I’d like to make clear from the outset that my family’s beef farm is in Victoria, and so the current controversy around the live export trade to Indonesia, sparked by the recent Four Corners report, does not have a direct nor immediate impact on our farm business. Some might suggest this disqualifies me from making any sort of meaningful contribution to the debate and that’s fine.
I don’t profess to be an expert in matters of live export but I do know a little about beef farming. We operate a small to medium-sized enterprise; at any given time we have a few hundred head of Angus cattle. I’ve heard some say that Angus is an aggressive breed, but my experience is not so. I love getting up in the mornings and looking out the window to see our cows milling about contentedly. They have plenty of feed, water and shelter. If we have kitchen scraps or bread that’s a few days old, I stand at the fence and a number of “the girls”(breeders) come up and take bread from my hand.
In line with the romantic vision of farming, isn’t it?
Well the other side of the coin is that each year we also send a batch of calves to market. Where they go we don’t know exactly, but we do know a majority of them would go to the abattoir — that’s what they’ve been bred for. Their slaughter is not something I like to mull over, but I do know that local abattoirs use stunning. For me, it’s enough to know the animal is out cold before being killed. Ultimately this is a business.
So watching Four Corners and seeing animals flinch at the hands of workers and moan in pain as they were subjected to a prolonged and barbaric slaughter process made us all feel nauseous. I doubt I was alone in being unable to watch some of the graphic footage aired.
In recent days, there’s been a lot of heated discussion between farmers, animal welfare groups and politicians — everyone has an opinion and in most cases they’re right. This is such a complex situation and there are no simple answers. But what I think an immediate ban does is make everyone at the table sit up and address this as a serious issue. Reports have suggested the Meat and Livestock Association has known about this animal cruelty since 2000. That’s just not acceptable in anyone’s language.
If we only stopped live export just to the 12 abattoirs shown on Four Corners it isn’t a big enough penalty to instigate policy change. A sudden stop to the trade (and we must remember the Indonesians still have three months supply being fattened in their feedlots) lets the Indonesians know we’re insulted by their practices. This morning news bulletins suggested Indonesia is saying it will seek to import live cattle from places like New Zealand in the face of the Australian ban; the New Zealand agriculture minister has already come out and said they don’t export live cattle for slaughter and they’re not about to start.
Another angle to this controversy: last year Indonesia reduced Australian live cattle imports by some 30%. There is some discussion about Australian beef producers who are reliant on live export being vulnerable to changes in policy setting like this. If the Indonesians pulled the pin on us, the current debate would have a very different trajectory.
Abattoirs are expensive to build and operate; we have empty facilities in the northern states because operators couldn’t make it work. But I still believe where there’s a will there can be a way. It was partly due to concerns about live exports that prompted the Australian governments’ (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation) Feasibility of Establishing a Northern Western Australian Beef Abattoir report released last December.
Taxpayer dollars have been invested to further develop live cattle trade to Indonesia (through training and supply of equipment). Why can’t these dollars be redirected to the building and operation of a local processing industry? It would provide direct employment as well as opportunities for allied industries.
I know there will be someone who will say it’s too expensive, it will push the price of beef upwards, etc. But surely if they’ve seen Four Corners they’d pay more for their beef rather than know animals are being subjected to cruel practices.
Change always has its critics but in the years to come, in order to provide longevity, this option needs to be put back on the table.