Reporting on what matters – the need for balance in the livestock sector
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
A statement many people in the agriculture sector have heard a lot in recent years is “you have to tell your story, or someone will tell it for you.”
When it comes to climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the environment, the livestock story is definitely being told – but much as they might try, it’s not by the industry itself.
The frequency of media articles pointing the finger squarely at livestock when it comes to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions with headlines like “Cows are the new coal” is increasing and that coverage is far from balanced. In fact, much of it suggests the solution is minimizing or even getting rid of livestock production altogether.
There’s no doubt that livestock production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, but it also produces highly nutritious food and supports carbon sequestration and biodiversity – and its by-products are widely used in many products, industries, and regions around the world.
The industry has definitely made environmental progress and individual sectors are trying hard to publicize that progress and tell the livestock sustainability story, but like with so many issues, it’s hard for good news to grab a fair share of media, government or public attention.
Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC) has begun promoting the need for a balanced look at the livestock industry as a whole to underline its importance to Ontario’s food security, environment and economy, and documenting and sharing that information.
That’s particularly important today, believes LRIC CEO Mike McMorris, because although livestock farmers see themselves as beef, chicken or dairy farmers, the broader public doesn’t make that distinction by commodity.
“Issues like climate change or greenhouse gas emissions impact the entire sector and are bigger than a single commodity organization - and we need to remember that the public doesn’t see us the way we do,” McMorris says, adding that’s why LRIC has been spearheading greater collaboration across the industry to encourage a livestock approach.
Ian Ross, President and CEO of nutrition company Grand Valley Fortifiers, also believes it’s time for more unified, balanced messaging. As Chair of LRIC’s Emerging Issues Committee, he’s tasked with keeping an eye out for trends and developments that have the potential to impact the future of the entire livestock sector.
“As an industry, we need to work together, stop competing with each other on protein consumption and talk about the importance of livestock in the ecosystem and in the context of food security,” he says. “We have common business and industry risks, and there are a lot of major forces at play here that are moving against all of us, so let’s work on those challenges together.”
And that includes looking before and beyond the farm gate. For example, what livestock and poultry are fed plays a critical role in the industry’s carbon footprint, making the feed and nutrition sector a key part of any impactful solutions.
With the input of its member organizations, LRIC has been leading the development of an Ontario Livestock Declaration that could serve as a unifying rallying cry to greater collaboration and more cohesive messaging around the important role of the livestock sector to the environment, the economy and society as a whole.
A balanced message about the sustainability of the livestock sector could include items like greenhouse gas emissions per serving of balanced protein; responsible animal care and One Health considerations; impact on soil health, biodiversity, and the environment; and domestic food security, to name just a few.
Reporting on improvements the sector has made or is continuing to make in these areas will play an important role in supporting that balanced messaging. Many individual sectors are already being proactive in dealing with many of these topics and are individually reporting on them, but the key to making the results resonate will lie with a collective approach, believes McMorris.
“A comprehensive livestock report card of sorts, which pulls together all of our sector-specific information and achievements into easy-to-understand statements of the industry’s importance and of the progress we’re making in sustainability would be powerful,” he says.
That includes to government, which both McMorris and Ross suggest needs to know that the livestock sector is a vital contributor to the economy and domestic food production while taking action on environmental issues.
“A lot of one-sided science is trying to indicate that the best thing for the world is to get rid of all livestock, but there is collateral damage when things aren’t thought through,” Ross says. “There is no way that any individual producers or sectors for that matter can influence this, so let’s work together to communicate the importance of our industry.”