UBC prof says water waste means Canada should export more veggies, less meat
A UBC professor says Canada should be thinking hard in the new year about balancing its desire for lucrative world markets for its meat (especially beef) exports with an awareness of the looming massive increase in global population and potential Prairie water shortages.
With an estimated nine billion mouths to feed on this planet by 2050, requiring a 50-percent increase in global food production, Canada is sitting pretty in terms of being able to meet some of that demand.
But one of the most appealing exports, beef, according to Hans Schreier, professor emeritus at UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, should be a nonstarter in a world where 70 percent of all freshwater resources are already used for food production.
"Beef is attractive from an economic point of view.…[But water use for] beef is at least double to 10 times as high as for any other crop," Schreier told the Straight by phone.
He noted that farming poultry and pork requires about 3,500 to 4,500 litres of water per kilogram of produced food, whereas beef uses a whopping 15,000 litres per kilo.
In contrast, crops such as wheat, corn, oats, and soybeans are veritable water misers, needing only about 800 to 1,500 litres of water per kilo produced. Even then, Schreier said, soybeans are at the high end of the staple crops’ water requirements and require thoughtful planning in terms of minimizing future irrigation needs.
"Soybeans are mostly grown in Ontario and Quebec, and a little bit in Ontario. But if you moved it into Saskatchewan, that would be a disaster. Why grow a water-intensive crop in an area where there are water shortages?"
Schreier pointed out that Alberta recently instituted a moratorium on the issuing of agricultural water licences, mostly for irrigation. "That shows you how critical the situation has become."
In North America, an average meat diet uses approximately 5,000 litres of water per day, whereas a more vegetable-based diet needs only about half that amount of water.
Schreier said farmers should be interested in "value added" crops. "They do that a little bit with canola," he noted, referencing canola-oil production for export. "That would be one opportunity."
According to the Canola Council of Canada, canola, a hardy crop, contributes one-quarter of all farm cash receips, brings $15.4 billion to Canada’s economy annually, supports 228,000 jobs, and is refined at 14 plants in this country, most of them in the Prairie provinces. This makes it Canada’s most valuable crop, with about 85 percent of the harvest sold to international markets.
The Canadian Meat Council says that in 2010 Canada exported $1.42 billion in beef products to over 70 countries. Pork-export values were almost double that amount, $2.77 billion, to more than 130 countries.
Peas and beans, Schreier said, would be good candidates for future farming initiatives in this country. "Just avoid water-intensive crops."