Alberta's drought could hinder Canadian beef industry's ability to further reduce emissions

Canada’s beef industry has made headway on its 2030 emissions-reduction target, lowering its total emissions by 15 per cent from 2014 levels

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Canada’s beef industry is cutting its carbon footprint — but those efforts face critical challenges over the coming year as Western Canada remains gripped in long-standing drought, a new industry report says.

For the first time since 2016, the Canadian Roundtable of Sustainable Beef — whose voting members include companies such as Cargill and A&W — released on Tuesday its progress on emissions reduction, water use and animal care.

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Among those results include a 15 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 compared to 2014 levels, it said — an acceleration when compared to multi-decade stretches the CRSB previously studied.

The update puts the industry on track to meet its 2030 target of hitting 33-per-cent emission reductions from 2014 levels, said Ryan Beierbach, chair of the CRSB.

But the potential of worsening drought would require more land being used to produce cattle feed, which would cut into untouched pastures that act as carbon sinks, said Tim McAllister, principal research scientist at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

(One of the report’s action items is to safeguard 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon on land managed by beef producers and to sequester another 3.4 billion tonnes of carbon every year.)

“Trends we’ve seen in terms of increased yields coming from crop production . . . all that’s going to be somewhat dependent on what climate is doing,” McAllister said. “If we’re in a drought situation, that (emissions target) is going to be more difficult to achieve.”

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Alberta’s multi-year drought already has the provincial government preparing for a potentially disastrous 2024. A dry fall and low-precipitation winter have caused reservoir levels to hit exceptionally low levels, exacerbated by the ongoing El Nino weather cycle and climate change, which scientists say is responsible for more frequent and intense droughts.

Methane emissions reduction a focus for beef industry

The conditions would have a particular effect on Alberta’s beef industry; the province is home to nearly 50 per cent of Canada’s beef cows, making it the country’s largest producer.

The industry has been increasingly under the spotlight in recent years for methane emissions from cattle. In 2021, agriculture was responsible for 31 per cent of Canada’s total methane emissions, the majority coming from cattle.

Methane, which comes from various sources, is responsible for about a quarter of global warming due to its high potency.

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The 15 per cent reductions between 2014 and 2021 were due to a confluence of factors such as changes to cattle diets, shorter production times (meaning cattle are growing at a faster rate) and fewer resources being used in production.

Several other emissions-reduction technologies are also in the works. Additives such as methane-busting seaweed that reduces emissions from cattle — technology that has been in part spearheaded by the provincially funded Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) — are up for approval with Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“We need some of those to come online and (for) those to be adopted by industry,” McAllister said.

Drought also concerning for farmers in short term

In the short term, drought is a burgeoning concern for farmers — particularly those in southern Alberta, parts of which are under extreme or exceptional drought codes. Many rely on already-depleted reservoirs such as the Oldman Reservoir near Pincher Creek.

About 60 per cent of all irrigation in Canada occurs in southern Alberta, McAllister said.

Water use from the cattle industry rose 0.4 per cent over the seven-year time frame, the report said, adding that its water risk assessment found the highest drought risks coincided with areas of high cattle density on the prairies.

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McAllister said that if reservoirs are filled to capacity, regions can go about one year without having a severe water shortage.

“If we don’t get the rain or snowpack this coming year, we’re not going to be able to fill those reservoirs up and there could very well be a deficiency,” he said.

Oldman River
The Oldman River runs through a bed of thick silt to the nearly dry Oldman Reservoir north of Cowley, Alberta, on December 18, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The report highlights genetic selection tools, diet optimization and enhanced manure management as actions industry can take over the next six years to meet the 2030 target.

Cattle farms also have new incentives to reduce methane emissions from cattle, announced in December by the federal government, which allows farmers to generate emissions offset credits that they can sell. (Alberta Premier Danielle Smith in December voiced her opposition to a federal program targeting emissions from cattle despite the provincial government funding projects attempting to tackle the issue.)

Meanwhile, despite increased popularity of plant-based diets and foods in the 2010s and early 2020s, the report also found beef demand in Canada rose five per cent between 2014 and 2021, and a 16 per cent increase in international demand since 2013.

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