Thank you, Chair.
Thank you to the House of Commons of Canada Standing Committee on Industry and Technology for the chance to speak on behalf of the Alberta Beef Producers today.
My name is Melanie Wowk. I am a veterinarian and rancher from Beauvallon in Alberta. I am here today as the chair of the Alberta Beef Producers, an elected producer-led organization representing 18,000 producers. ABP's government relations and policy lead, Mark Lyseng, is also here with us today. My children and I will be fifth-generation stewards of the land and, along with my husband, represent the Métis nation.
I hope that you all have had the pleasure of driving through our prairie landscape and experiencing its beauty. When you see prairies, true rolling prairies with native grassland communities, that land is managed by beef producers. As one of those beef producers, I am excited to see attention going towards greening the prairie economies.
Our industry perfectly fits as an economy-generating industry that provides environmental benefits. Beef producers are stewards of the land, holding a unique symbiotic relationship with the rangelands we manage. We invest and work diligently to ensure our rangelands are healthy. A healthy rangeland provides forage for our cattle. The rangeland, the entire ecosystem and society benefit from these healthy native ecosystems, as they support the sequestration of carbon, the purification of water and the maintenance of critical wildlife habitat.
Grasslands are woefully undervalued in their contribution to the carbon cycle. It's estimated that, globally, grasslands store approximately 34% of the terrestrial stock of carbon. What's great about grasslands is that most of the carbon they store is below ground—about 97%—which safeguards it from disturbances such as fire. Unfortunately, if these grasslands are tilled for cultivated land or developed for housing, up to 50% of the carbon storage is lost forever.
Cattle, being continually amazing, convert plant protein on marginal lands not suitable for cultivation into the nutrient-dense protein source we consume. The cattle industry also provides more than just carbon storage and sequestration. The Prairie Conservation Forum wrote in 2021 that without native prairie, “there is no wildlife”. We certainly see our share of wildlife on our ranch, and many species look to beef producers' pastures for habitat.
In fact, in Alberta, 85% of the species at risk are found on native grasslands. Many of these species are endangered because of habitat loss, which includes an estimated 74% loss of Alberta's grassland habitat. Beef producers have safeguarded the remaining grasslands and the ecological goods and services they provide through our daily practices. In this way, our industry is unique. We are compatible with native ecosystems and add economic value to the maintenance of these ecosystems.
In Alberta, beef producers contribute over $4 billion to the provincial GDP, including $2.7 billion in labour income, and the cattle sector generates over 55,000 jobs, each of these yielding another 2.7 jobs elsewhere in the economy. We are an industry that is continually moving forward, striving for efficiencies and more effective management practices—we have to, to allow our businesses to survive.
We've seen continued evolution in range management, even in my time as a rancher. We are producing more pounds of beef using less feed and less water. These positive moves are driven by farmer and rancher passion for their craft and, in many cases, are supported by producer organizations and industry initiatives and through research such as our living labs partnership with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
There have been many changes on Alberta's rangelands over the last decades, from the adoption of rotational grazing methods to shifts in cattle genetics. Other subtle shifts include those of some ranchers in the province who voluntarily transformed their traditional fencing into pronghorn antelope-friendly fencing, for example, to allow the safe migration of the species.
In recent years, industry-driven initiatives such as certification through the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and Verified Beef Production Plus have acted as a benchmark for producers. These initiatives push us to improve management practices while exploring new possibilities in marketing.
There are numerous examples of how farmers and ranchers, industry and government have worked and continue to work together to support the continuity of the rangelands and the environment, and these partnerships can definitely be successful.
To succeed, we first need to acknowledge the significant positive contributions of prairie grasslands in all green economy and environmental discussions. It is widely acknowledged that forested lands offer much in sequestration, but we often overlook the native prairie.
We also need to consider the varied opportunities for producers, based on their ecoregion, the native species present and the habitats they’re supporting, as well as their business models. In other words, collaborative initiatives cannot have a blanket approach. They must either be flexible to a large region or specific to the local communities and individuals involved.
To achieve all of that, we need to give beef producers, who are the proud champions of the varied prairie ecosystems, and Canadian agricultural leaders a seat at the table. The agriculture industry needs to be involved in the collaboration right from goal development through to implementation and assessment. The beef industry of Alberta would like to contribute.
Thank you again, Chair and standing committee members.