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A carbon neutral steak? It's not for tomorrow

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Dec12,2023

For several years, Quebec farms have been trying to reduce their carbon footprint. This is the case in the beef sector, where the challenge is particularly high because ruminants produce a lot of methane.

A carbon-neutral steak? It’s not for tomorrow

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The Ecoboeuf herd has around sixty steers.

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The co-owner of' Écoboeuf, Frédérique Lavallée, is convinced that it is possible to produce a carbon-neutral steak: “this is precisely the mission we have given ourselves,” she exclaims. p>

To get there, there remains a major problem to resolve and which is in no way trivial: burps.

More precisely, referrals of the sixty steers that make up the herd on his research farm, located in La Sarre, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

His partner, Simon Lafontaine, also an agronomist, estimates that more than 60% of the farm's emissions come from enteric fermentation, that is to say the chemical reaction that occurs during digestion. The process of decomposition of food is the origin of methane, a gas more polluting than carbon dioxide.

No choice, therefore, to Prioritize cow feeding. By offering better quality pasture and more digestible plants, we minimize this phenomenon, he says.

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Frédérique Lavallée's steers change plots twice a day

This is why the cattle are fed mainly on grass from the farm eight months a year and on locally produced hay during the winter . An unusual practice in an industry where cereals are often on the menu, especially on large farms.

By eating grains, cows gain weight more quickly, but they experience bloating, which is a source of burping. A parameter, among others, which makes beef the most polluting protein to produce.

During our visit to Écoboeuf, in the fall, the animals were happily grazing on lush grass. An exclusive diet made possible by optimal pasture management, explains Frédérique Lavallée, while guiding her visibly enthusiastic cows.

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They can't wait to have a new salad bar, says the agronomist, with a burst of laughter.

Twice a day, she moves her herd to a new plot. This is to ensure that the plants are not too damaged and that growth continues year after year, she said.

Thanks With this process, she hopes to provide her cattle with more digestible grass and, therefore, reduce methane emissions.

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At the same time, she also hopes that her plots will improve the retention of carbon in the soil thanks to the roots of plants which can go deep and which invest more energy in their growth, but less in their survival.

To capture carbon, she also grows shade hedges to protect her meadows. A practice which has other advantages, such as insulating the grass from the cold or protecting it in the event of extreme heat. Hybrid poplars, red maples and white spruces, the properties of each species are carefully analyzed.

Ms. Lavallée evaluates the results as part of her doctorate in silvopastoralism at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. It estimates that this method would sequester 9.13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare annually, over a period of 40 years.

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Frédérique Lavallée and Simon Lafontaine in the fields of the Écobœuf research farm in La Sarre , in Abitibi.

Écoboeuf explores another lever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: manure management. Simon Lafontaine wants to implement a biomethanization process which is currently being developed with various partners.

The idea is to then use the biogas as energy to heating and, perhaps one day, to power agricultural machinery.

He believes his tool has the potential to reduce emissions from a typical Abitibi cattle farm by around 15%, or approximately 300 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. According to his calculations, raising an ox emits 9 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, mainly in the form of methane.

However, he expresses reservations about the reliability of the projections in general and maintains that it is also difficult to make an exact assessment of GHG emissions on his operation. Current tools are not precise enough for his taste.

Mr. Lafontaine is also a professor in the field of eco-responsible beef production at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. He is working on refining methods for calculating emissions in agriculture, which are complicated and very variable, depending on the context. Progress is being made, but it is a long-term effort, he concludes.

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Stéphane Godbout in the IRDA laboratories in Deschambault-Grondines

Engineer-researcher Stéphane Godbout is participating in this effort. He carries out his work in the laboratory of the Institute for Research and Development in Agroenvironment (IRDA), located in Deschambault-Grondines, in the Quebec region.

He notes that current tools mainly come from European studies, which has its limits. It’s not the same climate, they’re not the same types of soil, he emphasizes. The entire scientific community and producers from all sectors would like to have real local values. We move forward, we learn, but there is a cost. It's not that easy.

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This IRDA laboratory has 12 rooms which allow the animals' feeding and droppings to be monitored.

He conducts experiments in a controlled environment, with small populations which make it possible to obtain indicators for large farms that can accommodate thousands of animals. If I have a 30% reduction by changing an element in the pork feed, he says, we know from experience that the difference remains the same on a large scale.

Mr. Godbout observes a gradual improvement in practices in different sectors and believes that the agricultural sector could achieve a certain form of carbon neutrality within 15 or 20 years.

But according to him, it will be difficult for each breeder, or even each farmer, to aim for carbon neutrality at all times. The objective will rather be achieved globally by adding up the different regions and different sectors in the country.

For what? Largely due to external elements, including climatic conditions. A hot summer can weigh down the carbon footprint of a sector or a region, but be very positive elsewhere. It's a bit like carbon banking, he concludes, the efforts of some compensate for the excesses of others.

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Stéphane Godbout, associate professor in the Department of Soils and Agri-Food Engineering at Laval University

Mr. Godbout, however, thinks that it will be more difficult for ruminant farms, such as cattle. Reducing GHG emissions involves changing or even reducing diet. However, this element inevitably affects the quality of the meat and the yield.

It is very likely that breeders of good will are faced with profitability issues.

Despite the challenges, Simon Lafontaine intends to increase initiatives to produce carbon-neutral meat, while emphasizing that it must be consumed in moderation. A way of saying that to achieve carbon neutrality, consumers will not have the choice of eating less meat and paying more for it, because it will be more complex to produce.

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Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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