‘Beating ourselves up, while rest of world plays by different rules’: AgForce webinar

James Nason, 28/08/2020

A common mantra is the customer is always right.

But if customer expectations have been shaped by one-sided and misleading information, should a business or industry still try to exhaustively meet those expectations, even if it means striving for unrealistic and impossible standards, or work harder to provide better information to consumers?

Picture: Australian Beef Sustainability Framework.

Cattle producers as small business owners are already becoming overwhelmed trying to keep up with the large amounts of regulation they must now comply with to meet customer and public expectations, a webinar hosted by AgForce on Thursday night was told.

The frustrations producers are experiencing and the concern family agricultural businesses are feeling about being regulated out of business was a central underlying theme of the presentations by three influential Queensland cattle producers to the webinar, Jacqueline Curley, Alice Greenup and Josie Angus.

Each spoke of the extent to which cattle industry is under attack from “fake news, fake meat and fake data”. They also expressed the view that industry leadership positions often appear to accept claims made against the industry and apologise for them rather than fact-check and challenge claims.

Drawing on a quote from fellow panellist Josie Angus, Alice Greenup summarised the sentiment: “We are customer -focused, but if the customer is being fed a constant targeted stream of misinformation, then how can they be a reliable guide?”

Trying to hold back the tide of bureaucracy

Alice Greenup presented a flow chart which highlighted the many areas in which complying with regulations now govern producers’ time, ranging from from biosecurity plans to reef regulation compliance and to livestock production assurance and Government reporting.

The industry was recently presented with a draft document outlining new regulations for national loading ramp standards which alone was 40 pages thick, she said.

Increasing reporting requirements related to industry sustainability was moving the industry further in the same direction.

“If we’re not careful that is going to really start infringing on our ability to do business,” she said.

“I personally as a small business owner, I am feeling really overwhelmed because this is what we’re trying to constantly hold the tide back on, and we need people constantly to be in there having the reality check and saying we just can’t keep doing all of these things.

“We’re going to fall over and as an industry, we’re going to end up down that yellow brick road, we’re not going to be able to comply with the standards we have set for ourselves, and then we’re setting ourselves up to fail.”

She said there were times when industry representatives, in debating the minute detail of issues, should perhaps stop and ask – “why are we even here? Who took us down this yellow brick road?”

“Of course the customer is important, but they might not be getting the right information,” she said.

“As leaders in the industry we need to I think start stripping this back and standing up to it.”

‘Beating ourselves up, while rest of world plays by different rules’

Josie Angus said the Australian cattle industry has self-imposed a definition of forest on itself that is set to cause it “real harm in a global context”.

Josie Angus addressing the AgForce webinar.

She said the United Kingdom has just announced proposed legislation that if passed will enable corporations to be prosecuted for sourcing products like beef from areas where deforestation has occurred.

Central to the issue is how deforestation is ultimately defined.

She said Australia, and specifically Queensland, was being held up as a global deforestation hot spot, but her research showed Australia’s land cover record was much better than many other parts of the world.

In Queensland laws have been in place banning clearing of remnant vegetation for more than 15 years.

“Have you ever wondered why Queensland became defined as a global hot spot for deforestation, when 87 percent of our state is marked as remnant vegetation?,” she asked.

“Have you ever wondered why McDonald’s are demanding an end to deforestation in Australian supply chains, but yet ranches in their homeland of the USA have no restrictions on thinning or clearing of agricultural land?”

She showed the below graph which shows land cover change in various countries since 1992.

Australia is denoted by the small red bar second from the left.

She said Australia was much less than all G20 nations, less than Europe and less than the world average.

“So why are we the ones beating ourselves up and why are we being identified as a deforestation hot spot?” she said.

“Simply because we are not playing from the same rule book as the balance of the world. It is a self-imposed barrier to trade.”

She pointed out that the United Nations defines a forest as land spanning more than 0.5 of a hectare with trees higher than 5 metres and canopy cover of more than 10 percent.

Importantly, she said, it adds that a forest does “not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban use”.

The Australian industry definition, as published in last two Australian Beef Sustainability Framework annual updates, defines forest as land with trees that are taller than two metres, and a crown cover of at least 20 percent, and does not include exemption for agriculture as the UN definition does.

“So the international definition for deforestation is quite simply the conversion of forest to other land use or a permanent reduction in the tree canopy to below 10pc,” she said.

“So breaking it down, deforestation is actually a conversion of land use.

