A best practice management program currently being trialled in the Australian beef industry has been thrust into the spotlight as the ongoing row over whether cattle industry leaders should engage with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) continues.
Producers opposed to industry involvement with WWF say the program provides evidence that industry leaders are more deeply involved with the WWF than they have publicly acknowledged, while supporters of the program say it has nothing to do with the WWF and fear it has been unfairly tainted by such public claims.
Central to the issue are global moves by major beef supply chain players such as McDonalds, JBS, Cargill, Walmart and others to engage with the World Wildlife Fund in the development of a sustainability plan for the global beef industry.
Australian cattle industry leaders have participated in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef process since its inception at a meeting in Denver, Colorado in 2010.
Their involvement has exposed deep divisions within Australia’s beef industry over the question of whether Australian cattle producers should engage at any level with the WWF.
The Cattle Council of Australia maintains that with the Australian beef industry’s biggest customers actively seeking WWF endorsement of their supply chains, the issue will not simply go away if they refuse to participate based on WWF’s involvement.
The peak cattle producer representative body firmly believes Australian producers must be involved in the Roundtable negotiations to ensure they have a say in how a global sustainability program for beef production takes shape.
However, many producers, particularly in Queensland, vividly remember the World Wildlife Fund’s active and effective campaigns to impose onerous and development-ending vegetation management laws in the early 2000s, and some would sooner climb into bed with a mulga snake than with the WWF.
There is a strong feeling that the environmental organisation has not acted as an honest broker in relation to vegetation and reef management issues in the past, and has repeatedly failed to give credit to agriculture where it is due.
Those who have engaged with WWF in negotiations over the years speak of frustrations at the tendency of WWF representatives to appear supportive of industry efforts behind closed doors, but then to publicly deride agriculture in the media using selective and often incorrect science the next day. These precise concerns were outlined most recently by AgForce vice-president Christine Rolfe in a letter sent to rural media last month.
Producer group Property Rights Australia has also expressed concerns that the Cattle Council of Australia, and, through its direction, Meat and Livestock Australia, is more deeply involved with the World Wildlife Fund than it is letting on publicly.
It suspects initiatives are already in train under the Roundtable process that will ultimately result in Australian producers requiring WWF certification to demonstrate the sustainability of their enterprise if they wish to continue to supply beef to major global customers.
Cattle Council of Australia and Meat and Livestock Australia have both vehemently rejected the claims and have repeatedly stated that no such initiatives have been developed under the Roundtable process.
Against this backdrop were new points raised by Central Queensland cattleman Ashley Mackay in a letter published in rural newspaper Queensland Country Life last week.
The letter cited two internal MLA documents which outlined proposed MLA funding support for a national best practice management program called Ausgraze.
Mr Mackay said the documents contradicted public statements by CCA and MLA that no sustainability initiatives had yet been developed for Australia’s beef industry under the Roundtable process with WWF, and that no industry funds had been invested in the process.
He said the documents also served as proof that both organisations were more directly involved with the WWF than they had admitted publicly.
Mr Mackay said the reports outlined funding by MLA of $1.28m in 2011-12 for the Ausgraze program, and said the they also showed that Ausgraze had WWF as a participating partner.
He said P17 of one report stated: “there will be agreement on the sustainability of principles and management practices being promoted with WWF and other community groups including environmental and animal welfare”.
“They had a plan in place to fund a program with WWF as a participating partner and the funding for it was to the tune of over $1m,” Mr Mackay told Beef Central last week.
“This is one of the most ill-advised decisions they have ever taken because what they are trying to say is that they have to enter into some sort of sustainability alliance for the beef industry with WWF.”
Industry groups reject claims
Mr Mackay’s interpretation has been rejected by both CCA and MLA, which say the Ausgraze plan is not an initiative of the Roundtable process and has no direct connection with the World Wildlife Fund.
The Ausgraze concept is based on a voluntary benchmarking program currently being piloted in Central Queensland called Grazing BMP (Best Management Practice). The program was developed by the
Fitzroy Basin Association, AgForce, and the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.
Grazing BMP (Best Management Practice) follows in the footsteps of similar voluntary programs designed to benchmark productivity and environmental stewardship practices in the cotton and grains industries.
