Beef sustainability group backs tree cover accounting approach

James Nason, 18/07/2019

The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework (ASBF) steering group says it strongly stands by the approach it uses to measure changes in tree cover in beef producing regions from year to year.

Picture: ASBF

It follows calls by the World Wildlife Fund for a stronger reporting system for forest cover to be adopted nationally.

In a statement responding to the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework’s second annual report card released in June, the World Wildlife Fund said it applauded the leadership of the ASBF in committing to track the industry’s progress towards carbon neutrality by 2030.

However it also raised concerns about the framework’s reliance on the Federal Government’s National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS) to measure annual changes in forest cover and to claim net gains in woody vegetation over the past 30 years.

The WWF said the NCAS system that the Federal Government operates was not intended to track changes in tree cover and suggested it gives a misleading picture of actual forest cover, because it does not distinguish between spindly regrowth and 400 year old tall dense forests.

It wants the Federal Government to implement a system similar to the Queensland Government’s State Landcover and Trees Study, otherwise knowns as SLATS. (The Queensland Government’s own use of SLATS data to portray levels of tree clearing in the State has been heavily criticised by Queensland’s major farm representative group AgForce – more below).

In response to the WWF’s call the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework steering group says it takes the approach of using the best available data, and does not agree the information provides a misleading picture.

It points out it spent over a year working with an expert working group with expertise in ecology, beef production and remote sensing to develop evidence-based and practical measures to add certainty and credibility to what has long been a contentious topic.

It says the only available national data set for changes in forest is the National Carbon Accounting System.

While not perfect, all stakeholders engaged in the refinement of indicators used – including WWF and other environmental groups – agreed that it was the best possible dataset available, the ABSF steeting group said.

WWF position

In its response to the ASBF update in June, the WWF said it applauded the Australian beef industry for taking a leadership position to reduce its environmental impact.

The cattle industry was threatened “more than most” by climate change, and its commitment to transparency and to record progress towards the target of carbon neutrality by 2030 sent “a powerful, positive message”.

However, the WWF singled out for criticism the industry’s use of the Federal Government’s National Carbon Accounting System to claim a net gain in the total area of woody vegetation across beef-producing regions.

The WWF’s position is the NCAS does not provide an accurate picture of changes in forest cover. Instead it says a system like the Queensland government’s State Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) should be used, which it says represents ‘global best practice’ in annual accounting of tree cover.

The NCAS uses satellite images to model annual changes in forest and woodland cover and is the only system that provides nationwide measurements.

The WWF’s Ian McConnel addressing the 2019 Northern Territory Cattlemens’ Association conference in Darwin earlier in March.

Ian McConnel, WWF Global Commodity Leader – Beef said the WWF’s concern is that the NCAS does not distinguish between “spindly regrowth” and “400 year old tall dense forests”.

Once regrowth foliage covered 20 percent of an area, it “was counted the same way”, he said.

That could happen as quickly as a single year with regrowth that was only waist high.

“For example, if 100 hectares of 400 year old forest are bulldozed but elsewhere 110 hectares of regrowth reaches the 20 percent threshold, then that is counted as a net gain in woody vegetation” Mr McConnel said.

“No-one could possibly argue that represents a net gain in forest.”

Mr McConnel said a crucial requirement for any credible sustainability report was conserving wildlife. Studies suggested the smallest tree-dwelling marsupials and hollow-dependent birds could begin to recolonise regrown trees after about 165 years, but hollows suitable for larger animals would not be available until over 200 years.

The WWF wants the Queensland government’s SLATS system to be expanded nationally, which would remove the need to use the NCAS data that was established for carbon accounting, not measuring changes in trees.

“Under NCAS forests can be thinned from 100 percent canopy cover down to 20 percent and still be called forest.

“This inevitably misses out on large areas of tree clearing, and because ABSF relies on NCAS, these areas are missing from their forest change statistics,” Mr McConnel said.

“We need a single point of truth on deforestation and carbon in Australia. You can’t sustainably manage what you can’t accurately measure.”

Mr McConnel noted that the ABSF update reported a 3.5 percent reduction in primary forest over the last five years, which included “an alarming 8 percent reduction in Reef catchments”.

“This loss of biodiverse primary forest cannot be offset by new, younger forests.  The beef industry needs to commit to ending deforestation of all primary forests and high conservation value regrowth,” Mr McConnel said.

He said global market demand was pushing for deforestation-free commitments to be delivered by 2020, as evidenced by the various signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests, the Consumer Goods Forum and the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the same time reforestation and land rehabilitation presented an emerging and growing income stream for producers, based on carbon and other environmental credits.

“That means vegetation management to conserve biodiversity and increase carbon storage should be factored into future industry plans,” he said.

ASBF: Data looks at both increases and decreases

In response to the WWF’s concerns the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework said it has enabled reporting in changes in the balance of tree and grass cover across beef properties for the first time in this year’s report.

The data in the report looked at both increases and decreases in trees and pastures for the past 30 years across 56 regions.

