Representatives of the largest players in Australia’s beef supply chain and the World Wildlife Fund addressed a packed room of cattle producers in Rockhampton yesterday to discuss their expectations for the Roundtable for Sustainable Beef process, and to encourage producers to get on board.
An at times heated meeting also sent a clear message that resentment and distrust of the World Wildlife Fund still run deeps in parts of Queensland and that the environmental organisation faces substantial work ahead to win widespread trust at producer level.
The global roundtable process began in Denver, Colorado, in late 2010 when many of the largest organisations in the global beef industry, including McDonalds, JBS, Cargill, Walmart and Merck, and representatives of several producer countries, commenced discussions with the WWF on the development of regionalised sustainability plans for beef production.
The involvement of the WWF, which has previously lobbied for greater regulatory controls on agriculture in the areas of vegetation and reef management, combined with a lack of public detail about the process so far, has triggered vocal concerns from some producers about where the process is headed.
An underlying issue is the question of whether producers will ultimately be required to comply with new standards or accreditation schemes at greater cost to their own operations to maintain market access.
Yesterday’s Roundtable for Sustainable Beef seminar at Beef 2012 provided the first major opportunity for each organisation involved to explain why they see it as important, and for producers to learn more about how it may ultimately affect them.
The central theme of messages from each speaker was that consumers are more interested than ever in where their food comes from and how it is produced. In turn the beef industry needs to be able to demonstrate that its product is produced in a sustainable manner if it is to maintain and grow beef sales in future.
Each stressed they have no interest in seeing producers “go broke”, because without viable producers, there will be no beef supply chain.
Speakers said that a “multi-stakeholder” approach involving all sectors of the supply chain was essential for the industry to demonstrate its sustainability. With only retailers and processors on board, but not producers, the process could not work, US based sustainability manager with JBS, Cameron Bruett, said.
Dr Guy Fitzhardinge, the chair of the Australian Sustainable Beef Roundtable, said the process was about demonstrating sustainability on not only environmental grounds, but economic and social grounds as well.
“The Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not a body that is going to set standards, we are not a body that is going to develop an auditable process, we are not a body that is going to set accreditation,” he told the crowded seminar room at Beef 2012.
“We are a body that is going to support the development of pathways to a more sustainable product. The market itself will determine where in fact that lies.”
The gathering heard that the roundtable process is in its early stages and still working towards defining how sustainability in beef production will be defined.
“Currently there are a range of goals that people are aiming for, we need a single goal so that when we as producers on our farms talk about sustainability we are in fact talking about the same thing that the processors or the feedlotters are talking about,” Dr Fitzhardinge said.
“I think it is really important for people to understand that the roundtable is not about setting guidelines for sustainability, it is about encouraging people, it is about setting pathways, it is about supporting change to continuous improvement to move in this direction.”
The key question in the whole process for producers is how this will play out in terms of possible standards or compliance requirements in future.
Many find it hard to see how large-scale retailers such as McDonalds and other members of the supply chain can demonstrate the sustainability of their product to customers if they don’t have a badge and compliance system underpinning it at the end of the day.
On that score, as Central Queensland cattleman Ashley McKay noted to the meeting, there were contrasting and at times confusing messages about whether standards would result from this process.
JBS Australia director John Berry said there were no plans to require producers to comply with new accreditaiton standards.
“We’re here because the fact is our business, not just here but internationally, has to be underpinned by best practices,” he said.
“We don’t want additional cost, we’re not in the business of imposing cost, but at the same time, we all know that as a supply chain we all have to be part of a process which has got credible levels of sustainability.”
There is a strong view that if a system of standards will eventually result, it will be driven by the major food retailers.
McDonalds Australia director of quality Tracey Monaghan said the company did not want to impose a single standard on the beef industry, but acknowledged that it needed to find a way to substantiate its sustainability claims.
She said McDonalds currently has two major ethical programs which involve auditing its supply companies to ensure they are providing a safe working environment and are treating animals humanely.
From an environmental perspective, McDonalds also looked at the sustainability of its entire supply chain, and applies an environmental scorecard to primary suppliers based on their energy and water use efficiency.
Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association executive director Luke Bowen asked how McDonalds could prove the environmental sustainability of its beef products without a tangible and badged sustainability system.
“You are right, in some cases a standard does help, but there are other ways to go with this sort of initiative,” she said.
“We’re learning more about that now, on how we talk to the consumer, whether it is bringing farmers into our advertising, or the recent documentary Get Grilled, we’re still trying to figure out the different approaches we can take, rather than going for the badge every single time.”
Ashley McKay also asked if producers, already subjected to heavy environmental regulations and legislation, were simply setting themselves up with another cudgel with which to be beaten in future.
“A question that is really troubling a lot of us, it appears this convention is starting with a blank sheet of paper, and a lot of us are saying, Australia already has probably the highest ecological and environmental protection standards of most of the countries we’re talking about in the world.
“Do we really need this?”
In reply Cattle Council of Australia executive director David Inall said that while landholders had to abide by many regulations at State and Federal level to avoid legal prosecution, the roundtable process was about improving the industry's sustainability practices by bringing together all of the work MLA and CSIRO had done around environmental sustainability in beef production.
“Quite apart from whatever the policing or regulatory system is, this is about how do we continue to improve,” Mr Inall said.
“Legislation is over here and it is very important, but best practice is also something as your representative that we see going on around the world, and for me it is about extension information.”
Certainly the meeting also clearly demonstrated the level of resentment that still exists towards the WWF at producer level in Queensland.
Representatives of Property Rights Australia said WWF had proven itself in Queensland to be non-trustworthy partner, based on past experiences where representatives had expressed support for industry efforts behind closed doors but then used selective and often incorrect science to publicly criticised agriculture in the media.
One PRA spokesman, Dulacca cattle producer Lee McNicholl, called for WWF Queensland manager Nick Heath to be sacked.
He also questioned why WWF had focused so much attention on the impact of agriculture on the environment, while remaining all but silent at public level on impacts caused by mining.
WWF sustainability manager for Australia Rob Cairns acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the past and that WWF had not always based its previous approaches on the best available science – a concession that prompted widespread outbursts and applause.
However he said that WWF’s involvement in the roundtable process represented a new approach by WWF, with the previous strategy of lobbying for Government regulation being replaced by an attempt to implement voluntary standards that have the support of the industry.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to make up, there is no doubt about that, but we hope that you’re able to judge us on things that are going to happen moving forward again,” Mr Cairns said.
He said that WWF had included a focus on the impact of mining in its new strategic plan. (And in the spirit of answering all questions he added that queries about sacking WWF staff members had to be directed to more senior WWF managers than himself).
He said WWF’s goal with sustainable agriculture was “to minimise the potential impact of agriculture, while maintaining industry profitability and viable rural communities.”
He said the challenge for agriculture was to produce more food to nourish expanding populations but while ensuring impacts on sensitive eco systems such as the Great Barrier Reef were minimised.
“We don’t see this as being the environment at the expense of agriculture, but equally it shouldn’t be agriculture at the expense of the environment.
“I know that no one is out there to deliberately hurt the environment, but like anything we believe that we can do things better.
“We have no desire to promote practices that send people broke. Want nothing more than the widespread adoption of what industry research and development has identified as being best practice.”
Members of the roundtable also stressed that there were many voices at the table and that no single voice dominated discussions.