Livestock, climate and a context embargo
By Mike McMorris, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
I recently heard the phrase “we are living under a context embargo” and thought it was a great way to summarize the current desire by many to focus like a laser but at the expense of understanding the bigger picture. Unfortunately, those that try to bring attention to the bigger picture are often vilified and found guilty of not agreeing with a particular point of view. If you need proof of this, visit Twitter.
Context is key to driving successful change. Making a plan for change should always have clarity and agreement on the three elements of context: where we are, where we need to go, and how we will get there. One important topic receiving a great deal of focus now is climate change. For sure we need to act now to ensure a healthy planet for future generations, but the approaches being discussed and even now taken around decarbonization of agriculture often lack context.
Where are we now?
Anyone following the discussion about decarbonization of agriculture is most likely confused with the variety of conflicting numbers used to define the impact of livestock agriculture (greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product). World level numbers are often used that, though accurate, are about double that of North American livestock production. Canadian livestock producers can and will lessen their carbon footprint, but we all need to be clear on the Canadian starting point. Actually, we need much more specific data on production by sector and production type in Ontario.
Where are we going?
This may be the hardest of the three questions to answer. It is very broad in scope and so answering it involves a lot of people and requires open minds and patience. The only answer to this question that is absolutely wrong is that we will stay where we are. The livestock sector itself should work together to lead the development of a vision for livestock in Ontario. A good starting point is to declare that the sector is key to the economy, environment and food security and that parties will work to innovate and grow the sector in a sustainable way.
Without an industry-led vision, others are stepping up to create one for the industry. A recent article prepared by the World Economic Forum (July 2022) is quite clear that alternate proteins are the way forward.
Read another way, their future does not include livestock: “Reducing animal agriculture in the food value chain is an exceptionally high-impact solution to the global climate crisis.” Alternate protein production will evolve and will be an option for consumers, but many are still facing significant technical challenges with respect to mass production.
Of interest, the article provides a graphic that compares the “impact of capital employed” to various sectors. The conclusion is that, considering economic and individual trade-offs for consumers, eating alternate proteins is relatively small compared to retrofitting their house or reducing their travel by plane. Note that there is no mention of the economic and individual trade-off to be made by farmers.
How will we get there?
This is where headlines are made. The question of “how?” is often answered without the benefit of clear answers to questions one and two. Policy makers are now highly focused on decarbonization, including agriculture. It appears that livestock production is an easy target. For example, look to the Dutch government’s policy that would lead to significant reduction in livestock numbers. We face similar danger of ill-informed and unbalanced policy in Canada. This is a key point in time for Canadian farmers because the next policy framework is being developed. That policy framework will drive programs and have impact on all farmers for the next five years.
We need to make up for lost time in documenting where we are today. Industry needs to then lead the development of a vision for the future. That vision must be balanced and take into consideration many factors along with decarbonization such as soil health, food security, farm prosperity, etc. Then we can answer the question of how to get there.
Big changes are ahead for farmers. Successfully implementing those changes will require additional investment in research and innovation, programs to help farmers make change and an effective system of getting research into practice.