As environmental concerns and social pressures prompt people to change buying behaviours, more products are under scrutiny, particularly beef.
“Beef is one of our most beloved foods. From fast food to backyard barbecues to steakhouses, we have a relationship with beef that is deep and long-lasting,” said Bob Froese, chief executive officer of Bob’s Your Uncle Agency, during a Beef Farmers of Ontario seminar on beef and the environment.
“But now we’re faced with a climate emergency, and both the well-intentioned and those with other intentions are telling us beef is a problem.”
Why it matters: Beef is under scrutiny from groups concerned about climate change but few consumers realize the positive impact cattle can have on the environment because it’s a story not often shared.
Froese said consumers struggle to balance the idea of sacrificing foods they love and their desire to address climate change, all while using less-than-scientific information sources.
“Plastic is not very popular these days. We’re all familiar with images of plastic garbage islands, the size of Texas floating in our oceans,” he said. “And yet the fact is, not all plastic is evil, far from it.”
Ice River Springs, a Bob’s Your Uncle client, recycles 80 per cent of what goes into Ontario blue boxes, and their bottles are infinitely recyclable, he said.
“There’s a huge distinction between virgin plastic and recycled plastic,” he said. “Just like there are distinctions in how beef is raised.”
Amie Peck, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association stakeholder engagement specialist, said a media scan was conducted in 2020 on 250 random articles that mentioned beef consumption or production over a two-and-a-half-year span to gauge the tone.
“Very few articles that discussed beef consumption in a positive tone included a discussion of environmental issues,” said Peck. “Thirty per cent of all articles that were negative towards beef focused on the environment.”
Furthermore, articles mentioning beef production and the environment were hostile towards beef 50 per cent of the time, highlighting the struggle to communicate the beef industry’s environmental benefits.
Consumers want to do the right thing, said Froese, but don’t have time in their busy lives to become experts. Sometimes they rely on the wrong sources, like Instagram and social media, for news and guidance.
Peck said studies show when the beef industry partnered with conservation groups and presented environmental messages, there was a positive bump in sentiment toward the sector and farmers.
“We have this great environmental story to tell. We have audiences that are concerned, wanting to learn more and really want to learn from either third-party credible sources or the farmers themselves,” she said. “So it’s about how we grasp this opportunity in front of us.”
Karli Reimer, Ducks Unlimited communications, marketing and agriculture lead, said she highlights the benefits of beef habitat and agricultural sustainability when speaking to the public, stakeholders and the conservation community.
“We want them to know that healthy food comes from healthy sustainable landscapes, and the land used to raise beef is exactly that,” said Reimer.
“Agriculture as a whole has a lot of sustainability benefits and telling that entire holistic story when it comes to sustainable agriculture is key.”
Reimer said Ducks Unlimited launched a farmer-facing website called Beef Belongs (www.ag.ducks.ca), where producers and ranchers across Canada have access to storytelling tools, scientific and environmental facts and connections to local conservation programs.
The loss of grassland and wildlife habitat is a massive part of the environmental conversation, and weaving that into producer stories about the positive aspects of beef can be very powerful, she added.
During the BSE crisis in 2003, Canada lost 27,000 ranching operations and five million acres of grassland when producers couldn’t make a living from cattle and instead turned to cultivated crops.
Ontario’s grasslands are now disappearing at an alarming rate, which directly correlates with a loss of cattle from the landscape, said Jeremy Pittman, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning.
“Ontario’s agricultural grasslands provide habitat for threatened or at-risk birds and pollinators,” Pittman said. “They play this really key role in terms of helping us address the biodiversity crisis.”
One in three grassland birds has disappeared since 1970 due to dwindling habitat, including bobolink and eastern meadowlark, which have seen a 77 per cent and 62 per cent decline respectively in Ontario alone. Additionally, 13 of Ontario’s 18 bee species are in decline due to habitat loss found in grasslands.
“Were it not for the creation of agricultural habitats, such as pastures and hayfields for livestock, these two (bird) species would have probably disappeared from large parts of their original range,” said Pittman.
“The grasslands producers use for their cattle operations are playing this really key role for grassland bird conservation in the province, a fairly significant piece of the puzzle.”
As the plant-based movement grows louder and people are eating less beef, Froese said they are also eating better beef and want to feel good about their decisions.
“Not everyone needs to be convinced. You have a huge fan base in Canada. Focus on your fans, not your critics,” he said.
“We want to create a passionate following that believes in you and what you’re doing. You have wonderful, wholesome and sustainable stories to tell about how you farm.”
A consumer survey indicated most Canadians see cattle producers as good stewards of the land, Peck said. Millennials and Generation Z were more concerned about the carbon footprint of their food than any other demographic.
“They also overwhelmingly said that they wanted to learn more,” said Peck. “This really presents an incredible opportunity for us.”
Millennials love farms, they love food, they want to connect personally to their food, said Froese, adding that young friends who recently bought a side of beef from a local farmer met the cow as it was raised and knew its name.
“Now that’s personal,” Froese said. “So let’s get out there and start telling stories because, in my experience, farmers are amongst the best storytellers I’ve ever met.”