Exploring the role and relationship of Canadian beef cattle with the environment

By: Alisa Samuel 

Published on: August 8th, 2023

Canada’s temperate native grasslands are the world’s most endangered ecosystems due to agricultural land conversion for residential purposes, commercial development, and monoculture crop production.  

The grasslands extend from the Canadian Prairies into the Upper Midwest. They’re home to plenty of animal species, ranging from Baird’s Sparrow birds to the swift fox, to the pronghorn antelope and cattle. (Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica define cattle as farm animals, including bison, buffalos, and cows, that are “raised for their meat, milk, or hides.”) 

What little remains of these animals’ natural habitat is owned mostly by beef farmers and ranchers whose grazing livestock protect the variety of life found in the grasslands. When animals graze, it means they feed on grass that would otherwise grow too long, smother itself, and leave no ground for game birds to nest in.  

With their cloven hooves—the hard bottom parts of their feet—cows specifically help infuse into the grasslands seeds that grow plant leaves and stems for animals to eat. They also help the environment through their burps, despite what many people might think. 

For digestion and nutrient absorption, cows rechew food that they bring back up from their stomachs. They burp out in turn a greenhouse gas, that is, a strong gas that traps heat in the environment. This gas is called methane. Methane is around 80 times more powerful in warming up the global climate than “carbon dioxide [or CO2, another greenhouse gas] over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere”—the reason why some people question the environmental safety of producing and eating beef.  

According to data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, in 2020, non-dairy cattle in the Americas produced about half of the world’s total methane emission from enteric fermentation. Enteric fermentation refers to the digestive process of animals (like cows) that release methane gas as a by-product. While that seems like a lot of methane from one continent, the Americas also produced the most cattle meat for consumption.  

Cows in Canada and the US live only “as long as necessary before they’re processed into meat, and using the very highest quality feed, [efficiencies, and technology],” says Amie Peck, Stakeholder Engagement Manager at the Canadian Cattle Association (CCA). This process results in these countries’ respectively proportionate amounts of methane emission, which is not the case with Africa or Asia.  

Together, Africa and Asia emit the second greatest amount of methane in the world and do not regulate their population of cattle that produce it. You see, cattle in Africa and Asia aren’t always sources of food. They play various roles like access to capital, dowries, and hold cultural and religious significance.  

Furthermore, methane from belching cows is naturally part of a perpetual three-step biological process called the biogenic carbon cycle. First, through photosynthesis, plants capture carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Second, cows eat the carbon-storing plants. Third, methane from the cows, through enteric fermentation, stays in the atmosphere for 12 years before breaking down into carbon dioxide that plants once again reabsorb.  

Whereas CO2 from the biogenic carbon cycle is destroyed at the same rate that it’s produced, human-caused “CO2 from fossil fuel sources [like coal and oil] is going into the atmosphere and staying there for at least a thousand years,” explains Peck.  

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