The hamburger looked like any other fast-food burger: one patty on a bun, topped with ketchup, onions and pickles. It cost $4.15 and was served in a brown paper pouch, on a plastic tray. The one clue that it might be different from other burgers were the words on the packaging: “Beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids.”
“Do people ask about the beef?” I ask the young woman behind the counter, pointing at the poster beside the menu featuring a picture of cows.
“Yes,” she says. Unprompted she adds, “I don’t eat meat, but I eat these burgers. You can taste the difference.” At least that’s what her employer, A&W Canada, is hoping. In September 2013 the Canadian chain with more than 800 franchise locations across the country announced they would only sell what they call “better beef.” That’s meat from calves raised without the hormone implant that most cattle in Canada receive early in their lives. The company’s decision came after retail powerhouse Loblaw Canada launched a line of meat products in 2007 that they branded “Free From”—meat, including beef, raised without antibiotics and hormones. These corporate decisions were some of the early signs that something was changing in the Canadian meat industry. Then last year, the biggest food service buyer of ground beef in Canada, McDonald’s, made their own announcement. By 2016 its beef supply will be “sustainable,” as defined by the company.
In recent years the impact of the way we raise livestock has come under growing scrutiny, and the fact that we eat so much meat adds to the pressure. When we bring together a large number of animals—be it hogs, chickens or cows—we create consequences. For one, the animals generate an enormous amount of manure that causes a number of problems, including polluted water and air. The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control have pointed out public health concerns with grouping large numbers of animals, particularly when they’re routinely fed antibiotics.
There are other environmental impacts too. In some countries forests are cleared for grazing lands, and then there’s all the farmland that’s used to grow feed, and the irrigation and fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers that feed-crop production requires. Then there’s the climate impact. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 14.5 per cent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the global livestock industry. Beef in particular has been getting a bad rap. Cattle raised for both dairy and beef generate 61 per cent of all livestock emissions—more than other farm animals, such as pigs and chickens.
At the same time, the rise of the local food movement has spurred a widening awareness about where food comes from. An increasing number of Canadians are paying closer attention not only to the origin of their food, but also to what’s in it. A&W Canada found that people were most concerned about whether their beef was raised with hormones and, to a lesser extent, steroids and antibiotics. “[Hormone-free beef] was considered for a very long time to be a niche market,” says Trish Sahlstrom, A&W vice-president of purchasing and distribution. “It was interesting for us to see how that has expanded in terms of consumer desire.”
The consumer increasingly wants something better. Now different players, from corporations to farmers to consumers who care about their food, are jostling to define what kind of beef is truly better—beef that is good for our health and for the environment. Beef that can be legitimately labelled as “sustainable.”
The stakes are high. The global market for meat is enormous and growing, particularly in China and India. The same UN document estimates that by 2050, global demand could double. Which is why a standoff is brewing between a beef industry that wants to define what makes for sustainable beef and those who have a different definition of sustainability. The debate—in which scientific studies and data of all sorts are being flung like snowballs across opposing lines—is just beginning. With 40 per cent of the country’s beef cattle herd in Alberta alone, supplying not only Canadians but the rest of the world, whatever “sustainable” beef ends up meaning, it will have an impact here.
The meat industry is changing. Canada’s biggest buyer of ground beef, McDonald’s says that by 2016 its beef will be “sustainable.”
When A&W first announced their plans to switch to so-called “better beef,” ranchers here were outraged. In the fall of 2013, Rich Smith of the Alberta Beef Producers expressed his dismay about the way the company was describing their new product. “We don’t think it’s better beef. We think it’s beef from cattle that are raised differently than the vast majority of cattle in Canada and the US,” Smith told CBC Edmonton.
This parsing is characteristic of the debate. In the fall of 2014, Cargill (a US multinational that deals in much of the world’s meat supply), Tyson Foods Inc. and Walmart teamed up with other beef producers, processors and retailers as well as some groups from civil society to form an alliance they called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Their stated mission was “to advance continuous improvement in global beef value chain sustainability.”
