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Opening Eyes Through the Lens: How Agriculture Protects Canada’s Grasslands

Cowboys herding cattle
Cowboys herding cattle
Cattle live in harmony with native animal species in pasture and grasslands.

The grasslands that spread like a blanket across Canada’s four Western provinces are one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. Yet, many Canadian’s aren’t even aware. We don’t value grass in the same way we do trees. Advocacy for protecting forest habitat and marine life comes regularly to the top of our news feeds. The grasslands? Not so much.

Thanks to the release of a compelling documentary highlighting the surprising hero that’s helping to protect the grasslands ecosystem, eyes are being opened and misconceptions countered as we see the positive role agriculture plays in a sustainable and thriving grasslands ecosystem. Based in rural Alberta, the film, Guardians of the Grasslands, was produced by Ben Wilson and Sarah Wray, and supported by dedicated conservationists.

According to some estimates, Canada’s grasslands and pastures store up to 1.5 billion tons of carbon, which is equal to the emissions from 3.6 million cars annually.

Why the grasslands matter

The grasslands ecosystem contains wetlands, lakes, and rivers which support fish and waterfowl, and provide habitats for millions of migratory birds that stop to rest, nest, and feed. The grasslands support wildlife and the people and communities who rely on the land. Grasslands are critical in allowing water to infiltrate the ground, which in turn ensures healthy rivers and streams.

We often think of our forests as great storehouses of carbon, but Canada’s grasslands act as one of the world’s most stable carbon sinks by absorbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and storing much of the carbon in the soil. According to some estimates, Canada’s grasslands and pastures store up to 1.5 billion tons of carbon, which is equal to the emissions from 3.6 million cars annually.

Canada has already lost 74 percent of its grasslands and the remaining land is home to 60 at-risk species. We can’t afford to lose more.

Grasslands need grazers

Millions of bison once roamed Canada’s grasslands, shaping the ecosystem and providing immense environmental benefit. Over time, cattle replaced the bison and generations of sustainable ranching have helped nourish and sustain the ecosystem. Sometimes we make decisions without considering the impact. This is what happened when Grasslands National Park was established in the 1970s. The cattle were removed from the park, and without any grazers, invasive plant species became rooted in the land, leading to the disappearance of large numbers of birds. Cattle and bison have since been reintroduced to restore the ecosystem.

Beef cattle production in Canada infographic

Research helps discover the facts

While questions about water use and GHG emissions in the agriculture sector dominate the headlines, the history of Grasslands National Park has taught us the need to consider our decisions holistically. According to the Government of Canada statistics on GHG emissions, Canada’s beef cattle account for only 2.4 percent of the country’s total emissions. The reality is that cattle contribute to a thriving environment. They’re natural fertilizers, returning protein-rich nutrients to the land. Removing them from the ecosystem can have negative consequences.

In addition, cattle can graze on marginal land that isn’t suitable for human food production, and they live in harmony with other animals. While there isn’t the data yet to suggest that cattle are carbon-neutral, there’s more in their favour than ever gets considered. They’re a tool to combat climate change.

It might sound radical to some, but cattle are the heroes that can keep our environment healthy and sustainable. This is going to become especially important as climate change increases the risk of forest fires, which cause carbon to be released into the atmosphere. In contrast, when grasslands burn, most of the carbon stays stored beneath the ground in the roots.

Sometimes what you thought was the problem is the solution. This is the provocative message the makers of Guardians of the Grasslands want people to think about.

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