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Grazing cattle key to conservation

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A scientist in London, U.K. recently ate meat he created in a laboratory. The event generated headlines and editorials all over the world, including here in the pages of the Winnipeg Free Press.

The development of muscle tissue from cattle stem cells is interesting science that provides countless opportunities for the advancement of medical treatments, such as skin replacements for burn victims or replacement of failed organs. This is exciting.

Some people, however, also think this event was good news for the environment. That is unfortunate and comes from persistent misconceptions about the environmental impact of beef production, especially on the Canadian Prairies. Laboratory-grown tissue is not necessarily a good replacement for the sound environmental-management outcomes from cattle production in our part of the world.

As a beef producer, I am a steward of the land. I am concerned that far too many people are confusing abandoning land with conservation as Gwynne Dyer did in his recent column, The world's most important hamburger.

Dyer states "we would be able to turn most of that 70 per cent of agricultural land back into forest and prairie or switch it to growing grain for human consumption." If this happened in Manitoba it would have a devastatingly negative ecological impact. The economic impact would also be disastrous, but I will set that aside for now.

Grazing cattle are an integral part of grassland ecosystems and help us meet our conservation objectives. For example, scientific research in Canada's Prairie community pastures has shown that those pastures preserve habitat for 33 different species. Endangered-species conservation is happening hand in hand with managed cattle grazing.

Beef producers need to be economically viable, but in doing so they can also provide society with many environmental services such as preserving wetlands. According to an analysis conducted by the University of Manitoba, the total value of the social, economic, agricultural, and ecological functions coming from Manitoba's grazing lands is $31.4 billion. That speaks both to the job-creating value of the grazing-livestock industry as well as its ability to maintain important environmental goods and services for all Manitobans.

One of Manitoba's most active conservation organizations in Agro-Manitoba makes a point of working with beef producers because of the connection between cattle and habitat conservation in our region.

"The most significant reservoir of habitat in our agricultural region is found on lands managed by beef producers," Tim Sopuck, chief executive officer of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, has said. "Cattle pastures and haylands also harbour grasslands, woodlands and wetlands that shelter wildlife, improve water quality, reduce flooding, protect soils and store carbon."

He noted if cattle could not be raised economically on those lands, many producers would have no choice but to break them up and plant annual crops such as wheat, oats and canola. Right away, habitat would be lost. And because many of these lands are hilly, sandy or generally have fragile soils, annual cultivation would increase soil erosion that would degrade our land and water.

"Interestingly," he continues, "we should recognize beef producers as the largest habitat-conservation group in rural Manitoba. They are stewards of millions of acres of wetlands, grasslands and woodlands."

Cattle produce food from resources humans cannot eat; people don't do well grazing grass. In Manitoba, beef production occurs on land that is not best suited for grain production, but benefits from having the protection of grasses and other natural vegetation. We should be making efforts to preserve pasture and hayland, not drain and cultivate it as Dyer suggests.

Beef cattle ranching is a key industry left on the landscape that is imitating natural processes and producing high-quality protein for people while providing those other resources the public expects, such as soil-conserving permanent cover, trees, wetlands and wildlife. These are results that lab-grown beef will not be able to deliver on the landscape.

Manitoba's beef producers will continue to produce environmentally sustainable, healthy and affordable beef while adding significantly to the growth and development of Manitoba's economy. This is sustainability in action.

Trevor Atchison is a beef producer and president of Manitoba Beef Producers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2013 A7

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