Prominent environmentalist Arron Wood offered an intriguing insight into the changing environmental landscape and what the future holds for Australia’s feedlot industry at the Australian Lot Feeders Association’s BeefWorks conference in Toowoomba yesterday.
The 35 year old grew up on the Murray River and founded the International River Health conference in 2001 to encourage school children to develop community projects to help their local environment. His environmental work has been recognised with numerous high-level accolades including the United Nations Individual Award for Outstanding Service to the Environment and in 2007 was named Australia’s Environmentalist of the Year.
He presented a 2005 documentary for Channel Seven titled ‘Our Water, Our Future’, hosts a weekly environmental radio talkback program on Melbourne’s 3AW and is now the director of Firestarter Pty Ltd, an environmental communication and education consultancy.
He also doesn’t mind a decent steak, which he says often earns him rebukes from people within his own industry.
In a sign of both its willingness to address environmental issues and its confidence in the industry’s existing standards, the Australian Lot Feeders Association invited Mr Wood to visit a feedlot and then to provide his objective perspective on the industry’s environmental standing at its annual conference.
Mr Wood said that prior to the visit his own view of the cattle industry had been shaped by negative perceptions and admitted that he was surprised by the level of sophistication and the credence paid to animal welfare that he encountered on his visit to ALFA president Jim Cudmore’s Kerwee Feedlot at Jondaryan west of Toowoomba.
“When I first walked out of the shed at Jim’s and saw all the pens I thought that’s good, that’s where all the animals are, when do they move into their little pens?,” Mr Wood said.
“Just the amount of room that the cattle have was really quite surprising for me.”
The positive feedback didn’t mean the industry could rest on its laurels, however.
National greenhouse accounting measures attributed 16 percent of all negative emissions in Australia to agriculture. The sector would come under increasing scrutiny as Australia moved nationally towards a carbon tax and emissions trading scheme.
He urged conference attendees not to fall into the trap of believing that a price on carbon may not eventuate. Even if the proposed carbon tax legislation in Australia was repealed, international momentum meant that the pricing of carbon was inevitable. 32 countries and 10 US states already had some form of price on carbon.
US corporate giant General Electric has been pricing carbon into its operations since 2004 and believed the low carbon economy provided terrific business opportunities. The flow of corporate money usually preceded policy settings and confirmed the changing trend, Mr Wood said. The insurance industry, the largest gatherer of capital in the world controlling $16.6 trillion annually, was investing significant volumes of money in alternative energy projects.
“When one of the most conservative industries starts to move and invest their money in sustainable technologies in the alternative energy industry, you know things are changing and changing pretty rapidly,” he said.
His advice to the industry was to actively promote its environmental credentials through advertising, as long as its green claims were backed by genuine results.
He also encouraged the industry to set and promote aspirational goals, such as a target to move towards zero net emissions through improving nutrition and using methane capture for energy, or aiming to achieve 100pc renewable power for feedlots.
“You’re not tying a noose around your neck if you say you’re aiming to become carbon netural or 100pc alternative energy-powered in the future,” Mr Wood said. “It is also saying to the general public that you have an honesty about you.”
The industry was also advised to actively educate the public on the important land stewardship role it plays. “If there were no farmers, who would keep pest plants at bay? If again we set the wrong sorts of policies for the farming industries and we lose people on the land, you just have to look at what would happen in the pest plant and animal sector, it would be an absolute loss for this country.”
Taking a lead on environmental management issues also made good business sense, Mr Wood said. Switching to renewable energy systems led to lower energy costs, and also created opportunities to sell the knowledge and technology associated with that.