Animals Australia wants a ban on all live animal exports from Australia, and live cattle are the latest target. Its lobbying is part of a worldwide campaign coordinated by the UK headquartered World Society for the Protection of Animals. In 2011 Animals Australia succeeded in convincing the Australian Government to introduce a temporary ban on the entire live cattle trade to Indonesia, and the continuing fallout threatens the future of the industry.
To put the live cattle trade into perspective, Australia exported 617,301 head (valued at over $600 million) in 2012 (down 11% on 2011). Indonesia accounted for 45% of these exports, despite numbers to Indonesia being down 33% in 2012. In much of the NT and the northwest of WA, well over half of farm income comes from live exports, with about 87% of such exports historically going to Indonesia.
Animal activists say that the type of agriculture they are most opposed to is "factory farming". The Northern cattle industry is about as far removed from this type of farming as you can get.
The live cattle trade to Indonesia differs fundamentally from the trade in live sheep due to the relative proximity of the Indonesian market, and limited domestic outlets for these cattle. Australiais the only country that requires specific animal welfare outcomes for live animal exports and our ongoing involvement in the trade is a positive influence on animal welfare conditions in destination countries. A key disadvantage of reliance on the trade is resultant dependence on the decisions of the Australian and Indonesian governments.
Contrary to popular belief, Australia is far from alone in the live cattle trade. The US imports over 2 million head of live cattle annually (mostly from Canada and Mexico). Brazil exported 512,236 live cattle in 2012 (up 26%) to countries such as Venezuela, Turkey and Egypt. The EU also has a substantial trade, both across internal borders (several million head annually) with smaller numbers going to non-EU destinations (such as Russia, Turkey, and North Africa). India is also shaping up as a major player. Despite the number of countries involved in the trade, activists have concentrated their campaign on the EU and on Australia.
In many countries, which import live cattle, tradition, religion and lack of refrigeration means frozen or chilled beef is not a viable alternative. A further reason for Australian live export relates to the very high relative costs of Australian processors. Australia exports nearly all its commodities in a raw state because it can't compete on cost with foreign factories.
Animals Australia claims that"400,000 cattle could be processed in Northern Australia rather than exported to Indonesia, and northern producers could more than double their earnings before interest and tax".
Such a claim beggars belief, as does activists' stated enthusiasm for a bigger meat processing industry in Northern Australia. Animals Australia's strong advocacy of vegetarianism instead suggests that that they would far rather close down Australia's livestock industries entirely. Animal activists appear to be using a strategy aimed at bankrupting both producers and others involved in the supply of livestock commodities through disrupting exports, having previously targeted the wool, live sheep and kangaroo meat industries.
So how realistic is the claim that the meat processing industry in Northern Australia could replace the live export trade to Indonesia and other countries? A little history never goes astray.
Many people are unaware that no large scale abattoirs currently operate north of a line between Townsville and Perth (over a third of the continent). All that exists are small scale meatworks serving local needs (generally killing less than a hundred head per week) so that most cattle surplus to the live export trade need to be trucked very long distances to the South (for often poor returns). Substantial abattoirs used to exist at locations such as Wyndham, Derby, Broome, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Batchelor, Mt Isa and Cloncurry. They all eventually closed due to a combination of competition from the live cattle trade, an inability to secure the year-round cattle supplies, and the vagaries of the international markets for beef.
Over the past couple of years there have been efforts to start up a major Northern export abattoir. AACO is building a new export abattoir near Darwin but work was suspended owing to difficulties in finding an Asian partner. AACO has announced that it is prepared to proceed on its own, though not all industry observers are convinced. It is notable that AACO's plant was intended to concentrate on heavier cattle that do not meet live export specifications and was never meant to replace the live trade. Noises about opening export abattoirs elsewhere in the North have effectively gone nowhere.
In short the capacity to process export beef on any significant scale in most of the North is non-existent and any new plant (if it is ever completed) would take about two years to become operational.
Disclosure of Interest: The author runs beef cattle and merino sheep on properties in the Southern Tablelands district of NSW.
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