Answering Hard Questions in Our Grasslands

The grasslands in Alberta are one of the most intensively used landscapes in the world. Albertans use an estimated 95% of the prairie region in our province for farming and ranching. We rely on this usage for food, water, fertile soils, and livestock forages. Over time, intensive practices and human demands are taking their toll. We are now experiencing losses in biological diversity that are directly impacting ecosystem function.

Operation Grassland Community (OGC) is working to find an ecological solution to the social and economic realities on our grasslands. They know that sustainable food systems and thriving wildlife populations need healthy ecosystems, and a supportive economy.

They also believe ranching may provide this key to ecosystem health.

In the grasslands, endemic prairie species evolved with bison. As a result, disturbances such as grazing are essential to the health of the ecosystem where these species evolved. Properly managed ranching may sustain and increase wildlife populations and habitats, and enable human communities to flourish as well.

But what is sustainable ranching? How do we balance intensive production (grain finishing), with more extensive pasture raised methods, both of which have advantages and disadvantages? How can we also ensure adequate food production  (given that EVEN WITH reduction in individual demand for meat consumption, the human population as a whole is growing and so demand as a whole will inevitably increase) and maintain ecological integrity?  And, how can we, the consumers, ensure that we play our part in paying the full ecological cost of the food on our plate (and thereby adequately compensate our farmers and ranchers so that they can achieve the balance we all seek)?

These are the hard questions Operation Grassland Community is trying to answer.

With support from Alberta Ecotrust, Operation Grassland Community has ‘started the conversation’ about the links between wild prairie spaces and the potential for sustainable beef production.  Beginning in 2012, OGC created an award winning film – Conservation Caravan – designed to connect rural and urban dwellers about sustainable ranching.

In the last year, they complemented the initial film with two additional videos. OGC also hosted film screenings and workshops across the province. At the workshops, citizens were able to watch the films about our grasslands and ranching, and then engage each other in discussion about sustainable beef.

Interacting directly with ranchers, city dwellers learned firsthand about where their food comes from. They also heard about the challenges associated with sustainable ranching. Ranchers were able to address common misconceptions about beef production, and connect the dots between consumer values and different kinds of ranching.

Using video as a medium to connect consumers and producers was a completely new experience for OGC. Through film, OGC captured the aesthetic and utility of our grassland landscapes in a way that was meaningful to consumers.  The discussion they have started adds to a greater public awareness of the value and potential of sustainable agriculture.

Considering the complexity of the issue, and the questions that remain, they are only just beginning.

Watch the Videos!

This story is the fourth in our 12 Grants of Christmas series. In the days leading up to Christmas we will be featuring some of the best projects and stories from our grantees in the last year. Please return to our blog in the coming days and weeks to learn more about the incredible environmental work being done across Alberta. Other stories:

1. Making a Statement in Fort Chip

2. Living With Coyotes

3. Calgary Can: Recognizing People for their Environmental & Economic Contributions

4. Answering Hard Questions in Our Grasslands

5. Learning From the Ground Up

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