ANY number of groups and individuals here in Australia and overseas are dedicated to improving animal welfare in the livestock industry.
Protecting the wellbeing of animals is a very noble endeavour and something any reasonable minded person would support.
In relation to Australian cattle which have been exported to South East Asia, welfare is something rural Australians like me hold very dear.
But some efforts to improve welfare are more successful than others. Some ‘activist’ groups often find it difficult to get their foot in the door to discuss welfare with government and industry because of a perception that they are ultimately opposed to all livestock production and red meat consumption.
How a group which is fundamentally opposed to livestock exports can objectively participate in a discussion about the future of the industry is a fair question.
Often it means that welfare groups are seen as lacking legitimacy and objectivity.
Are they excluded because they are hostile to industry? Or are they hostile to industry because they’ve been excluded? I
It is a chicken-and-egg scenario and it is probably impossible to unscramble the egg now.
Activist organisations often feel the need to go ‘covert’ in their efforts to flag welfare concerns and examples of cruelty. Guerrilla tactics can expose unacceptable behaviour in a very powerful manner, but it is invariably a very blunt instrument for driving reform.
The chaos that can arise from an abrupt disruption in livestock export supply chains, triggered by exposé-type footage, can be devastating for the families in Australia and overseas whose livelihoods depend on the trade.
All parties want ongoing improvements in welfare, but the often-antagonistic way activists seek to participate in the welfare discussion means they become an obstruction to sustainable reform.
So what avenue is proven to be the most effective in terms of driving real, lasting welfare reform at the coalface?
Whether it is on-farm or overseas, the key is embedding welfare into the commercial realities of a livestock operation.
The mantra “good welfare is good for business” is true wherever productivity and profitability can be directly linked to the wellbeing of the livestock.
When profits are squeezed, cash is tight and the future is uncertain, and it can be almost impossible to convince businesses throughout the supply chain to invest in new infrastructure, equipment and training.
Yet that is exactly what Australian livestock exporters have achieved over a number of years, and especially since the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System was introduced in 2011.
ESCAS consists of 29 standards which all in-market feedlots and abattoirs must meet if they are to receive Australian feeder/slaughter cattle.
The initiatives of livestock export companies, in helping their import partners to meet ESCAS requirements, are implementing the types of practices that welfare and activist groups could only dream of.
Stunning for slaughter (as opposed to traditional roping and conscious slaughter), low stress animal handling and state-of-the-art infrastructure are all improvements which couldn’t be achieved via some of the wrecking-ball type impacts activist organisations seek to have in our overseas markets.
Yet across South East Asia it is being delivered with relative ease, driven by powerful person-to-person relationships and supported by co-operation between governments, industry and commercial operators.
What’s more, the progress is often achieved in short periods of time and sponsored by Australian livestock export companies and Australian producers.
So, how are they so successful at making change in animal welfare outcomes? It’s because of commercial leverage.
It is essentially impossible for a welfare activist to get a foot in the door of an Indonesian abattoir manager’s office, let alone manage to have a meaningful conversation about animal welfare.
But when an exporter sits down to talk with the same abattoir manager, the conversation takes place in the context of an existing relationship and the importer’s desire to enjoy continued access to quality, disease-free Australian cattle.
Where there a few comparable alternative sources of livestock, the conversation about welfare and meeting the 29 ESCAS requirements is a positive one.
And invariably, the animal handling approaches which are necessary to deal with Australian cattle (which are, as a rule, larger and not as accustomed to human interaction) are recognised by the importers as being best-practice for dealing with local stock too.
That’s because the “good welfare is good business” principle is universal, and applies to human welfare just as much as animal welfare.
Even if their motivations were admirable, activists would never provide face-to-face training with feedlot and abattoir workers, nor have they ever provided new equipment or infrastructure for the supply chain. This is what the livestock export industry does and it delivers cost-effective, world-leading animal welfare practices in communities where improvements are having a positive impact in the supply chain.
One would assume that this sort of progress would be welcomed anyone who is genuinely interested in animal welfare.
There is always more work to be done to spread the uptake of ESCAS practices, but what has been achieved thus far should provide plenty of optimism about the future.
The world-first model, acknowledged by the World Organisation for Animal Health as being the best of its kind anywhere on Earth, is a credit to the investments made possible via exporter and producer levies, and also the additional expenditure made by exporters and importers.
Make no mistake, Australia doesn’t just export livestock – we are also exporting welfare expertise, practices and outcomes.
But more than anything, the improvements made are testament to the appetitive of our supply chain partners in South East Asia to embrace best-practice welfare standards and continue to play a positive role our region’s food security story.
Anyone who wants to ban livestock exports simply can’t ignore such compelling imperatives.