily calorie requirement in a single serving. Ironically, consuming too many of them was one of the reasons for needing the drugs pitched in those other commercials. Then there are the ones for antacids — sometimes set in fast-food joints — not to mention the ones for weight-loss surgery, with the before-and-after visuals that make you reach for the channel-change button.

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So while those commercials might be good for short-term sales of the fast-food company, they’re a mixed message at best for the long-term health of the entire meat industry, and especially for the beef industry. Advertising that associates beef consumption with excess is one of the reasons it continues to be beat up unfairly, and we saw more examples of that in two news items that arrived in the daily science news release package last week.

One was from the Weizmann Institute of Science, citing Canadian research on the food “waste” associated with using land to produce crops instead of beef. It claimed that instead of producing four grams of protein from beef on a given land area, you could produce 96 grams from a theoretical combination of soya, potatoes, cane sugar, peanuts and garlic.

Based on the first two and the amount of topsoil in the ditches next to last year’s soybean fields these days, this doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for soil health and long-term food security.

A more reasoned approach came from a release on a major study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The study emphasized the urgent need for improved soil conservation and increased biodiversity to ensure food security. We first learned of it in an international news story from The Guardian, which said the study called for “companies and governments to rein in excessive consumption — particularly of beef.”

But a search of the report reveals that while there is a reference to “high-consumption lifestyles,” neither beef nor meat are mentioned and in fact many of the recommendations refer to excessive cultivation and the need for pasture land and wetland restoration. If you had to sum up this report in one short sentence, it would be “less cropland, more pasture.”

Which is exactly the message that we’re printing in the Manitoba Co-operator every week. Sometimes it comes from cow-calf producers or researchers who say it directly. Sometimes it comes indirectly from all the stories about herbicide resistance, or canola disease, or excess drainage, or habitat loss, or sequestering greenhouse gas or the photos of “snirt” in the ditches. There is simply no way out of these problems other than putting more forages back in the rotation. That means more cattle and sheep, but feeding them on grass rather than grain.

No, you can’t produce as many pounds on grass as in a feedlot, but as those commercials to unhealthy seniors emphasize, we in North America need to eat less meat of any kind grown on the product of a corn/soy rotation.

As for that often-repeated need to feed a growing world population, remember that it’s partly based on the projection that the rest of the world will start eating as much meat as North Americans. Given that the FAO reports that in 2014 there were more than 1.9 billion overweight and 462 million underweight adults worldwide, this may not be a trend we should encourage. But if we really need to feed the world with more calories and protein, then the authors of the “waste” report have a point — there are much more efficient ways of doing that than by feeding crops to livestock.

It’s clear from the IPBES report that if every country doesn’t start doing something about the calamitous problem of soil erosion, we’re really going to have a problem no matter what else we do with plant breeding or crop management technology. That means taking land that should never have been put into crops in the first place and putting it back into grass, as well as including more forage in crop-land rotations. The cattle industry has put a lot of effort into convincing consumers of the virtues of the grass/cattle combination.

John Morriss is the former editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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