When they released their principles and criteria, their definition of sustainability—beef that is “environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable”—came under scrutiny. A group of non-governmental organizations, claiming to represent millions of constituents in public health, environmental action, animal welfare, workers rights and consumer advocacy, cited “fundamental flaws” in the definition. At issue was not only a failure to deal with industry overuse of antibiotics, but also what they saw as a lack of meaningful standards for environmental protocols, animal welfare and workers rights. They wrote that unless the Roundtable addressed the flaws, “…the document will represent nothing more than an industry-led attempt to greenwash conventional beef production at a time when real, measurable and verifiable change is so desperately needed.”
Cattle’s disproportionate contribution to climate change is perhaps the best example of why the beef industry is so ripe for criticism. Cows emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases because of the way they digest their food. We can’t eat the grass that cows munch on, because humans are unable to digest cellulose. But cows have a rumen that lets them turn the solar energy that plants capture through photosynthesis into feed for their bodies, which we turn into hamburger. When the cows digest the cellulose, they belch methane. Methane happens to be one of the more potent greenhouse gases—25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other ruminants such as sheep and goats do the same thing; it’s just that cows are big (and plentiful) and so they release a lot more.
But not all beef is created equal. Depending on what you feed a cow, it will produce more, or less, methane. And what a cow eats depends on what kind of farm it is raised on. So it is the farm that has become the focus of the debate about what makes for more sustainable beef.
For more than a century in Alberta, large herds were kept on the open prairie in a way that mimicked how wild herds of ruminants graze the land. Today the calves that will be fattened up and turned into steaks and roasts are sold at auction every fall and trucked to a feedlot. Almost 70 per cent of the country’s feedlots are in Alberta.
A feedlot specializes in grouping thousands of animals to feed them so they reach a marketable weight as quickly as possible, at a certain economy of scale. The first feedlots were opened in Alberta after the Second World War, when agriculture as a whole was being industrialized. These operations have since become the hallmark of industrial beef production—and are notorious, particularly in the US, where there can be tens of thousands of cows on one feedlot. Animal welfare activists and environmentalists have sneaked into confined animal feedlot operations to film labour abuses and animal rights violations and expose what they see as the dark side of the industry. As a result, some states have passed legislation, dubbed ag-gag laws, that makes it illegal for someone to film such undercover videos.
Bryan Thiessen is a third-generation farmer who runs a feedlot near Calgary. He raises 26,000 cattle at a time, which he then sells into the global supply chain through the big brands that are part of the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef: Cargill, JBS and Tyson.
“A lot of people think we’re evil corporations. But the reality is that if the cattle aren’t comfortable, they don’t perform and I’d go bankrupt,” he says. “A relaxed, happy animal is going to perform better.”
The way Thiessen raises his cows is typical of how most beef cattle are farmed in Canada. He keeps his cows in open pens, sheltered by a wind fence. Before they arrive on his farm, the bull calves have been castrated (which mutes the males’ aggression and prevents unplanned pregnancies on the farm). Thiessen’s animals arrive with a hormone implanted in their ear to supplement their growth. The animals are then fed barley silage with some antibiotic mixed in. In comparison, the so-called “grass-finished beef” that you find at a specialty butcher is from an animal that ate only grass. These cows likely haven’t lived on a feedlot. However, cows raised without hormones or antibiotics—similar to the beef A&W Canada buys—are often finished on a feedlot, just without the medications.
According to Reynold Bergen of the industry-led Beef Cattle Research Council, calves are given antibiotics on a feedlot to keep them from getting sick. The animals get a shot when they first arrive and are penned with animals from other farms. “It’s sort of the same as when your kids go to daycare and they are exposed to other kids carrying bugs,” he says. “When they go to a feedlot and meet other cows, they get sick.” Antibiotics in the feed also help cows that are accustomed to feeding mostly on grass to digest grain without getting stomach troubles, he adds. The antibiotics also make the animals grow faster.
