RECOGNITION that sustainability needs to be economically and socially sound as much as it is about the environment came through loud and clear when a senior staffer from the world’s largest conservation organisation spoke at a major beef forum in Northern NSW today.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) global commodity leader beef Ian McConnel told producers at the 2017 Yulgilbar Beef Expo, held at Baryulgil near Grafton, that the path to saving the planet could not be via just one or another of those three things.
“If we don’t take producers’ advice on what is sustainable production that allows them to be productive we won’t get environmental sustainability,” he said.
“You can’t be green if you’re in the red.
“Likewise, if production is only for profit, and it doesn’t take into account environmental and social impacts, it won’t be there for the long term either.
“It’s not about saying where the fault is, it’s about looking for the way to fix it.
“What do we do to ensure farming systems can remain but are not having a negative impact.”
A fifth generation cattle producer from South East Queensland running Droughtmasters, Mr McConnel spent ten years as an extension officer with the Queensland Department of Primary Industry.
In an interesting twist, when he made the shift to WWF’s Australia branch his first job title was exactly the same as the one he had at the DPI: Sustainable Beef Co-ordinator.
His message for producers at today’s event was that WWF knows it can’t reach its goals by itself, is not negative to beef production and wants to work together.
In fact, the organisation’s line was now that beef production, in places, needed to be intensified.
The first point Mr McConnel made was that WWF was not an animal welfare organisation, rather “purely an environmental organisation.”
It is active in 110 countries and its impact on helping to save the natural systems of the plant is far bigger than other environmental organisation around the world, Mr McConnel said.
WWF recognises the need to maintain profitable agriculture.
“We have a growing population globally who need to be fed and clothed,” he said.
“We are not talking about managing the environment at the expense of beef production.
“But like most beef producers, we believe production shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment.”
How do we strike that happy balance?
“It’s important we do because the beef industry globaby is by far the biggest land user,” Mr McConnel said.
“If we are going to save the planet and biodiversity as we move forward globally, it’s farmers who are going to have to do it.”
He spoke about the fact the living planet index (LPI), a measure of the world’s biological diversity, had been decreasing rapidly since the Industrial Age.
Noting that not only agriculture but humanity relies on a healthy natural ecosystem, he said there was no doubt that had to be turned around - and it was becoming “rather urgent.”
Mr McConnel outlined a long list of negative impacts on the LPI, from climate change to over-exploitation of natural resources, habitat loss and degradation, land clearing and deforestation, pollution and invasive pests.
Not only were those things affecting wildlife populations but the carbon cycle “in a big way”, he said.
“To stop the decline and start to reverse the index we have to actually work on all those things - we can’t just pick one or the other,” he said.
“It’s not a one-horse race.”
His presentation showed that by 2050, 9 billion people will live in this world - more than 7b living in cities.
The amount of energy and resources needed to feed and clothe that amount was going to come down to the really efficient, really profitable farmers, he said.
“For that to happen we have to intensify production but do it sustainably,” he said, while acknowledging that argument was causing some contention in WWF “because there are parts of the world where ag has been over-intensified.”
It wasn’t really a knowledge issue but rather an adoption issue, he said.
“When we look at the big difference between top performers and low performers in agriculture - if we can all move up the bell curve it will not only be more profitable but have less impact,” he said.
Sustainable beef ‘as one’
ONE of the first things beef needed to do was break down the idea sustainability applies only in parts.
What is it we should be telling consumers is sustainable beef, Mr McConnel said.
“Is it feedlot or grassfed, is it tropical or temperate, is it organic or conventional,” he said.
The answer: It depends on who is doing it, where and how it is being done.
“There is sustainable across all of that,” he said.
“Marketing is heading down the path of easy claims. We need to move away from that and into a pre-competitive space where beef generally can be seen as sustainable.
“Unlike in other industries where you take the entire growth from a farmer, no one person buys the entire carcase all the time in beef.
“So we all need to work together to find what is sustainable beef and allow our consumers to both understand what it is and where they can find it.”
In 2010, key players in the beef industry and WWF organised the first global conference of sustainable beef and out of that came the idea of global roundtables for sustainable beef - a movement which today has more than 100 members globally, including the biggest buyers, exporters and processors of beef.
These roundtables have led to certified sustainable beef now being available.
Mr McConnel described that process as “an opportunity Australia had to lead the world but one it missed.”
However, the recent Australian Beef Sustainability Framework had done a fantastic job of leapfrogging some of the other roundtables in terms of setting robust indicators, he said.
This initiative was something WWF stands ready to support at any point.