Temporary bans on live cattle and sheep export have undermined confidence in the industry, driving property prices down and diminishing banks' willingness to lend for long-term improvement. If the industry wants to avoid death by a thousand cuts, it must act now to phase out live export.
A phasing out of export of livestock for meat over the next ten years or so may be a necessity for a viable industry in the long term. It would require careful preparation and arrangements for compensation for those adversely affected.
It is widely recognised that sending animals overseas to slaughter is not the only welfare problem. Indeed it is not even the most important welfare issue for livestock; good nutrition and veterinary care have a much greater impact over the animals' lifetime. However, live export is a welfare issue that we can fix, and developing a long-term solution will be much better for producers than the repeated temporary bans invoked by government.
Most producers care a great deal for their livestock, and many have been deeply disturbed to see how some of the animals that they so attentively nurtured are treated after they’ve left their property.
These welfare problems are not just the multiple stresses that animals are exposed to during the export process, but Australia’s lack of control of the transport and slaughter process after the animals have arrived at their destination port. Regulatory authorities also have little control over practices on the ships: the stockpeople, vets and crew are employed by the industry so there is no independent authority to oversee the process. In other animal-risk situations, such as abattoirs, government inspectors are present: the same should be true on live export boats.
Markets for meat
The long-term prospects for beef and sheep meat exports from Australia are good. Demand, especially for beef, is increasing as developing countries become more affluent and change to a Western style diet. This will continue while wealth in Eurasia and the Americas transitions from traditionally wealthy countries to those until recently considered poor. Opportunities for export from Australia to Asia are considerable because of the limited land available in Asia for livestock production.
Introducing a permanent ban over a long period would allow Australian producers to adapt their systems. Meatworks would have to be set up in the north of Australia. For many producers, live export is the only option because of the lack of northern abattoirs. It is not economic to truck cattle thousands of kilometres to the nearest abattoirs, Brisbane or Perth. Abattoirs existed in the north until the 1990s but were phased out as the live export trade grew.
Small-scale abattoirs handling some of the northern cattle cannot compete with the high prices paid for animals for live export. Several large-scale abattoirs handling most or all of the cattle would be required if live export is phased out; in fact, it is only if live export is phased out that they could be successful financially. The first is being built just south of Darwin and is expected to be finished next July. Each abattoir would employ several hundred people, including providing potential employment to disadvantaged indigenous communities.
New markets would have to be opened up, but some of the demand that has recently been met by sending live animals could be met by carcases. Ships would have to be adapted to take refrigerated cargo, but efficiency would be increased because they would only carry the consumable product. Carcase comprises approximately half of the weight of each animal, and only about one-half of the carcase is muscle tissue that is eaten. Transporting carcases is therefore cheaper than live animals.
In the short term, the prices that producers receive for their animals would probably fall, making it harder to provide the necessary feed and medications that ensure the welfare of livestock. In the long-term, however, strong world market prices for meat should be sufficient to sustain an efficient industry.
A more diverse, stronger and kinder industry
Exporting carcases rather than live animals would enable producers to grow the type of animal that their land can support. Rather than having to produce steers of less than 350kg for export from northern Australia to Indonesia, those with good quality land can grow their cattle to higher weights profitably at home.
A greater variety of production methods will be possible, to suit the many different markets around the world. There will be a market for animals at different stages of maturity, with different levels of marbling and subcutaneous fat. Carcases from high quality breeds like Angus and Charolais can be supplied to markets that pay a premium.
The market exposure and risk to producers will be reduced by diversifying the countries to which carcases are sent. Exposure and risk are both very apparent in the current situation where one country – Indonesia – dominates the market.
Australia can become a world animal welfare leader in its livestock production systems. Its outdoor environment offers a natural advantage.
People overseas are well aware of our live export issues. Addressing them before any more damage is done to the industry is vitally important.