“If we were, as the rest of the world does, to classify land that is currently in agricultural use as agricultural land, it is exempted from deforestation and the example of a deforestation would become a national park converting back to agriculture… it also allows a world of vegetation management options.”

She said Australian agriculture had been made a sacrificial lamb by the Australian Government in its commitment to the Kyoto protocol which helped Australia to exceed its international target, but that would now be increased used as a trade barrier by other countries and global corporations against Australian farmers.

She said Australia should have a definition of a forest “that is consistent with those who would seek to use it as a trade barrier against us”.

“It is time we stopped apologising, stopped focusing on fixing all of the world’s environmental issues, time we stopped pandering to NGOs who want nothing more than our demise, and stop believing that the only way we can make an extra buck is to become a carbon credit so that other industries can expend at our expense.

“Our land is for agricultural purpose, I can’t underline that point enough.”

With many consumers still fresh from experiencing the very first empty supermarket shelves they have ever encountered in their life, now was a pivotal time for Australian agriculture to drive change, she said.

‘Three pronged attack’

Jacqueline Curley said the cattle industry was facing a three pronged attack focused on environmental regulation, the supposed health benefits of a vegan diet and animal welfare.

The plant based protein industry was growing fast and was here to stay, she said, pointing out that the products are now available in every supermarket in Australia.

Jacqueline Curley addressing the AgForce webinar.

She said in her research she lost count of the times she read the claim that eating less meat is one of the single biggest ways a consumer can reduce their impact on planet earth.

Mainstream media articles repeatedly included claims that every bite of a beef burger boasts harmful greenhouse gases, meat is a known cost to human health, plant based meat production uses up to 99pc less water, 95pc less land, 90pc fewer harmful emissions, and consumes nearly half the energy.

“Have these bold statements been fact checked, apples for apples, in scientific reports by our industry organisations?,” she asked.

“Or do we just believe what we are fed like the world audience?

“…I say when are we going to stop being apologetic for cows supposedly creating, dare I say it, the great global cow methane hysteria, which is gradually being disproved.

“The science is not settled.”

Tell the industry’s story, invest in leadership

Alice Greenup said the industry needs to invest in executive capacity building and leadership skills, and use levy funding to do that, or it would continue to get railroaded.

“I want to see a strong and vibrant beef industry that is valued and respected, I don’t want to apologise for what we do, but to do that we do need to tell our story and share our narrative and we know that people on the other side are very well funded and very sophisticated in that narrative that they are giving

“So we do need to see a levy to fund industry PICs (Peak Industry Councils) and then we need really experienced and qualified people to develop and implement policy strategy and education capacity building.

“A united beef industry, with direct membership, all beef producers involved, and no free loaders.

“I get really disappointed when I hear corporates say they can get inside the door of a minister and they don’t need to be part of an organisation.

“How powerful could we be if as an industry we all got behind and we had strong leadership and we use those great leadership skills that do sit within those corporate walls and we use those leadership skills to enhance and build succession plans and build capacity with the young people coming through.”


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  1. Ann Ballinger, 31/08/2020

    Such basic practical wonderful comments from 3 very sensible bush women , with plenty of great style! Hopefully the comments go far and wide. Thankyou.

  2. Renata Paliskis, 30/08/2020

    When can we start?

  3. Paul Franks, 30/08/2020

    I think we are about twenty five to thirty years too late to say too much now. The regulation bull jumped out of confinement a long time ago and has not been thrown and dragged back in.

    Regulation of the beef industry is now an industry on it’s own, no one in any position of power is going to stir the waves and risk their own career. We are not the USA that is for sure.

  4. Bim Struss, 30/08/2020

    Congratulations to all three women for your frank and forthright views spotlighting our incredible industry.
    There is one line in Alice Greenup’s summation that says it all….

    “A united beef industry, with direct membership, all beef producers involved, and no free loaders.

    The 130 year old NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) in America where all cattlemen are members.
    The NCBA educates and advocates for all of industry and Governments respect the opinion of the Association.

    Imagine the strength if all our Australian Cattle Producers were members of one Association?

  5. Greg Campbell, 29/08/2020

    Aristotle outlined that a good argument (convincing position) is made up of three things; logos, ethos and pathos. Logos being the logic and science of the argument, ethos being the credibility of the person or organisation making the argument, and pathos being the passion in the way the argument is presented. When it comes to creating or countering a customer’s viewpoint, or arguing against a trade barrier, elements of all three may be required but not necessarily in balance. My comments, and the work of the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework principally focus on the logos. Steering McDonald’s to a better understanding on Australian tree/forest management, changing draconian state legislation, or ensuring beef is not thrown under the bus in meeting national greenhouse targets will be much assisted by the work of the ABSF. Logos won’t carry the arguments alone but having robust objective information does help.

