This article is part of Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.
Before the mad cow crisis of 2003 – when the discovery of a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in Alberta resulted in countries around the world closing their borders to Canadian beef – B.C. farmer Bob Mitchell had been selling his calves for about $1.15 a pound.
Within days, that price had dropped to around 80 cents, and he had to scramble to survive.
Mr. Mitchell decided to shift gears. He moved from a cow-calf operation in which most of each year's crop of calves is sold to another producer for "finishing" to one in which he raised the animals to market-readiness himself, fattening them on home-grown hay and selling them through a marketer who could pitch consumers on the merits of locally produced, antibiotic-free beef.
Mr. Mitchell's Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef is now one of a dozen partner farms represented by Two Rivers Specialty Meats, a North Vancouver-based company that sells beef, pork and poultry to restaurants and retailers.
Two Rivers "takes anything we can produce," Mr. Mitchell says. "We can't produce nearly what they could use."
With only a few dozen cattle at any given time, Mr. Mitchell is a bit player in the Canadian beef sector, which comprises some 12.3 million cattle and calves, with about 40 per cent of those in Alberta. And his focus on local markets does not necessarily dovetail with Canadian producer groups' focus on international trade and export markets, especially to the United States, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of Canadian beef exports, worth more than $1-billion a year. But he is part of a global meat production system that has grown significantly in recent decades and is under pressure to increase output while reducing the environmental toll.
In developing countries, where almost all world population increases are taking place, meat consumption has grown at an average 5.1 per cent a year since 1970, according to World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050, a 2012 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Sometimes called the "livestock revolution," the upward trend reflects developing nations' appetite for the high-quality protein and micronutrients animals such as cattle, pigs and chicken provide.
Per capita meat consumption is levelling out in some wealthier countries – in Canada, it sits at about 100 kilograms per year – but continues to climb in emerging nations.
"It appears to be the most universal law of anthropology that as people get richer, they do two things – eat meat and drive cars," says David Fraser, an animal welfare expert and program director in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. "Neither of which is great for the environment."
India – with widespread cultural and religious restrictions against eating meat – is the exception, with per capita meat intake of about four kilograms, even as the country's economic markers have improved.
Increased meat production and consumption have implications for land, water and air. In a 2006 report, Livestock's Long Shadow, the FAO – citing effects on land, climate, water and biodiversity – said "the environmental impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its current level."
Some of that report's conclusions – including that the livestock sector accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transport sector – have been challenged, with some researchers arguing the total is much higher and others saying it is lower.
In a report last year, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, the FAO said the sector accounts for 14.5 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and faces a tough challenge to reduce emissions because demand for livestock products is expected to grow by 70 per cent between 2005 and 2050.
The increased demand comes as water and land are also under pressure.
In B.C.'s Fraser Valley, for instance, there are long-standing concerns that agricultural waste is affecting water supplies. A 2012 "intentions paper" posted as part of an ongoing review of B.C.'s Agricultural Waste Control Regulation notes that, "Water quality monitoring data for British Columbia indicate that some creeks flowing through agricultural areas have nitrate, phosphorus and bacteria concentrations that are at or over acceptable levels for drinking water and aquatic life."
Small amounts of nutrients seeping into drainage ditches, creeks and streams have had a cumulative effect, with monitoring of B.C. creeks over the past three decades indicating that "nitrate levels have been steadily increasing in many watercourses, resulting in what appears to be a chronic water quality issue."
At the same time, animal welfare concerns are becoming more prominent.
Since 2005, the 180-member World Organization for Animal Health has developed global animal welfare standards in areas including the transport of animals by land, animal slaughter and chicken and beef production systems.
The global standards can serve as starting points for countries that have yet to develop animal welfare legislation, help put pressure on members that do not meet the guidelines and, increasingly, show up in multinational trade agreements, Dr. Fraser says.
Mr. Mitchell, meanwhile, is pleased with his transition to a more consumer-oriented operation, saying he and his partner keep operations at a scale where he can readily manage animal waste and health concerns.
His land would not be ideal for a feedlot operation because of wet winter weather, but works for his system, which includes a crop-rotation arrangement with a neighbour through which potatoes, grain, hay and pasture are planted on different sites each year. The manure from his operation is composted and goes to a nearby organic farm.
For Mr. Mitchell, like many Canadian farmers, his biggest challenge is succession planning. At this point, he doesn't believe either of his two children will take over his operation and he worries would-be purchasers – ideally, young people who want to farm – will not be able to afford his land and other assets if and when he decides to sell.
"Unless they had a lot of money from mom and dad, it would be pretty difficult," he says.