Opinion: It’s time for a livestock manifesto

All species groups need to work together to tackle big issues in a coordinated way

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell outlines how change can start small, and then creep imperceptibly toward a point beyond which everything changes. That is the tipping point. 

Anyone 60 years or older will recall, as a child, attending social functions where the air was blue with smoke. Attitudes toward smoking changed slowly and then flipped at the tipping point. Think about how we view smoking today. Most people know, and more importantly believe, that “smoking = bad”. 

The same tipping point has been reached for many societal viewpoints.

We know all too well that livestock producers count on consumers for their purchasing power and most of us are aware of the social contract that the agriculture industry needs to live up to with society. How is the livestock sector doing with regards to the view that society holds of it? Based on headlines and social media, not so well.

The livestock sector is a favoured punching bag now, being blamed for climate change, water degradation, antimicrobial resistance, poor soil health - the list goes on. Sadly, facts and balance in perspective are quaint things of the past for many reading these headlines. 

The clear and present danger is that the general view of the livestock sector continues to slowly erode, leading to a point when the consensus is reached that “livestock = bad”. 

The livestock sector must not let that happen. And to be clear, that is all livestock industries: large or small, grazed or housed, supply managed or not. This is a time when all of the species groups need to work together to tackle the big issues in a coordinated way. 

Livestock do have an impact on things like greenhouse gas emissions, and antimicrobial resistance, and these impacts must be dealt with just as they need to be dealt with in other industries. At the same time, there is large and growing interest in regenerative agriculture which focuses on production practices that build solid health. 

It so happens that a sound livestock industry is core to regenerative agriculture and so there is a clear opportunity for the livestock sector to both better position itself and innovate toward a robust future. Livestock actually has a good story to tell and needs to do a better job at it.

Industry, government and academia have all expressed a desire for more effort on a cross sector basis. This requires a new approach and a new commitment from all industry sectors, government and academia. 

Specifically, it requires a bold and clear statement of intent that the livestock industry is a key element of Ontario’s economy and that all parties agree to work together to innovate and grow in a sustainable manner.

Signing onto such a manifesto is the easy part. The hard part is finding ways for industry, government and academia to work better together on the big issues facing the livestock sector.

I suggest the following goals for those signing onto a manifesto:

1. Clear commitment to innovation and growth of the sector
2. Enhanced innovation in areas of cross-sector interest
3. More effective use of resources
4. Increased consumer awareness that livestock is a core element of regenerative agriculture and a healthy future

The issues facing livestock agriculture are big and no one organization has the resources needed to do a good job of dealing with them. Even if one or two could deal with their own sector, much of society now sees livestock as one thing. In other words, those sectors with resources need to help the smaller sectors because they have a shared vulnerability. 

It is somewhat like the challenge of vaccination for COVID-19 - until everyone (in the world) is vaccinated, we are all at risk.

Mike McMorris is Chief Executive Officer of the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation and has more than 30 years’ experience in the livestock sector working for government, producers, and industry organizations. Follow LRIC on Twitter: @LivestockInnov.

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