In engaging more closely with the environmental lobby group the World Wildlife Fund, is Australia’s beef industry helping to control its own destiny, or playing with fire?
An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund for a beef sustainability officer has raised questions about the environmental non-government organisation’s motives and its plans for the future of beef production.
The Cattle Council of Australia maintains that if the group is taking a strong interest in beef production the industry needs to be actively involved in the process to ensure its view of sustainable beef production is based on practical reality.
Other producers, particularly in Queensland where active World Wildlife Fund campaigning has led to significant Government imposed restrictions over farming activities in terms of vegetation management and land management in reef catchments, distrust the organisation intensely and believe the industry should not engage with the WWF at any level.
The origins of the current debate draw back to the development of a “sustainable beef roundtable” by the World Wildlife Fund and numerous big hitters in the global beef supply chain such as McDonalds, JBS, Cargill, Intervet Schering/Plough, Pfizer and Walmart in 2010. (See Beef Central’s report from November last year)
The global alliance is focused on finding ways to feed a projected population of nine billion people by 2050 with less farmland, with fewer and more precise inputs, and in a way that satisfies increasing environmental and animal welfare scrutiny.
Cattle Council of Australia representatives including executive director David Inall and then-president Greg Brown attended the inaugural meeting of the roundtable in in Denver Colorado in October 2010.
Discussions at several roundtable meetings since then have focused on framing a definition around what is considered to be “sustainable beef production”, relating to issues such as management of groundcover, air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, habitat loss and the restoration of land and water that support beef cattle.
The big unknown at this point is, where is it all headed?
Cattle Council of Australia
CCA executive director David Inall said that when major global beef industry players such as McDonalds, JBS, Cargill and Walmart began engaging in talks with the World Wildlife Fund to develop definitions around “sustainable beef production”, it was imperative that producers had a seat at the table.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said.
Cattle producers needed to have their version of what was sustainable involved in the debate, rather than having someone else’s definition foisted upon them.
“So much of it just about communicating with these groups,” Mr Inall said.
“As a lobby group we are expected to engage with all reasonable people. We will take the World Wildlife Fund at face value until they give us a reason not to, and so far that has not happened.
The roundtable was focused on a “sophisticated constructive dialogue” aimed at understanding each sectors’ business and priorities.
“It is then about having a look at all the research that has been done around groundcover, stocking densities and water ways, and let’s see where we might collectively package that up,” Mr Inall said.
“It is not about putting horrible standards on producers, you’ll find a lot of them are already doing what this involves.
“But the key is, we need to be able to demonstrate that.”
While he acknowledged the concerns of producers in relation to WWF campaigns on vegetation management and the reef, he said those outcomes may have been different had the industry been engaging more closely with those groups in the past.
“Maybe if we were doing this five years ago and had a roundtable and good dialogue with these groups back then, there may have been another way around those issues.
“I think you will find the message to Government would be different from organisations like the World Wildlife Fund if they are already working with industry.”
He added that Cattle Council would not engage carte blanche with any group with an interest in the beef industry – there were environmental and animal welfare groups, such as the People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals, that CCA would not develop a relationship with because of their extremist approach, he said.
Mr Inall said there had been no discussions at the roundtable level around issues such as certification of sustainable production activities.
Asked if the process was likely to result in producers having to do anything differently in the way they manage their farms, he said it was still “early days”.
“I think for those that are already sustainably managing their land, I think for a lot of people there would be minimal or no change.
He added that Cattle Council had not given any ground and would not without consulting its members.
“The key point is that we are being extremely pragmatic about this.”
Queensland cattle producer Joanne Rea, who is also chair of Property Rights Australia, believes the cattle industry is entering dangerous territory by engaging with the groups such as WWF.
WWF had supported every piece of environmental legislation in Queensland to date, which had resulted in billions of dollars of financial and human costs to producers in the state.
She said a September 2011 analysis of the activities of environmental non-government organisations such as the WWF and Greenpeace by the Institute of Public Affairs had highlighted the extent to which such groups were working in concert to tie up the management of all agricultural commodities.
The report, titled Naked Extortion, concluded that environmental NGOs were using a deliberate strategy to engage in campaigns against businesses to push them to adopt ‘voluntary’ certification schemes.
However the schemes quickly became mandatory in effect, author Tim Wilson said, because of the pressure applied to producers to adopt ‘voluntary’ certification standards and through attacks on businesses that did participate in the voluntary standards.
Mrs Rea said there was a strong lack of trust of the WWF in Queensland, and many believed that such groups would never be satisfied, following every gain with a new demand.
“As the owner of a business that has been hurt by some of their regulations, I do not wish to offer any support to the organisations that caused the problems,” she said.
“I am sick to death of being told about our social responsibility.”
In a post to the Just Grounds community website she outlined some of her concerns:
“We in rural industry have paid in spades.
“We have had our vegetation hi-jacked by the government without just terms, we have had so called environmental legislation foisted upon us, based on dodgy science for the benefit of the community, but at our cost.
“We have been lied to and lied about, we have had our reputations slandered by green organisations so that they can raise money from gullible urban populations.”
She said the WWF had also actively promoted a 2006 IPCC paper called Livestock’s Long Shadow which painted a damning picture of the environmental footprint of the beef industry.
The report claimed that livestock production creates 18pc of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, more than all the cars, trucks, trains and planes on the planet.
However, a co-author of the report has since admitted the report exaggerated the impact of meat production on climate change. This was because US scientists, in calculating the meat’s environmental footprint, added up all the energy used in every stage of meat production, but failed to do the same for transport, including only tailpipe emissions in their calculations.
“When these errors of comparative statistics were raised, the silence from the WWF was deafening,” Mrs Rea said.
She also questioned why CCA and MLA had not put a greater effort into publicising the errors in Livestock’s Long Shadow