Murphy: Promoting Urban Beef

A group of Canadian grad students have an intriguing idea: Cities that want to ‘green up’ their ecological footprints, should consider local beef production. ( Photo: Wyatt Bechtel )

A group of Canadian grad students have developed an intriguing proposal: For cities that want to ‘green up’ their ecological footprints, they’d be wise to consider local beef production.

Do you know what a “metric trap” is?

Me neither — at least until yesterday, when I ran across a new, and very intriguing, report on the subject of sustainability.

Although the metric trap phrase was rolled out by Canadian graduate students at the University of British Columbia, it doesn’t have anything to do with speed limits in kilometers or summertime temperatures in the 30s (Celsius).

Instead, the phrase was used in a study published in Sustainable Science titled, “Sustainability beyond city limits: Can ‘greener’ beef lighten a city’s Ecological Footprint?”

The authors noted that measuring a city’s eco-footprint, ie, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced as a result of transportation, manufacturing and other commercial activities, intuitively seems to be an obvious way to focus on actions directed at larger environmental problems that often extend beyond a city’s boundaries.

But they asked a relevant question: Does focusing on such metrics actually guide an urban planners and policymakers toward sustainable pathways?

(Spoiler alert: Not necessarily).

Expanding the Focus

To gain some insights into that question, the student-researchers conducted a case study of Vancouver, B.C.’s Greenest City Action Plan, investigating what barriers and side effects might impact the city’s use of a specific metric to measure achievement towards various sustainability goals.

That all sounds kind of wonky, but by diving a little deeper, it starts to make sense.

To use one of the study’s examples: Let’s say city officials decides to address the impact of its residents’ consumption patterns, and they choose a commonly used metric as its measurement. That would likely lead to a focus on certain policies, while potentially other available policies perceived or determined to be outside of its jurisdiction.

Those other actionable policy options, which might do a better job of addressing the broader goal of reducing consumption of energy and resources, wouldn’t be considered because they didn’t address the specific metric chosen to measure progress.

Here’s where the study got interesting.

The case study began by analyzing four policy options not originally on the table as a way to measure reductions in Vancouver’s ecological footprint (EF):

  • Local beef
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Payments for ecosystem services
  • Using a proxy metric focused on individual and community leadership


The authors then considered each of those metrics and their potential to address the broader goal of reducing Vancouver’s EF and their feasibility as policy options for the city

Personally, I was hoping that options 1 and 2 would prove to be outstanding ways to measure a significant reduction in Vancouver’s ecological footprint, and while the authors note that prioritizing those options would seem to make sense, in fact they would be difficult to measure due to sourcing, processing and labeling constraints.

Not only that, but they noted that even if “local” beef was limited to that produced only in the province of British Columbia, switching an entire city’s consumption patterns to locally sourced product might not make that much of a difference, since food miles (transportation) account for only about 6% of the total ecological footprint of commercially produced beef.

Nevertheless, the authors concluded that policy options ought to be broader than the conventional measures normally used as metrics if urban jurisdictions want to get serious about impacting their city’s ecological a way to promote local and regional sustainability.

But heck — I didn’t need some 10-page jargon-filled journal article to understand that local beef is a good deal all around.

Grassfed or otherwise.


The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator



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