Grasslands are critical in the fight against climate change—and Ontario beef plays a key role

Apr 6, 2023

Earlier this month, we came across an interesting episode of the CBC podcast What On Earth that discussed a region of prairie grasses in Saskatchewan known as the Northeast Swale. This protected area within city limits is home to a number of plant and animal species including leopard frogs, sharp-tailed grouse, jackrabbits and more. You’ll see crocuses, wild roses, crowfoot violets as well as a variety of rare and native grasses. In fact, according to the city: “Its diverse environment offers a habitat for a large variety of plant species (more than 200), birds (more than 100), mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects and also provides flood control for the surrounding community.”

These grasslands are more than a simple park or green space. “Right beneath our feet is a climate change solution,” explained host Leisa Grebinski (filling in for regular host Laura Lynch) before launching into a more detailed explanation.

How grasses fight climate change

Protected and well-cared for grasslands are critical to thriving ecosystems, and the existence (and ideally, abundance) of healthy grasslands can actually help fight climate change. “Grasslands and prairies are amazing for their ability because they put [carbon] in the ground,” explained one expert who was interviewed on the show. “So the plants themselves, the above ground parts of the plants aren’t really impressive to some eyes but they have such deep roots and they put all of their energy into those roots and that material stores carbon. So grasslands as a whole, they’re like the storage reservoir that’s half full, so they’re a remarkable resource for us. If we protect the surviving fragments of natural grasslands and if we restore grasslands—put more land back into permanent culture, especially with a diversity of species—we can store carbon underground.”

Preservation and restoration are key messages here, as in Saskatchewan, over 80% of the natural grasslands have been destroyed. Some areas have been replaced by subdivisions and others by crops that don’t provide the same environmental benefits as natural grasslands. Similar environmental destruction has occurred in Ontario and across North America.

We understand that the potential for grasslands as an element of the fight against climate change is massive, but this potential must be managed against current losses. In order for a real impact to be made, grasslands must be protected and restored, particularly in an urban or suburban context.

What does this have to do with cattle farming in Ontario?

The episode goes on to discuss the connection between grasslands and beef farming in the region—after all, these lands were once used not to house subdivisions, but to raise food for communities. And while beef farming is often spoken about as something that degrades natural habitats, that’s not actually the case. Cattle often keep the grass at an ideal level for animal species while providing compost and natural irrigation, among other benefits. “We all owe such a huge debt to those ranching families,” the grasslands expert continued. Not only did long-ago ranchers care for the land while raising cattle on it—they nurtured it and made it better. So much so, in fact, that Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan now works with a neighbouring rancher to care for the land in a way that’s restorative and ultimately regenerative. After decades of working alongside each other but not together, the ranch and the national park have found a way to move towards a shared goal: environmental stewardship. It’s a great story that we encourage you to listen to.

This is also where Ontario beef comes into the picture. Small farms like ours use holistic management to achieve regenerative outcomes—healthier ecosystems, thriving local economies and stronger communities, for example. We also raise cattle on grasslands with similar characteristics to those in Saskatoon and other parts of Canada. We see ourselves as stewards of the land with a responsibility to leave it in better condition than we found it. The same cannot be said about industrialized farming methods, which has a completely different impact on the earth. 

The bottom line: grasslands are critical to air quality, clean water and other elements of a healthy ecosystem because they trap carbon while allowing for proper water absorption (which prevents erosion/flooding). When cattle farmers tend to the land using holistic management, they contribute to the health of grasslands that trap carbon, improve air quality and support thriving ecosystems. It’s an incredible and somewhat complex system, but by buying local beef, you’re supporting the fight against climate change.

Listen now

If you’re interested in listening to this episode of What On Earth, please visit this link—it’s available to stream on the CBC website at no charge. This information is valuable to all farmers, land managers, food producers and consumers in Ontario and across the country. If you have any questions about holistic management or regenerative food production, please contact us.