    • Digby Corker, 04/09/2020

      Greg, your understanding of Aristotle differs somewhat from mine. Pathos, as I believe Aristotle understood it in this context, is the rhetorical device or strategy of appealing to the emotions of the targeted audience. The ABSF certainly does that, and as a cynical (and arguably dishonest) marketing exercise I would suggest it does it well. If we apply the blowtorch of Logos the ABSF is found wanting, as is your understanding of what Aristotle considered Logos to be; reasoned discourse, or argument. As for Ethos, I would question the morality of a narrow group of individuals seeking to impose a particular political view – in this case the ABSF – onto their fellow producers. It brings to mind Aristotle’s famous advice to Alexander – “be a leader to the Greeks, and a despot to the barbarians”.

    • Greg Campbell, 31/08/2020

      David the ABSF collects, to every extent practicable, national data on the agreed key measures of sustainability for the cattle and beef industry. Dairy, sheep, fisheries, forestry etc are all doing something similar, as are many other countries. It’s not the charter of the ABSF to take up the arguments of varied definitions around the globe, and their impact on trade, or to try and solve issues with particular pieces of legislation in each state. But this doesn’t mean the work of the ABSF can’t assist those seeking to make changes to Queensland vegetation laws. While the ABSF reports national changes in groundcover, woodland and forest cover (forest cover increased 2.2% nationally since 2017/18), there is incredible detail behind these national figures just waiting to be tapped and used by producers or their state bodies. Vegetation data from over 12 billion pixels, for the last 30 years, has been compiled for every rural property over 10 hectares – 550,000 rural titles likely to have grazing. This data has been clustered for each of the 56 NRM regions relevant to the beef industry (on the ABSF website). It could also be clustered for shires, catchments or specific vegetation communities. There is no personal or business information attached to this data. The industry and its consultants have collected and own this data. It’s a resource available to answer questions on vegetation change in any state at a very fine spatial scale, but I don’t believe the ABSF has been set up or funded to take up the specific issues (WWF hotspot, Qld legislation) you raise.

    • David Hill, 30/08/2020

      I would be interested to know what part of the ABSF you believe will lead to changes in draconian state legislation? Has the definition of what is remnant vegetation changed from what it was in VMA1999, to a definition that many landholders would consider to be more draconian? The point I believe Josie was making is that if McDonalds was going to restrict supply’s from producers based on deforestation, what would be the reason for using a different definition of what a forest is from what our competitors use? I am led to believe that Dr Bill Burrows during his time was able to determine that woodland thickening had the potential to negatively impact the viability of agricultural land holders involved in beef production. Whether the land is freehold or leasehold it is defined as grazing land, so logic would lead someone to assume that it would be prudent to have a similar approach to ones competitors. I am sure the producers in the US would be unlikely to put up with McDonalds trying to impose on their rights as Agricultural landholders, would you not agree? As far as logos go, could I suggest that logic and science could have some credibility issues currently, but that is nothing new, I am sure if Aristotle was around today he may well agree!

  6. Joanne Rea, 29/08/2020

    I think the ladies nailed it.

  7. Matthew Della Gola, 29/08/2020

    Really good read. I hope this can get some traction. My young family and i are the next generation and for me personally i think its highly concerning when organizations who supposedly represent me with my levies are supporting the dilution of our industry through supporting time wasting inefficient funding or bureaucracy that support sytems that continually add no value or efficiency to our business. When are or how are we ever going to be heard and or represented as an industry rather than being spooked and herded by an organizations that seems to be more communist than democratic in their actions. Because if our system was truly democratic we would actually have a choice.

  8. Rob Atkinson, 28/08/2020

    All power to Alice, Jackie and Josie!

  9. Andy Kathy Hawkins, 28/08/2020

    Thankyou you wonderful women. And Agforce for presenting this.

  10. Peter Vincent, 28/08/2020

    “Ain’t this the truth!”. An excellent expose from three grassroots beef industry innovators who shame the righteous, “old school tie” mentality of CCA and MLA.

  11. Chris Atkinson, 28/08/2020

    What an uplifting read. Finally people are speaking out!!! Congratulations to you all. Keep the momentum going . Unity can be achieved however it needs the right people behind the movement. Levies do need to be paid but only to an organisation that is leading the industry and is working for industry. Invest in leadership that is passionate about the industry no freeloaders or slushes. Welcome science , fact check science and be prepared to stand up and challenge the science when it is clearly wrong and the need arises. Australian farmers are the best in the world and it is time they stood up to be counted because only together can the industry make the right decisions. At present groups are dividing and conquering every sector with wild and false claims this needs to be addressed holistically not individually. I commend Agforce on doing this and I commend these ladies on standing up.

