Cattle producers, particularly feedlotters, will be "sitting ducks" unless they adopt a collaborative approach to achieving better industry-wide sustainability, environmental and animal welfare outcomes.
That was the message delivered by Anna Speer, chief operating officer of mega cattle and beef producer, AACo, to the annual conference of the Australian Wagyu Association in Adelaide.
She said producers needed to have discussions "in an unemotional way" about what the industry's future needed to look like.
Ms Speer was a member of the panel for the closing session of the conference who included Bryce Camm, president of the Australian Lot Feeders Association (ALFA), and Simon Crean, chairman of the Australian Live Exporters Council.
Replying to a question from the floor asking if governments should be leading the development of a sustainable framework for farms rather than producers who were already saddled with high costs.
Ms Speer said producers should be leading the way and the industry risked losing its social licence unless it got in front of issues like carbon emissions and climate change.
"I get the opportunity to spend a lot of time with our customers and chefs and the same questions come up time and time again and food miles is a huge one for us," she said.
"It's number three in our sustainability policy and how to manage it because we have such a diversified portfolio (of pastoral stations, farms and feedlots covering seven million hectares) from the Northern Territory all the way down to processing facilities in the eastern states.
"It's a long way and something we are looking at to try and understand how we can mitigate better in that space. Obviously the animal welfare side of things is equally as critical."
Ms Speer said customers wanted to be assured the animals had experienced healthy and happy lives and that AACo was doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of its beef production on the environment.
AACo boss, Hugh Killen, devoted a fair chunk of his keynote address to the Wagyu conference stressing the critical importance for the beef industry to earn and maintain community trust as the custodians of the environment.
"We are seeing an emerging narrative (in the wider community) about the impact of beef production on the environment," he said.
Mr Killen said the beef industry should respond by forming a "coalition of the reasonable" of like-minded beef producers who shared a passion for sustainability to protect the sector from its extreme critics.
He said AACo, one of Australia's oldest companies, had "sustainability in its DNA" and was committed to being a leader in sustainable beef production.
"We believe production of high quality beef is dependent on a healthy environment and healthy, happy cattle."
Bryce Camm, ALFA president, agreed the industry had to be leading the change to better environmental and production practices.
He said sustainability wasn't a destination which could be achieved by "ticking five boxes" but a journey of continual improvement.
ALEC chairman, Simon Crean, praised the work now being done by the group driving the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework.
The framework, which was launched in April, 2017, defines what sustainable production is for the beef industry and tracks its performance over a series of indicators annually.
The second update on progress under the framework will be unveiled in Sydney on June 5 (World Environment Day).
This year's update will include details of the first national vegetation indicators and measures, the latest on the industry's 2030 carbon neutral target, movement on each of the industry's sustainability priorities and the framework's 2019-21 plan for sustainable beef production.
The framework is being developed in response to the changing expectations of customers, investors and other stakeholders who are demanding a socially, environmentally and economically responsible product.
Industry leaders at the update will include Don Mackay, chair of the Red Meat Advisory Council, Tess Herbert, chair of the Sustainability Steering Group, Susie Craig, sustainability supply and quality manager at McDonalds, Stephen Moore, general manager at NAPCO, and Carl Duncan, group manager at Teys Australia.
The 2019 annual update will be available to download on www.sustainableaustralianbeef.com.au on June 6.