Beef 2024 Report

Deforestation: “be alert, not alarmed”

James Nason, 22/05/2024

Defining what “regenerated forest” is, and what that will mean for regrowth control in future, remain key questions at the crux of the ongoing deforestation debate for Australian cattle producers.

The deforestation issue was a major topic of discussion at Beef 2024, where speakers who helped to shed light on latest developments included Dr Stephen Wiedemann, founder and managing director of Integrity Ag, a specialist agricultural and environmental consultancy.

Questions such as how forests and deforestation should be defined have been brought into sharp focus for the Australian cattle industry this year after the European Union announced  moves to introduce a new “Deforestation Regulation” from January 1 next year.

The EU will prohibit from that date the sale of seven commodities including beef if those products have been produced on land deemed to have been deforested.

Hence the focus and interest now on determining exactly what forests are and in turn what constitutes “deforestation”.

‘One exclusion changes everything’

At first glance the EU Deforestation Regulation looks as “concerning as can be”, Dr Wiedemann told a Beef 2024 seminar hosted by Cattle Australia.

But he was also quick to point out that “the detail” contains an important exclusion that limits its potential impact for Australian cattle, for now at least.

The regulation describes deforestation as “the conversion of forest to agricultural use or degradation after 2020” but also includes the clause that it “excludes land that is predominantly agricultural or urban land use”.

“The EUDR, in its definition and focus, is not actually focused on what is happening on farm land at the minute,” Dr Wiedemann said.

“That is not its primary focus.”

The main focus is believed to be trying to prevent clearing of pristine environments such as in the Amazon and Sumatra.

“That alone, once clarified, largely means that the focus isn’t what is going on on-farm with the EUDR.

“One exclusion changes everything, and that is why we effectively see this as (a case of being) ‘alert but not alarmed’”.

“Having said this, there is a very real impact on the processing sector who will be required to conduct the due diligence, confirming that deforestation has not occurred in their supply chain. This is a major undertaking.”

He said Australia’s cattle industry also has an advantage by virtue of its world-leading traceability system and an ability to demonstrate compliance that other parts of the world find it very difficult to do.

“We’re not commodity producers in Australia, we have high cost of production, we have a high regulatory environment, so there is a definite case to say why don’t we leverage that for high value markets that really want the kind of things we can deliver,” Dr Wiedemann said.

Qld a focal point

Queensland in particular is a focal point of the global deforestation debate, after it was included by WWF on a list of global deforestation hotspots, alongside the Amazon and Sumatra. This was despite the presence of solid regulations preventing clearing of Primary Forest or Remnant Forest in most parts of Australia, including Queensland.

Some processors were receiving letters from buyers requesting guarantees that “none of the beef they sell comes from Queensland”.

“That is 2024, that is what is being asked of processors in Australia,” he said.

“So if you want to know is this relevant? It is relevant alright, because processors are being asked ‘just tell us you don’t buy any beef out of Queensland’, that is the easiest solution.

“Clearly that is a massive problem.

“And in it all is this blending of terms and to a certain extent confecting different things, obviously one is primary forest being taken down in the Sumatra being blended or confected with what is largely regrowth control in Queensland.”

Processors under pressure to become ‘quasi regulators’

He said that processors were also increasingly at risk of being pressured to become “quasi regulators” in this space.

“They have got this requirement that comes down to them from the market that says, ‘you must confirm to us that product you’re selling doesn’t come from deforestation’.

“So the due diligence requirement on that is pretty extreme, they have got to track and have confidence about where their cattle are coming from.

“That is tricky… it is a really challenging space I think for those who take on the role of selling beef, and I think there is a fair bit of conversation and understanding to be worked through right across the industry to manage that.”

Under the Science Based Targets Initiative, companies such as McDonald’s have committed to achieving a “zero deforestation” policy.

Satellites mean what happens on farm now public

Already the world has changed for producers in terms of the visibility now provided by satellite of farmland across the world.

It was very easy now to see “half a hectare of clearing”, and this level of scrutiny will only intensify with nature conservancies expected to have AI programs monitoring satellite imagery round the clock “in real time, all the time”.

“The fact is that can’t be unrolled. you can see pretty much everything, and with higher resolution satellite, frequent satellite, you won’t just be seeing the disappearance, you’ll be seeing the bulldozer…

“It is just very, very transparent, and that is going to be a massive change in perspective on this issue I think and is one for us to work through.”

Local definitions still needed

Cattle Australia is currently working to develop a definition of deforestation in the Australian context and at Beef 2024 released the draft principles that will underpin the definition.

Dr Wiedemann said it made sense for Australia to develop a local definition.

“It is thoroughly acceptable at international level to work through a local definition of the key technical points, it is basically enshrined in the guiding principles internationally.”

“So Australia is doing the right thing, Australia is taking good leadership here.”

What is a forest?

Dr Wiedemann said there are two main definitions currently in use to define what a forest is.

The commonly defined international standard of a forest is a minimum area of 0.5 hectare, minimum tree height of 5m and canopy cover of 10pc.

