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Animal exports: how the industry controls research to shut down debate

Before blaming Indonesia, we must reform the way we fund livestock industry research. AFP Photo/SUTANTA

Now that the Federal Government has finally succumbed to public pressure and suspended live cattle exports to Indonesia, it is worth considering why we were so caught off guard by the shocking revelations of last week’s Four Corners report.

Why had we not been made aware of these brutal slaughtering practices before?

One explanation for this is that the current funding arrangements for research into live exports have made it difficult to develop a clear picture of the industry based purely on publicly available research.

At present, essentially all funding for research into the welfare of animals that are exported alive is administered by industry body Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) for the exporters’ organisation LiveCorp.

The exact funding arrangements depend on the type of research you are conducting, but in terms of research into live exports, it is usual for 50% to come from the Federal Government and 50% to come from LiveCorp.

As a researcher at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, I have received funding from both the MLA and LiveCorp.

In 2005, LiveCorp invited me to submit a project researchering slaughter practices in abattoirs overseas.

The project that we submitted included evaluating the casting box shown in the Four Corners report and other aspects of the slaughter, such as the importance of sharp knives for the cut to the neck.

The project was turned down, but had it been funded, we would have had a clearer direction on how to improve slaughtering practices in Indonesia.

The fact that MLA and LiveCorp were interested in commissioning research suggests that they were well aware of the conditions faced by animals in Indonesia long before these were exposed in the Four Corners report.

Admittedly, they have had other important issues to address, such as environmental concerns. But the action that they did undertake in slaughterhouses – mainly installing casting boxes in many abattoirs and training staff – was not supported with adequate research.

It seems iniquitous that the funding model used for primary industry research provides matched funding from government, yet industry retains full control of the research that is undertaken.

The industry body determines the type of work that is conducted, who does the research, how it is conducted and how it is reported.

Researchers in universities and CSIRO are subjected to considerable pressure nowadays to gain funds to support their work.

Income targets for researchers are common, and promotion may be dependent upon it. Some may be tempted to undertake work that has the objective of confirming that the status quo does not damage animal welfare, so that the industry does not have to modify its practices to meet community expectations of high welfare standards.

My research group has taken the view that if public money is used for the research, the work should be fully independent – that is, conducted and reported by independent researchers without interference from the industry funding body.

Under contracts with MLA or LiveCorp, researchers working for them cannot release any information about the project to anybody without the permission of industry representatives.

In practice that means that reports are drafted by the researchers and edited by the industry body before release. Delays in publication can be lengthy, up to one year.

Since announcing that we would not take industry funds unless we were allowed to publish the results as we felt correct, my research group has not had any further support despite several applications.

Not only does this high level of control deter researchers from publishing their results, it stifles the intercourse between researchers that enables welfare advances to be achieved more rapidly.

Obviously industry bodies are free to organise for research to be conducted that improves the efficiency and viability of the industry, and much excellent research has been done in which both the industry and the consumer benefits. Our food has never been cheaper.

It is important that external researchers participate in this research, and a valuable synergy can develop from this partnership.

The researchers must decide whether the work presents a conflict of interest, and the universities or other research organisations have a responsibility to intervene if they believe that researchers are using their time or research facilities unwisely.

Clearly in the case of animal welfare research, the management of community funds by industry is not appropriate, and a new way of funding the research must be found.

One option would be for advocacy groups to step in to support the research. Advocacy groups do indeed provide research funding, but this is generally small because the donating public want reassurance that their money is indeed improving animal welfare in tangible ways.

Engaging in research can be seen as too long-term, and is often viewed with suspicion by the donating public because of the bad reputations of some scientists. Fellow researchers tell me that some advocacy groups may also want to direct the research in unethical manner, although I have never experienced this.

In other parts of the world, most notably Europe, government funding of animal welfare research and legislative development has been the catalyst for some major advances in animal welfare.

This has been driven by public demand for improved animal welfare to match the improving standards of human wellbeling. Australians have experienced a significant increase in prosperity in recent years, so it is of no surprise that they are currently demanding that animal welfare is improved.

Although originally the responsibility for animal welfare in Europe was usually managed by departments of agriculture, these have increasingly expanded their remit to include much broader concerns in relation to rural activities.

The importance of the livestock industries has been different in Australia to Europe and is more focused on their wealth creation potential.

Preservation of a vibrant rural community, an attractive countryside and a good life for agricultural animals have until recently been of less importance than in Europe because of our predominantly urban lifestyle and short history of land occupancy.

However, the live export revelations may yet be the catalyst to the development of an effective way of funding animal welfare research that is equitable, transparent and uses researchers that are truly independent.

This will ensure that there is a sustained improvement in welfare that Australians can be truly proud of.

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