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Activists becoming major risk to livestock industries: Farm Institute

by Mick Keogh, Australian Farm Insitute, 24 June 2013

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Livestock producers in Australia and internationally are used to dealing with a range of risks in their businesses, including drought, feed prices, disease and the vagaries of markets, but it is becoming apparent that the biggest risk factor for many livestock producers now is the risk of major business disruption posed by activist groups.

Australian livestock producers have become familiar with some of the risks posed by activists over recent years, with groups such as Animals Australia successfully campaigning to cause a major disruption to the live cattle export trade to Indonesia in 2011.

The suspension of this trade and the subsequent response by the Australian Government and the Indonesian Government to impose new regulations (Australia) and limit imports (Indonesia) have had a major economic impact on the beef industry of northern Australia, which has been exacerbated by the current drought in regions like north-western Queensland.

Ironically, the live export suspension has resulted in more cruelty (in the form of the slow death of cattle by starvation) than it prevented.

Intensive livestock industries such as the pig and poultry industries have also been the target of activist campaigns, both in Australia and also internationally, which have resulted in major financial damage to businesses and which have also created significant new risks.

Much of the demise of the intensive pork industries in places like the UK and Australia can be attributed to the cost associated with new animal welfare regulations, especially in situations where similar regulations are not in place in overseas nations that export similar products.

In the UK for example, the pork industry has been decimated since the introduction of a range of new regulations in the wake of the foot and mouth disease epidemics of the past decade, with the result being that the UK is now a major importer of pork from nations that do not have similar regulations in place.

A similar situation applies in Australia, with one major retailer (at the behest of activist groups) requiring its Australian pork suppliers to have sow-stall free production systems, while at the same time retailing imported pig meat products from overseas locations that use sow stalls in their production systems.

The most recent example of the role of activists and the risks they present has arisen in the UK, where the disease bovine tuberculosis is proving to be a major problem in the beef industry (Australia eradicated this disease in 2002).

Badgers are also carriers of the disease, have been increasing in numbers, with the result being that despite the best efforts of the cattle industry, the incidence of bovine tuberculosis is doubling every decade. Authorities have recommended a limited cull of badgers in a number of areas to limit the spread of the disease, but activist groups are campaigning fiercely to stop the cull occurring.

If successful, the campaign will mean that bovine tuberculosis will continue to increase, further damaging the UK beef industry, and leading to increased imports from other nations which may not be as sensitive about their wildlife, or the safety of their production systems.

There is, unfortunately, a number of factors that mean activist risk is likely to increase, rather than decrease in the future for livestock producers.

Urban consumers are increasingly disconnected from the realities of agriculture, evidenced by the fact that while demanding ever-lower prices, they at the same time contribute to campaigns against so-called 'factory farming' that is responsible for delivering the cheap and safe products they demand. As a consequence, they are vulnerable to simplistic, emotive messages and campaigns, and are unlikely to try and fully understand the issues.

Activist groups have also discovered that it can be quite lucrative to develop campaigns around particular issues, especially if video footage or images of mismanagement by even a single farmer can be portrayed as 'normal' for the particular industry in the spotlight.

The campaigns against livestock exports from Australia have been very lucrative for groups like Animals Australia, for example, with that group now having an annual income that is 50% greater than that of the National Farmers Federation, and being able to use the vast bulk of that income on campaigns – which in turn increase the revenue generation of the organisation. The continued existence of such organisations is in fact dependent on them being able to constantly campaign on issues and to find new issues to campaign on, rather than to actually to find solutions to the issues.

Activist groups have also demonstrated they are quite willing to break the law to obtain the images or footage they require for their campaigns, as the recent piggery invasions in NSW have highlighted. This was reinforced during a recent ABC Landline interview with Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White.  The reporter's question and response follows;

Would Animals Australia break the law to reveal a case of animal cruelty?

"Animals Australia's constitution says that we will achieve reform through peaceful means," campaign director Lyn White said."We do at times have footage provided to us anonymously that is taken from intensive facilities and I think the key issue here is that had there been any other way to gather that footage, to be able to expose what was happening, then I am sure that those people would not had to have put their liberty at risk.

The carefully worded answer highlights that the organisation does not feel it is bound by the normal legal constraints, and that the end (useful images or footage) more than justifies questionable means. Livestock industry organisations are much more careful to ensure their actions are legal, to their disadvantage.

Activist groups have also identified that consumer-focused campaigns, rather than negotiations with governments, are likely to have more impact and potentially to generate more on-going revenue.

For example, a number of activist groups have introduced 'certification' schemes for livestock products, which generate revenue from both those livestock producers who seek accreditation, and from the food processors and retailers who sell certified products. While not strictly an activist group (in the sense that it does work cooperatively with producers in efforts to improve animal welfare) the RSPCA in Australia has such a scheme, as does its sister organisation in the UK.

In fact, the RSPCA is using the threat of removal of its 'Freedom foods' certification from farms in the UK that participate in the badger cull, as part of its campaign against the proposed cull.

Finding ways to reduce the risk posed by activists is a major future challenge for livestock industries worldwide. It goes without saying that robust, science-based animal welfare standards and good enforcement systems are a necessary foundation stone for any livestock industry in a developed nation, but this by itself is insufficient to address activist risk. Unless the industry successfully communicates its efforts and standards to consumers, the risk remains.

Many industry organisations do not have the resources of activist groups, so are not able to afford expensive and polished media campaigns to counter the effort of these groups. Electronic and social media has provided some potential for better industry organisation and response, although this is still a long way from matching the activist efforts.

Sustained campaigns highlighting the real improvements that are occurring in animal welfare standards and that are being paid for by livestock producers is obviously something that livestock industries now need to elevate in terms of strategic importance.

Additionally, livestock industries need to develop appropriate response strategies whereby well-trained and professional spokespersons can deliver public messages about the issues in a timely manner.

Labeling systems that clearly and unambiguously identify where livestock have been produced is also a critical issue in situations where national standards are much more rigorous than those of nations where imported products originate.

The continuing ambiguity of labeling standards in Australia ("Made in Australia from Australian and imported products" actually often means the product was imported in bulk form, and packaged in Australia) is a major impediment in helping consumers better understand the choices they make.

Unfortunately, however irrational and misguided farmers think activist groups are, it is the consumers and voters that will determine how these issues play out in the future, and in the absence of appropriate industry initiatives and communication programs, activist risk will continue to increase.

This article originally appeared as a blog on the Australian Farm Insitute's website. To view original article click here

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