In Australia a definition has previously been used that defines forest as covering a smaller area 0.2ha (which is 40m by 40m), minimum tree height of 2m and canopy cover of 20pc.

He noted that was “not much” in Brigalow regrowth terms.

How a forest is ultimately defined has big implications, because as soon as something is called a forest, there will be someone who will call any taking down of that area “deforestation”.

This has already occurred, with examples including some groups releasing reports saying Queensland has a huge deforestation problem because areas meeting that definition have been cleared.

“That is going to be part of the big challenge,” he said.

The Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi) takes a different approach in that it defines deforestation as a loss of “natural forest” as a result of conversion to agriculture or severe and sustained degradation.

“So it is not just a forest now, we need to define a natural forest. All the little words really matter.”

The AFi defines a natural forest as a natural ecosystem which includes primary forests, regenerated forests, managed forests and forests that have been partly degraded. It states that natural forests do not include tree plantations.

Primary forest or remnant forest is land that has never been cleared which is always going to meet the definition of natural forest, and is largely protected through solid regulations across most parts of Australia including all of Queensland.

What ‘Regenerated forest’ definition could mean for regrowth

The key question for Australian landholders is how ‘regenerated forest’ is defined, because it has significant potential implications for management of regrowth in future.

“Fulfilling the function of a forest you can define as having met the ecological benchmark – the same condition of what it was before,” Dr Wiedemann said.

“And I think that is something we really need to grapple with.

“It is going to be monstrously hard to tighten down to the point where anything called a forest by that technical definition is deforestation, we need some more flex in it than that, and so we’re going to have to work through that.”

Dr Wiedemann said it is likely in future that some forms of regrowth control will not be  socially acceptable.

“There is also a social licence element to this, whichever way you look at it – dozers pulling chains make terrible images, or great images if you’re someone who wants to attack the industry.”

Carbon accounting has deforestation implications as well

The industry also faced implications related to carbon accounting in future as well.

He said large companies through the Corporations Act will likely need to report emissions in future, with removal of trees from areas deemed to be forests featuring on carbon accounts.

“The general rule is that once it exceeds forest threshold, if you lose it, you are going to have to account for the emissions of it, so again that forest threshold becomes really, really significant.

Every tonne of dry timber removed generates about 1.9 tonnes of emissions.

“To put it in context your livestock emissions on a per hectare basis might be 0.1-0.25 t CO2-e / ha per year depending on stocking rate, so clearing older regrowth could generate as much as 1000 times more emissions per hectare in the year of clearing, so it can rack up fairly quickly.”

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Comments

  1. Ian McCamley, 27/05/2024

    Good article James. You reported that “In Australia a definition has previously been used that defines forest as covering a smaller area 0.2ha (which is 40m by 40m), minimum tree height of 2m and canopy cover of 20pc.“ Just wondering who signed off on this definition?

    G’day Ian, our understanding is that the definition began appearing in annual Australian Beef Sustainability Framework updates from 2018, but our subsequent inquiries failed to shed much light on which industry groups supported the inclusion of that definition in the annual document, only that no one seemed to be sure – The Sustainability Steering Group told us at the time that “where targets or goals appear in its annual updates they reflect an agreed position of industry bodies”, but could not offer any further detail on where that definition originated. For its part Cattle Council of Australia at the time told us the definition “was not one of its policies” – here’s our story covering that in 2020 ‘Deforestation’ in focus as 2020 deadlines near Cheers James

  2. Paul Franks, 23/05/2024

    Does this mean no processors will be able to sell into the EU?
    Their electricity will be coming from completely real deforested areas where wind farms and solar farms are built.

    Or is that
    A: Different
    B: Well……………
    C: Don’t mention the war.
    D: All of the above

    Lock in D Eddie.

    • Garrey Sellars, 29/05/2024

      love it Thay dont relise how unrealistic this could be

  3. Peter Dunn, 22/05/2024

    How refreshing it is to have the European Union announce the “Deforestation Regulation”. No continent or continental community is more entitled to do so, particularly given that since the pre-historic discovery of fire, not a square metre of European forest has been cleared for domestic cooking/heating, or for agriculture. The entire continent of Europe remains entirely covered with the verdant forest which it was covered with during and before the age of the dinosaur.
    As for demanding, through processors and buyers, that “none of the beef they sell comes from Queensland”, well, why shouldn’t they? They are entitled to the righteousness, to the high moral ground, to the arrogance which can only attach to knowing better, and to simply being right. After all, they know the earth is flat, just ask them.
    As for trying to find ways to work around the demands, to find an ‘acceptable’ or imagined ‘win/win’ solution, or to do anything at all to avoid having to cut losses/livelihoods and just say ‘NO’,
    the edge beckons.
    Hard to say, but much, much harder to accept.
    Zealots are never satisfied, and market powerful zealots feast on compromise.

    • Garrey Sellars, 23/05/2024

      Absolutle correct We can clear land for a useless wind system that wont supply enough power to pay for its self continuosly and the want to demonise food production

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