The program encourages producers to undertake self-assessments of their whole operation in areas such as property planning, soil health, grazing land management, animal nutrition, herd and stock management and business planning, and to identify areas where their operation can be improved to meet industry best practice (What defines best practice in the program is identified by producer reference groups).
The process is voluntary, and is currently being trialled by around 100 producers in the Fitzroy Catchment area in Central Queensland.
Managers of the Grazing BMP told Beef Central this week that it was developed without any direct involvement from MLA, CCA or WWF.
MLA told Beef Central it has been considering a proposal, budgeted at $2.4m over four years, to expand the Grazing BMP program to a national level. If that happens, the national program will be called Ausgraze.
MLA said the only funds that have been committed to date were $200,000 for a scoping study on instruction from industry, which was aimed at determining cattle industry requirements for a voluntary self-assessment tool, and exploring how similar programs had worked in other industries such as dairy and cotton.
MLA said the documents referred to in Mr Mackay’s letter were internal papers outlining funding proposals for consideration at MLA executive meetings. Apart from the $200,000 scoping funds, no funds had yet been committed to the program. The proposal was still being considered and no decision had yet been made on whether MLA will fund the national roll out of Grazing BMP plan under the Ausgraze banner.
One document cited by Mr Mackay also showed that MLA had made presentations to the Roundtable process on Grazing BMP/Ausgraze proposal, which he said was evidence that the proposal is already being treated as a sustainability initiative to be rolled out under the Roundtable process.
Industry spokespeople have told Beef Central the presentations were made to the Roundtable as part of the overall sustainability debate, and to demonstrate that Australian beef industry was already taking a proactive approach to managing sustainability issues.
People involved in the Grazing BMP program describe it as being far from being a “smoking gun’ which confirms direct industry involvement with the World Wildlife Fund.
Rather they see it as the kind of voluntary, self-driven program the industry needs to demonstrate its sustainability credentials on its own terms, and to guard against having definitions of sustainability imposed on industry by external parties such as WWF.
In the absence of such a program, industry did not have the figures it required to back up claims about sustainability, or to be able to show how many producers or hectares were involved in best management practice programs.
They add that such a program provides a powerful tool to counteract false claims from environmental groups, governments and community.
MLA funding determined by industry
MLA managing director Scott Hansen said any investments made by MLA were made at the direction of levy payers through their representative groups.
Regarding suggestions of WWF involvement in industry programs, Mr Hansen said such groups did not play a role in MLA funding decisions.
“MLA’s programs are, and will continue to be, driven by industry,” he said.
“The programs will continue to focus on meeting industry requirements as expressed by their representative groups who set direction. They have not, and will not, be driven by NGOs.”
Cattle Council of Australia executive director David Inall was on leave this week, but in a message he reiterated his previous statements that the Roundtable process had no initiatives in place.
WWF can’t be trusted: PRA
Property Rights Australia chair Joanne Rea said the World Wildlife Fund had a history of pushing for voluntary programs initially and then campaigning for compulsory adoption once that was achieved.
She said in engaging in the Roundtable process with the WWF, Cattle Council of Australia had demonstrated its lack of understanding at the level of anger and distrust in Queensland over past WWF activities.
She said that while the Ausgraze program may have originated with the FBA, AgForce and DEEDI, she believed it was clear that CCA and MLA were looking to tie it in to the Roundtable process.
“It is certainly the case that MLA and CCA had a plan to tie it in with WWF,” she said.
“They do need a program to hang it on, because WWF have no expertise in writing these programs (sustainability programs for beef producers), all they can do is give their stamp of approval to it.”
Beef 2012 forums
A number of forums at Beef 2012 in Rockhampton will deal directly with sustainability issues.
From 4pm to 5:30pm on Wednesday May 9 in the Bos Indicus Room of the James Lawrence Pavillion, AgForce, DEEDI and FBA will conduct a seminar on Grazing BMP benchmark practices and peformances.
From 1:30pm to 3pm on Thursday, May 10 in the Bos Indicus Room of the James Lawrence Pavillion, the Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Australia will hold a seminar and forum on the Rountable program titled “Sustainable Beef – What does it mean and why is it important”.
The Technology Room in the James Lawrence Pavillion will also host daily seminars on Grazing BMP from 9am to 10am from Tuesday May 8 to Friday May 11.
People wishing to attend either forum are reminded that they need to book seats in advance, and can do so at www.beefaustralia.com.au