  12. Greg Campbell, 28/08/2020

    Definitions of forest vary considerably, even across the various UN agencies. The Convention on Climate Change defines forest as from 10-30% canopy cover but gives latitude to individual countries to work within that range for carbon accounting purposes. New Zealand chose 30% while the Australian Greenhouse Office uses 20%.
    To develop accurate data and reporting on tree and ground cover, the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework assembled an expert working group of science specialists to advise on measurements, definitions and methods for reporting vegetation change on our grazing lands. These recommendations were then discussed with a wide range of interested parties, including our various state and national infustry bodies. The collective wisdom was to use the same forest definition as the Australian Greenhouse Office. Woodland has been defined as 10-20% canopy cover. This is a complex project which is being very carefully managed to supply accurate data to very polarised viewpoints.

    • David Hill, 29/08/2020

      Editor, in the past you have posted articles that have included comments from Dr Bill Burrows, as Dr Burrows was a member of the expert panel mentioned above, it might be an opportunity to get some further comment from him.
      Greg, could I suggest you read what is attributed to Josie Angus again, because market access is one of the biggest games in town for our industry! Technical/Non-tariff trade barriers add cost that reduces our competitiveness in the global market, these are bad enough and often take up a lot of time for those trying to address them. But imposing trade restrictions on yourself is something that beggars belief, and it is something that this industry has allowed and been part of for too long! The main message of Josie Angus’ presentation was, let’s do what our competitors are doing. Could I suggest you try and explain to producers in Qld who risk being unable to supply beef to our largest single global customer because of vegetation management laws and forest definitions that don’t apply to producers in many of our competitor countries. You might also explain how Qld is a clearing hotspot when due to the VMA1999, 87% of Qld was mapped as remnant vegetation and it has been illegal since then to clear remnant vegetation for the purposes of beef production?

    • Josie Angus, 29/08/2020

      Greg, you are right there are a number of differing definitions for forest. When the most accepted globally is far better for our producers why would we accept a detrimental one. I hope you got to watch the webinar, I think you over-estimate the relevance of the ABSF in my opinion. The ABSF isn’t being used by McDonalds and JBS as they seek to persecute us and strip away land management rights in Northern Australia , it wasn’t even used by the EU FTA Sustainability Impact Assessment so I can only assume that it’s sole purpose each year is to give a nod to WWF and to make me cranky for a week or so. My call was for the Australian Govt’s definition of forest to be changed, that’s where we need equivalence with our competitors. Surely if we got to a point where a Brazilian company can persecute our producers over deforestation, something isn’t quite right in the scheme of things.

  13. Grant Piper, 28/08/2020

    excellent article – these women are right on the money. ‘comply and die’, or stay in business, that is the choice. Once again ‘our’ leaders are failing/asleep on all the most critical issues.

  14. John Carter, 28/08/2020

    Josie Angus is spot on as usual . However Alice Greenup apparently doesn’t know of the “Canberra Disease” where Peak Councillors travel there and immediately become infected by Canberra’s thinking.
    Agforce’s refusal to sign up to NFF’S dreamtime “Carbon neutral 2050” was a breath of fresh air.

    • Josie Angus, 29/08/2020

      Thanks John. I hope that you got a chance to view the full webinar, I for one hold my hand up to say that I’m a way better commentator than I am a board participant. As you’ve campaigned for so long, our structure makes the task of representing us almost impossible. I believe Alice has a very strong desire for change. I hope more and more stand beside her and back it in as well. PS, once again this year we’ve been beneficiaries of the exceptional ICMJ program, thanks again for your work in founding it here, it is hugely valuable to our industry.

    • Alice Greenup, 28/08/2020

      Thanks John. I’ll take that as an endorsement and encouragement to continue to turn up to Canberra as a volunteer with CCA and try to create the vision many of us share for the industry. I’m of the view that I’d rather be in the arena trying to fix it rather than booing from the edges. It’s far from perfect, yes. And I acknowledge humbly and graciously the work, time and years that many have dedicated to the cause. I am just picking up the batten and helping with this leg of the journey as best I can. As a passionate and tireless industry advocate yourself, I look forward to working with you more to achieve a resolution.
      Kind regards

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