Leaked letters between Australian Wool Innovation and Meat and Livestock Australia chiefs exposes a fragmented sheep research and development industry.
At the centre of the battle is the inability of AWI and MLA to collaborate on the Merino Lifetime Productivity (MLP) project, a 10-year, $7 million investment across five sites involving 166 sires and 5000 ewe progeny.
The leak to Fairfax Media reveals calls by MLA managing director Richard Norton to AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough to release MLP data to the MERINOSELECT database, to avoid potential duplication and competing databases.
Mr Norton believed AWI approve the project in order to increase the accuracy of adult age traits, create breeding predictions, compare sires and increase lifetime productivity genomic data.
In July 2016, AWI withdrew its support for the arrangements under the Sheep Genetics Management Agreement, effectively ceasing control of the MERINOSELECT database and analytical software, OVIS, required for the MLP project.
“It would appear difficult for AWI to meet these objectives without this information being included in the MERINOSELECT analysis,” Mr Norton wrote.
“While AWI has made it clear that it is not prepared to financially support the development of Sheep Genetics, it would be of significant benefit to the sheep and wool industry if AWI agreed to make the MLP data available so that it could be utilised for further MERINOSELECT development.”
Stones were thrown with both parties attacking one another regarding investment progress.
The first letter in the exchange was sent by AWI chairman, Wal Merriman, to MLA chairperson, Michele Allan, in September, accusing Mr Norton of “weakening both organisations in the eyes of sheep producers” due to comments regarding AWI’s lack of progress on footrot, OJD and mulesing.
Mr Merriman stated Mr Norton’s comments were “unfortunate, inaccurate and damaging” and defended AWI’s investment toward OJD, mulesing and genetic evaluation, as well as the industry group’s productivity, consumer awareness and spending oversight.
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“To accuse AWI of not finding productivity gains for woolgrower ignores the last seven years and growth of the wool industry from a $1.9 billion industry to a $3.1b industry,” he stated.
“Mr Norton has criticised the wool industry and AWI for a lack of strategy and progress towards (mulesing) alternatives. AWI has invested $34 million over the last decade to find a practical solution to mulesing.
“Since 2008, AWI has reported a clear strategy and communications plan.”
In response, Dr Allan debunked his claims, stating no practical solution to mulesing had been delivered apart from the Australian Sheep Breeding Values offered through Sheep Genetics, “a service no longer supported by AWI”.
“Consumer interest in animal welfare is growing across all key red meat markets... this is translating to action,” Dr Allan wrote.
“Six per cent of Australian consumers are limiting lamb consumption due animal welfare concerns, up from just 2pc in 2012.”
Major retailers Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Aldi had developed tighter animal welfare requirements.
“To discount or fail to communicate these global macro trends – or take no action to protect the farmgate income of prime lamb producers – would represent a dereliction of MLA’s mission and strategic imperatives,” Dr Allan said.
She stated an OJD vaccine “utility is debatable”, and “suffers from the fact that it is highly irritant to tissue and a threat to human operator health”.
“It also utilises antiquated adjuvant technology, which needs to be modernised,” Dr Allan wrote.
She stated AWI terminated its funding of footrot research in 2008 mid-way through a project to investigate the suitability of 89 expressed antigens from the footrot bacteria for use in vaccines.
“The work was stopped after 63 of the 89 antigens had been tested and, five years later, MLA was requested by the Sheepmeat Council of Australia and WoolProducers Australia to fund the investigation of the remaining 26,” Dr Allan wrote.
“It now seems likely that several of these antigens will be useful in future vaccines.”