In response to criticism of feedlots, an effort has been made to rehabilitate this way of farming in the eyes of the public. In a YouTube video, a McDonald’s VP stands with a farmer in an Alberta feedlot in a seeming attempt to show the consumer that feedlots don’t look bad. Part of the push to rehabilitate the feedlot is to argue that this kind of farm is in fact the most sustainable way to raise beef to feed growing global demand. Proponents say a feedlot is the most efficient at turning feed into protein. A cow here can get to market weight more quickly than a grass-fed cow and be slaughtered sooner, thereby releasing less methane.
“Part of the reason cattle grow more efficiently in feedlots is because they eat more grain and less forage,” says Bergen.
A new industry group called the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (members include Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Loblaws, McDonald’s, Walmart, Royal Bank of Canada and some two dozen others) is conducting an environmental assessment of the Canadian beef industry. Their project description sums up their motivation: “Sustainability and proof of sustainability is rapidly becoming an expectation of modern production systems,” it reads. The group has hired the multinational firm Deloitte to undertake an analysis of the environmental and social impacts, and benefits, of the Canadian cattle industry. Results are expected sometime in 2016.
I ask Thiessen if, from his vantage, he thinks the Canadian beef industry is sustainable. “When you take the cattle to the feedlot, it helps bring economies of scale. You can feed the cattle more efficiently,” he says. “If we can fatten them up faster, if we can make the cattle more efficient, our carbon footprint goes down.”
This is a claim that Karen Beauchemin, a scientist with Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, spends her days thinking about. “There are many differences between beef production systems in Canada,” she says. “When you feed grain to an animal, a lot less methane is produced in the rumen.” This is because grass is more fibrous than grain and therefore spends more time in the rumen, where it ferments and generates methane. “It goes against common wisdom,” she says. “[But] it’s the biology.”
Beauchemin made these calculations as lead author on a study that looked at the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle, from birth until slaughter, comparing the impact of different types of feed. The scientific method she and her team used to make this comparison is a technique growing in popularity called a life-cycle assessment that tallies the environmental costs of a product or a service, taking into account all the inputs. To get a clear picture of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a feedlot cow in Alberta, they counted everything from the methane a cow’s mother produces before her calf is born, to the fossil fuels used to grow the grain silage cows eat on the feedlot, to the nitrous oxide emissions from its manure—the environmental cost of each stage of the production cycle. One of the study’s conclusions was that the grass-eating stage releases the most methane in the entire beef-production system.
Proponents of feedlots will stop here, arguing that this alone is proof that a feedlot is in fact more sustainable than pasturing cows. Grass equals emissions. But it’s not that simple, says Beauchemin.
Feedlot advocates ignore the other benefits of grass. “Yes, there are advantages to feedlots, but [other] environmental impacts need to be considered,” she says. What the life cycle assessment did not factor in was all the good that those grassy pastures do for the earth. Grasslands help combat climate change by sequestering in the soil the atmospheric carbon that would otherwise add to warming. The fields that feed a grass-fed cow also provide habitat for wildlife, stop soil erosion and play a role in a watershed. “You are not going to see burrowing owls resting in a cornfield,” says Beauchemin.
“Sustainability is very place-based,” she adds. “It is very much defined by location. In Canada, we are graced with a large land base, and a lot of that land can’t be used to grow grain to feed people.” But the grass can feed the cows, which can then feed us. The takeaway from the study, she says, is that raising beef on well-managed pasture can be sustainable. Beauchemin and her colleagues have embarked on other studies to further delve into this question using life-cycle assessment. They will refine their analysis by considering other factors such as how much water is used and how much fossil fuel energy goes into producing beef in different farming systems, as well as the economic benefits.
Also, Beauchemin is hopeful that research into how to reduce enteric methane, through changing the bacterial content of a cow’s stomach, might help minimize emissions. “I view beef as a luxury,” she says. “I am very conscious when I buy meat that there is an environmental impact to growing animals.”
Standards must be enforced by an arm’s-length, third-party organization so industry complies.
