Myths hurting beef industry: consultant

20 Jan 2017
Lethbridge Herald
J.W. Schnarr
[email protected]

The disconnect between the agriculture industry and consumers, and the truth behind some of the myths surrounding the beef industry, were explored by guest speaker Jude Capper at this year’s Tiffin Conference.

“( The disconnect) seems to be getting bigger with the rise of media people who like to tell the consumer what they think we do rather than what we actually do,” said Capper.

Capper is an independent Livestock Sustainability Consultant based in Oxfordshire, U.K. Her research focuses on modelling the environmental impact of livestock production systems, specifically dairy and beef — projects include the effect of specific management practices and technology use upon environmental impact.

Some popular media myths explored by Capper include the effectiveness of the “Meatless Monday” campaign; ecological impact of beef production; differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef; the image of the “factory farm” versus the reality; and the perceived dangers of hormones in beef.

“Meatless Monday” as an environmental movement doesn’t have the impact some believe it does, according to Capper.

She said the total carbon footprint from meat in Canada amounts to about 3.9 per cent.

“What that means is if everyone in Canada went meatless every Monday for a whole year, the national carbon footprint would come down less than 0.55 per cent,” she said. And because the meat needs to be replaced with another food, the idea is misleading to the public.

In regards to the ecological impact of beef production, Capper said efficiencies at all levels of production have led to larger yields. Between 1977 and 2007, water use in the U.S. was reduced by 12 per cent, land use reduced by 33 per cent, and carbon footprint by 16 per cent.

“They are all really good gains simply made because they were getting better at caring and breeding and feeding those animals,” she said. “Not because anybody was thinking about carbon.”

There is a perception that grass-fed beef must be better than corn-fed beef, which is part of the image of the “factory farm,” sometimes mistaken as feedlots.

But what they fail to see is how most of a feedlot cow’s life was spent on pasture, and that they are moved to feedlots for the final few months before being processed.

Capper said in Canada, the average cow-calf operation has 59 cows.

“There is a perception to the consumer that (ranchers) have these big factory-type farms,” she said. “But it’s completely wrong.”

Finally, the idea of hormones in beef and dairy has been overblown, according to Capper, and has not been helped by marketing campaigns aimed at providing “hormone-free” meat.

“There are hormones in just about everything we eat with the exception of maybe salt and sugar,” she said.

The total concentration of estrogen in implanted beef is about 5.1 nanograms of estrogen per 200gram steak, according to Capper. Compare that to the estrogen in a single birth control pill, which has 35,000 nano-grams of estrogen.

“If any person was going to be biologically affected by the estrogen in beef, they would have to eat more than 1,500 kilograms per day,” she said.

Capper said the ag industry needs to be better at informing the public. The reality of farmers and ranchers as stewards of the land and caretakers of their animals is a message that more people need to hear.

“The perception to the consumer is the image of big, bad farmers throwing stuff in the water, not caring for animals, and so on,” she said. “And it isn’t true at all.”

The Tiffin Conference is a one-of-a-kind event in southern Alberta and has been an important platform for discussing current issues and trends in the red meat industry.