When Animal rights lobby groups and activists get motivated, they really make quite a racket. As we saw earlier this year, a well targetted campaign can even shut down an entire segment of the export industry. However, is it justified? Are thy trying to stop animal cruelty or on a greater mission to veganise the world? Do they realise what the impact of their demands are?
When people speak of “live exports” from Australia, they conjure up images of the “slaughter trade” of sheep to the Middle East and (recently) the feeder trade to Indonesia. These are two very different and very segmented aspects of the global trade Australia conducts and the misinformation out there contains more manure than the ships carrying the stock.
The slaughter trade to the Middle East began in the 1980s. For those that don’t recall, the period was one of great difficulty for Australian farmers. The long drought had decimated feed and sheep were dying, the market price had dropped to such a degree that the sheep were considered worthless, so the Government was offering a levy to pay for the wholesale killing of flocks in mass graves to try and stop farmers going bankrupt.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia was growing as a rich nation state. It was cash rich and starting to build infrastructure from scratch. That level of work required labourers, and lots of them. So they brought in ship loads of workers from Pakistan, Phillipines, India, and wherever else workers were willing to travel from to earn money that was not available in their own nation.
These people needed feeding. Australia had an abundance of cheaper than cheap mutton. The deals were struck, and the trade began – saving farmers and feeding workers.
From those early days, DPI and MLA representatives have always made an effort to provide guidance and consulting to these foreign states to improve the welfare of the animals they sent there. This is a tradition that is upheld today. In fact, if one was to calculate the money and effort spent by every foreign nation on animal welfare programmes, you would discover that MLA spends more than that total combined – every year, without cost cutting.
The sheep trade has, however, served its purpose. Having peaked at 9million sheep around the turn of the century, the numbers are closer to two million sheep and declining. Many economists are already predicting the natural end of live sheep slaughter trade within the next two decades.
The Indonesian trade of beef is known as the feeder trade. It is by far one of the most synergistic regional trade agreements in the world.
Northern Australian farmers have the right conditions to breed and wean cattle. In fact the Bos Indicus cattle breeds are quite at home in the northern Australian states. What the land and the farmers cannot provide, is the ability to finish off the beef. There simply is not the conditions to fatten the beef to market standards. Meanwhile Indonesia does not have the land or the capacity to breed and wean the cattle with the same level of success the Asutralians have. However, they do have an abundance of feed that is the remnant of mass agricultural processing — cocunut husks, palm oil and pineapple rinds – mixed with grains, silage and hay are proffered to the cattle and they quickly fatten in Indonesian feedlots.
This synergy also exists in the consumer markets, as the Bos Indicus cattle are better suited to mince and curries while Bos Taurus cattle are preferred by the European palettes of the Australian market. Further, even if the Australian market wanted the type of beef offered from these animals, there is six days of truck transport to reach Melbourne versus the 3 days of ship transport to reach Indonesia from the Darwin port.
There is a third type of live export that Australia practices, this is known as the “Breeder Cattle” trade.
Australia has long maintained it’s border biosecurity quarantines. This practice has given Australia the unique position of being free of certain diseases that have ravaged entire nations and herds overseas- such as the outbreaks of BSE (Mad Cows Disease) and Foot and Mouth. Why is this importnat? Without the stock of disease free Australian Animals, the ability to restock herds across the world would be at risk.In fact, the Food Security of a number of nations relies on the ability of Australia to continue to maintain our strict quarantines and export trades.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian states were in a state of disarray. The government had collapsed, and with it the economy. Work was scarce, goods were scarcer and the people were hungry. So, inevitably, entire herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were killed and eaten by those in the region. This left a grassland dessert across the old russian landscape — miles and miles of grassland, without a single grazing herbivore to be seen on them.
Last year, 14,000 Angus weaner steers were sourced by the Russian government to reestablish the breeding stock while Kazakhstan have also been sourcing select breeding stock with a few thousand weaners flown to the nation state to build up a strong, disease free herd for themselves. This year, Russia is expected to expand that number to 30,000 Angus.
By far, the largest breeder trade is made up of Dairy cattle. Australia is one of four nations who can produce good quality dairy heifer stock – New Zealand, the US of A and Uraguay being the other main players. However, Both Uraguay and the US have certain markets closed to them due to Foot and Mouth and BSE outbreaks.
In 2008, one of the fastest growing economies – China – had a nationwide scare with the melamine in milk scandal. Since then, the Chinese government has decided that the risk to the food security of diary by allowing the maintenance of small dairy corporations was no longer an acceptable risk. Additionally, the demand for dairy has increased year on year as families become more affluent and both seek higher protein foods and indulge in dairy goods.
The PRC have thus initiated the creation of technologically superior super dairies across the country to ensure the safety of the supply and to meet the needs of the nation. This has seen a steady stream of cattle leaving Australian shores for China – in fact 80% of the 85,000 dairy heifer weaners that left our shores last year headed directly to China.
With over 90% of the food feeding the people of Qatar being imported, the issue of food security is not a hypothetical but one of immediate concern. Unlike other nations, Qatar realises that they simply cannot manage the lifecycle of the cattle within their tiny nation. However, the state of Qatar have also seen Australia and its beef as a means to ensure the food security of its people. Qatar have thus begun purchasing farms in the lower south east of Australia to build a vertically integrated food supply chain that will allow them to grow the grain, breed the beef, wean and fatten steers. There are also negotiations occuring to build their own abbatoir and packing plants.
Global food security is a major discussion to those who are affected by it. Most affluent states, like those in the western world, are cushioned from the true impact on agricultural produce and it’s far-reaching affects. It is very easy to sit in an inner city apartment, watching the news on the thousand dollar flat screen TV while opening a ready to heat and eat organic cous cous meal and waxing lyrical about the need to stop live exports – especially since you are not part of the developing nations who need the protein to make the commute to and from work if a service oriented industry is to bloom – or the child who requires that cup of milk to have the energy to go to school and absorb what is being taught.
The issue of animal cruelty is not one to be ignored — but in selectively highlighting the wrongs of a handful of people — and this is the truth, it is only a handful of people at fault here – you are not ony condoning the punishment of an Australian industry, but you are also punish an entire planet.
To the animal actvists, I say – keep fighting the good fight, we need you to do so, we need you to ensure that those that break the bond of trust between man and beast are punished. However, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work with the MLA, not against them. Work with farmers, not against them. Try and understand what is being done and why it is being done. Farmers are the first to be pained by the images shown — they spend their entire lives raising and looking after these animals, and observing such cruelty hits them far closer to home than you think.
Australia has a very important role to play today and into the future in the global food security playing field – and live exports will need to be a continued part of that future as the global population increases, food requirements increase and sociopolitical upheavels continue.