Even if Beauchemin and her team generate more scientific data that shed light on what makes one kind of beef more sustainable than another, most of us would have a hard time making sense of the results, let alone applying the results to figuring out what to buy at the supermarket. Already the issue is confusing enough for consumers. Hormone-free is not the same as sustainable. Yet some signs advertising the qualities of A&W’s new beef also read “Ethically and Sustainably Farmed.”
Who decides how to translate science into policy? Who decides what makes something sustainable—the beef producers themselves? Government regulates some food standards. For example, organic standards in Canada have been the same across the country since 2009. To be called organic, food has to be verified by an independent organization that is in turn certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Organic beef must be certified in this way. A similar process could be applied to all beef production. It just hasn’t yet—and that’s what all the discussion is about.
While the debate rages on about what constitutes better beef, some Canadians have quietly figured out a way to define sustainable cattle-rearing, and that is to consider the animals as part of a bigger, more holistic picture.
“The cow is just part of a system,” says Rod MacRae, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University who has spent his career consulting governments, business and NGOs on how to create a more sustainable food system. If you understand the role a ruminant animal plays in a system, then you can reduce its environmental burden. “You feed them the things that humans can’t eat,” he says. “You properly manage the rangelands. You optimize soil and health.”
This is already happening on a 2,000-acre ranch north of the Battle River, about 200 km east of Edmonton. There, Sean McGrath and his wife Tanya take care of a few hundred head of cattle. A small but growing part of their business is grass-fed beef. They also custom-graze cattle for other farmers and sell some calves at auction, likely destined for a feedlot. McGrath doesn’t give their animals antibiotics unless they are sick. He doesn’t use growth hormones either, focusing instead on breeding animals that have the genes to grow quickly.
McGrath is a fifth-generation rancher, and the area where he grew up has changed a lot since he was a boy in the 1980s. Whereas it used to be pretty quiet, with little to no industry, today farmers work around the oil wells that dot the landscape, and drive roads busy with oil workers. But the fields where his cows graze haven’t changed in a long time. His farm is part native prairie. That’s grassland that’s been prairie since before Europeans arrived in the area. “It’s never been broken,” he says. It’s also one of the fastest-disappearing ecosystems in the world.
A few years ago McGrath joined a program called the Alternative Land Use Services—better known as ALUS—in which he is paid a small fee by a community-developed farmers group to protect the natural ecosystems on his farm in addition to keeping his cattle. So far he’s fenced off wetlands and riparian areas and planted more than a thousand trees. He also took four acres out of cultivation and reseeded it with carbon-sequestering native prairie grasses. “By me fencing off a wetland, the water-quality improves, there is duck habitat. Wildlife has a refuge—there’s all sorts of uses,” he says. “Not only can I protect and enhance the ecosystem, but I can feed people doing it.” It’s in farms like these that food policy analysts see hope. Not only does McGrath turn the grass we can’t eat into human food, he stewards the environment.
In our search for better beef, we should account for the real costs of meat production. “At present we don’t pay the cost of climate change, soil erosion, water pollution and the public health crisis associated with our diet,” says Evan Fraser, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Human Security at the University of Guelph. Fraser believes change can come if industry is on board. But they can’t just make pledges. He says that any new standards companies agree to must be enforced by an arm’s-length, third-party organization to make sure industry follows through on what it promises.
So far this isn’t happening in the beef debate. Loblaws uses internal inspectors to monitor their “Free From” line, and A&W Canada relies on the farms they buy their meat from. “Which is the weakest of verification systems because there is no third-party oversight,” says MacRae.
Back at the A&W, the man at the next table with a burger on his tray leans over to chat. He tells me his name is David O’Brien and he’s 74 years old. He’s been eating A&W burgers since the 1950s. “I remember when you pulled up at the drive-in and a girl in a short skirt roller skated over to take your order,” he says.
A lot has changed at the A&W since then. Maybe 50 years in the future, today’s feedlot hamburger will seem as outmoded as that girl on roller skates does now.
Sarah Elton is the author of Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet (HarperCollins 2013) and Locavore (Harper Perennial 2011).