The challenges facing small-scale meat producers didn’t start with Covid-19. All Covid did was shine a spotlight on issues producers have been speaking out about for years. But with Covid has come an unprecedented wave of public support for local farmers and ranchers and for the products they produce. It has also come with funding opportunities and the combination of these two things could just be the springboard the industry needed.
Currently, we only process 11% of the beef and 16% of the pork British Columbians consume. Most of the beef you see grazing rangeland and ranches across BC is shipped to Alberta for finishing and processing. The pork industry is even smaller. But there are producers who would like nothing better than to finish more beef and pork here in BC. Demand for local meat from smaller-scale producers using regenerative agricultural practices was already growing pre-Covid. Unfortunately, as has been the case for many years, these producers are not able to scale their businesses to meet this ever-growing market due to a discrepancy between demand and processing capacity in this province.
This type of agriculture and indeed processing has the potential to not only increase local food security but to revitalize local economies and increase agricultural land productivity. In stark contrast to intensive, conventional production and processing methods which rely on large numbers of animals being raised and processed in small spaces by relatively few people, regenerative, small-scale agriculture is extensive. It requires large areas of land and many hands. Grazing animals can make use of marginal agricultural land and build soil while converting grass and sunshine into high quality protein. More labour is required to manage animals over larger areas creating employment opportunities on farms & ranches. Small, regional abattoirs and butcher shops practice traditional whole-animal butchery requiring skilled labour and offering many more employment opportunities by volume than large plants. In turn, these producers and processors and the people they employ, spend their money in the local economy. Under the current system, producers are paid as little as possible for their animals and most of the post-processing profit flows right out of the country.
Now, more than ever, we see evidence of the fragility of large-scale, centralized processing systems. The overwhelming majority of the meat Canadians consume is being processed in a handful of large plants owned largely by foreign conglomerates. Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to take a serious look at these systems and re-evaluate the many benefits of decentralizing our meat processing. With federal funding being made available to support producers and processors to enable them to pivot, recover and prepare for the future, there has never been a better time to develop a truly robust and resilient local food system. But it will take some serious regulatory changes and support from local and regional governments to make it happen. The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association is calling for more reasonable regulations that would enable small-scale producers and processors to come together to set up more regional meat processing facilities. No one is more motivated to produce a high-quality, safe product than a producer who sells direct-to-consumer so you won’t get any argument from them for cutting corners where these values are concerned, but the oversight has to match the risk.
Another challenge that will need to be overcome will be meeting the demand for skilled, qualified butchers. It takes very little training to teach an employee to cut one single piece of meat out of a carcass on an assembly line. It takes real skills to properly break down a whole animal ensuring maximum quality and yield. But it is also infinitely more satisfying and comes with far fewer of the physical health issues so often caused by repetitive movements. Funding for this type of training would surely be an excellent investment in our workforce and local food security.
Reducing the number of links in the food supply chain offers other benefits too. Animal welfare is improved when they are raised in smaller numbers in larger spaces and don’t need to be transported long distances between farms to a feedlot to the abattoir. Traceability and food safety is much easier to manage when meat makes as few stops as possible from pasture to plate. Managing workplace health challenges like Covid-19 or product recalls is much more easily achieved when dealing with a large number of small-scale plants than with a small number of large-scale plants.
We have an opportunity here to develop a robust, resilient meat industry here in BC led by hard-working entrepreneurs and staffed by dedicated, skilled workers. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.