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Take a deeper dive into beef sustainability

If you still watch TV, you can hardly change the channel without seeing McDonald’s sustainable beef ads, or A&W grass-fed beef promotions.

But what is sustainable beef all about?

I had the chance to learn about it recently, interviewing more than 30 ranchers and university chefs across Canada (including chefs at the universities of Guelph, Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier) who are committed to sustainable beef.

The chefs like beef’s versatility and affordability, and of course, its taste. Beef cattle are huge and yield many cuts. Some of these cuts are high priced. But many others, like the ones I wrote about – flank steak, beef chuck, outside flat or inside round roast, among others – are surprisingly affordable and tasty, especially when marinated for several hours or overnight, and cooked properly (i.e., slowly).

The ranchers who raise the beef told me about their efforts to be even more sustainable than they already are. Some have a wee bit of resentment in their voices when sustainability is raised – after all, they say, how could their beef operations have survived for generations if they didn’t farm sustainably?

But they understand sustainability is a consumer imperative, and once they get on a roll talking about their farming and ranching practices, their passion is clear.

First, it’s important to know cattle producers have put their heads together for something they call the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (the “roundtable” part of the name is to signify an idea exchange, where multi-stakeholder participants sit across the table from each other and share information). This initiative promotes beef sustainability through benchmarking the environmental, social and economic performance of the cattle producers.

Through the roundtable, the Certified Sustainable Beef Framework has been developed. It’s the foundation for the McDonald’s program, based on independent on-site certification for sustainability.

About 1,300 beef producers across Canada participate in a quality assurance program called Verified Beef Production Plus. On those farms, animal health and welfare activities related to food safety, animal care, environmental stewardship and biosecurity are recorded and verified by independent auditors.

Some of their stewardship efforts involve their land more than their livestock. The thinking here is that if the soil is healthy, it grows better pasture and grazing grass. And given that cattle are ruminants and turn grass into energy, better pasture means healthier animals, fewer veterinary bills and all-around better beef.

Soil improvement is a big part of a sustainability movement called regenerative agriculture. It’s based on enriching the soil with beneficial bacteria and microorganisms and putting carbon back into the soil. One of the cattle producers I interviewed moves his cattle five times a day to new pastures to keep the grass and soil from getting worn out.

It’s important to remember that profitability is an important part of sustainability, too.  For efficiency, one beef producer told me about how he and others are feeding their animals a diet that includes about 20 per cent brewers’ grain mash from beer production. He gets his from Molson, in London.

Normally, this mash would be considered waste and shipped to landfills. But it’s an easy grain source for animals to digest, and cattle love it. Plus, it saves about 30 per cent in feed costs, and helps producers do their part to keep the price of food in line.

The beef industry has its work cut out for it, trying to convince people it is indeed sustainable. It has champions in McDonald’s and A&W, whose futures likewise depend on consumer acceptance of production techniques, and in clearly providing consumers with information they can believe.

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