“We are living under a context embargo.”
I recently heard that statement and thought it was a good way to summarize the tendency to focus on an issue at the expense of understanding the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, those who try to bring attention to the bigger picture are often vilified. If you need proof of this, visit Twitter.
Context is key to driving successful change. A plan for change should always have clarity and agreement on the three elements of context: where we are, where we need to go and how we will get there.
Climate change is one topic now receiving major attention. Yes, we need to act now to ensure a healthy planet for future generations, but the approaches being discussed and taken around decarbonization of agriculture often lack context.
Where are we now?
Anyone following the discussion about decarbonization of agriculture is most likely confused with the variety of conflicting numbers used to define the impact of livestock agriculture – greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product, for example. World level numbers are often used that, though accurate, are about double that of North American livestock production.
Canadian livestock producers can and will lessen their carbon footprint, but we all need to be clear on the Canadian starting point. We need much more specific data on production by sector and production type in Ontario.
Where are we going?
This may be the hardest of the three questions to answer. It is broad in scope, so the answer involves a lot of people with open minds and patience. The only answer that is absolutely wrong is that we will stay where we are. The livestock sector should work to lead development of a vision for livestock in Ontario. A good starting point is to declare that the sector is key to the economy, environment and food security and that parties will work to innovate and grow the sector in a sustainable way.
Without an industry-led vision, others are stepping up to create one for the industry. A recent article prepared by the World Economic Forum says alternative proteins are the way forward.
Read another way, that future does not include livestock. The authors state “reducing animal agriculture in the food value chain is an exceptionally high-impact solution to the global climate crisis.” Alternative protein production will evolve and will be an option, but many manufacturers are still facing significant technical challenges with respect to mass production.
The forum article provides a graphic that compares the “impact of capital employed” to various sectors. The conclusion is that, considering economic and individual trade-offs for consumers, eating alternative proteins is relatively small compared to retrofitting their house or reducing their travel by plane. Note that there is no mention of the economic and individual trade-off to be made by farmers.
How will we get there?
This is where headlines are made. The question of “how” is often answered without the benefit of clear answers to questions one and two. Policy makers are now highly focused on decarbonization, including agriculture. It appears that livestock production is an easy target.
For example, look to the Dutch government’s policy that would lead to significant reduction in livestock numbers. We face similar danger of ill-informed and unbalanced policy in Canada. This is a key point in time for Canadian farmers because the next policy framework is being developed. It will drive programs and affect farmers for the next five years.
We need to make up for lost time in documenting where we are today. Industry needs to then lead the development of a vision for the future. That vision must be balanced and take into consideration many factors along with decarbonization such as soil health, food security and farm prosperity. Then we can answer the question of how to get there.
Big changes are ahead for farmers. Successfully implementing those changes will require additional investment in research and innovation, programs to help farmers change, and an effective system of putting research into practice.
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.