Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fostering Consumer Choice : More Searching for Solutions

Last week, I began to describe the industrial model that ultimately determines how grassland is used—controlling the prices and marketing that in turn limit the viable options for farmers and ranchers. (Anyone interested in a more detailed critique of this system would do well to read the National Farmer Union’s document entitled “The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Toward a New Analysis and New Solutions”) (Cathy Holtslander of Beyond Factory Farming put me onto this report.)

I believe we might be able to help producers choose practices that are good for the ecology of grassland and its native plants and animals by in turn giving consumers more choices. Easy to say; not so easy to do.

As things are, in most of Canada if you want to buy grass-finished beef or beef from cattle that graze on well-maintained native pasture or on tame grass managed with Holistic Management principles you pretty well have to buy it directly from the producer. There are good reasons to buy directly from the farm or ranch and I do it myself all the time, but if you talk to most of these men and women they will tell you that the majority of the animals they raise end up going into the system, which means they are sold to feedlots and corporate slaughter and processing facilities. All the good work they do in raising animals in an ecologically sound manner, in producing beef that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, in sustaining grassland habitat, is in a sense lost within the system. The health benefits of a grass-fed animal are entirely lost after a few weeks in the feedlot eating grain, growth hormones and anti-biotics. And once the meat gets to the store as steak, roast, or hamburger, there is no way to distinguish it from beef raised by someone who has not made the effort to conserve habitat, and who in fact may be destroying riparian areas, following poor grazing practices, and ploughing native grass to seed it to crested wheatgrass.

Many beef producers are following excellent stewardship practices, but others are not. If there was a way for consumers to distinguish between the two, their choices at the supermarket would benefit those who are following best practices and provide others with an incentive to improve.

In my next posting, I will look at how the forestry industry in Canada has dealt with a similar situation.

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