The recent closures of meat-packing plants in Alberta due to COVID-19 will bring grave socioeconomic impacts on workers and the meat sector. The closures of the Cargill and JBS plants in High River and Brooks, respectively, make up 70 per cent of Canada’s beef-processing capabilities.
The federal government has responded by increasing meat inspectors and decreasing restrictions on interprovincial meat exports. Although these measures may lessen the ripple effect on meat supply and prices in Canada in the short-term, they sadly will not impact emissions from our livestock sector.
These missed opportunities are unfortunate given these recent events represent an opportunity to change Canada’s practices in agriculture to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, Canada’s agricultural sector accounts for approximately 10 per cent of its overall greenhouse gases emissions. Of this 10 per cent, about 40 per cent comes from livestock. The remaining sources are from manure (about 10 per cent to 15 per cent); and nitrous oxide from soils (about 40 per cent). It follows that if Canada is serious about reducing its agricultural emissions, it must aggressively tackle emissions from livestock, most of which is produced from livestock digestion.
The Canadian government must use this crisis to leapfrog into more sustainable and local food production systems. Instead of having an export-based model, Canada must transform our model so that it can meet national demands and needs.
In its 2017 federal budget, the government set as a goal to export at least $75 billion annually by 2025, a massive increase from its 2016 level of $56 billion.
Several initiatives in Nordic countries are encouraging citizens to reduce their meat consumption. For example, the Swedish government and some supermarkets are pushing lower intake of meat and promoting plant-based alternatives; while school cafeterias are offering meatless meals. More specifically on greenhouse gases, Sweden’s 2016 Food Strategy calls on reducing the effects of livestock production on climate. Even investment funds have started to urge food producers to develop alternative plant-based sources.
Perhaps Canada can learn from these measures brought forward by industries and governments. We can seize the opportunity to tackle our present health-environment nexus with “two birds with one stone.” We already have a step in the right direction with Canada’s 2019 Dietary Guidelines,which encourages Canadians to eat more plant-based foods.
Of course, the greenhouse gas emissions avoided from rethinking our meat-intensive diet would outweigh the combined short-term technofixes to beef production facilities, not to mention lessen the impact on our health, waterways, energy usage and biodiversity.