This addressed a key criticism that the industry has about the SLATS reporting system in Queensland and enables a more holistic picture of changes over time.

In order to develop the world-first dataset, the framework spent a year focusing on developing evidence-based and practical measures to add certainty and credibility to a contentious topic.

In developing the new indicators the Sustainability Steering Group sought advice from an Expert Working Group with expertise in ecology, beef production and remote sensing to identify the best indicators and the most appropriate way to measure changes in trees and pastures.

“The framework is about leveraging existing data sets to report on what our stakeholders, including customers, investors and the community tell us they are interested in,” an ASBF statement provided to Beef Central said.

Currently the only available national data set for changes in forest was the National Carbon Accounting System and this was used as the basis for the remote sensing work undertaken.

While this data set is not perfect, all stakeholders that were engaged in the refinement of these indicators, including WWF and other environmental groups agreed it was the best possible dataset available, the ASBF statement said.

“The framework agrees that a strengthened national monitoring service that distinguishes between different classes of vegetation is required.

“This is a clear area of interest from our major customers and we need, as an industry, to work with government on how we can access data to demonstrate our performance in order to maintain our world class reputation.”

Selective SLATS science

Queensland rural lobby group AgForce has been highly critical of the Queensland Government’s use of information generated by the SLATS system to justify its claims that its Vegetation Management Act (VMA) was required to prevent land clearing for agriculture in the State.

AgForce has said the Queensland Government has selectively and creatively used ‘cherry-picked’ SLATS data to only tell half the story, while not releasing the full reports to the public.

“The Government’s heavily edited version of the SLATS report doesn’t mention that most clearing is done to provide feed to prevent livestock from starving during drought and to maintain land, including controlling weeds and invasive species that compete with native vegetation,” AgForce president Georgie Somerset said in response to the Qld Government’s December 2018 release of SLATS data.

“The ‘football fields’ of cleared land quoted in their media release represents just 0.2 percent of total Queensland land area.

“It also doesn’t mention that around 40 percent of this area has already been cleared and is simply being maintained.

“And it only measures how much land has been cleared, not how much vegetation has grown over the same period.”

She said AgForce had argued for years that Government scientists should have the resources they need to examine how much vegetation was growing, not just how much was being cleared.



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  1. Jacqueline Curley, 19/11/2019

    When we ask the WWF to be a party to steering our future industry direction we must have rocks in our head. Their ultimate aim appears to be to delete our industry. Sleeping with the enemy never works and this one is very very powerful. They are backed by the UN and reading about their policies they do not appear to want a thriving beef industry in Australia, they are more interested in creating a substitute beef industry to replace us. Even our CSIRO are working on that to help the process along.

  2. Paul Franks, 22/07/2019

    The beef industry needs to change the vocabulary used.

    “Land maintenance” is what should be used when describing reclearing regrowth vegetation.

    Land clearing is when previously uncleared land is cleared.

    As for our “customers” being concerned, I think people are being a bit naive about the whole thing. If customers want your product they will buy it. No one bats an eyelid at buying oil from Saudi Arabia that among other things openly executes gay people. No one was that concerned over the Foxconn worker suicides from their working conditions. This “Consumer Forum” seems to me to be to be more about marketing then any thing else. A bit like Coles going HGP free. Nothing more then a marketing ploy.

    Be interesting to know who these “customers” are. One common theme I have found is that committee’s use generic terms like “customers” without naming them to justify some position. It is like when something goes wrong it is “someone” did it. That “someone” person certainly gets around.

  3. TESS HERBERT, 22/07/2019

    As the Chair of the industry led Sustainability Steering Group for the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, I wanted to clarify a few things from the comments above.

    Most importantly producers and the rest of the beef value chain are the most important stakeholders in the framework. But, it is essential that we proactively work with our customers, investors and other interested parties, including environment groups to ensure that we continue to maintain the trust of our consumers here and globally. This does not mean that those groups lead the discussion, but we need to work constructively where possible.

    The priority area of balance of tree and grass cover is one of the most challenging for our industry. It is also one of the highest priorities for our customers, with many of our largest customers being signatories to the Consumer Goods Forum which commits to no-deforestation in supply chains. We are well aware of the sensitivity of this issue, which is why we needed to take the time to ensure we defined deforestation (remnant vegetation with a canopy cover greater than 20%) and separated it from savannah/ grassland systems. As we have all seen in the media, there are numerous datasets that contradict each other and the process that the framework embarked on was to work with respected experts to agree on the most appropriate way to measure changes in landscape using available data.

    Critically this meant for the first time that we showed both increase and decrease. This includes thickening. Increase (thickening or regrowth) and decrease in two classes of vegetation across 56 regions with 30 years of data can be viewed at The next step is to develop an interactive section on the website to make this data and imagery much more user friendly and to work with landholders to ground truth what is in this dataset and are working on approach to do that. As one of the comments suggested, no one knows the landscape better than producers.

    I would encourage everyone to read the 2019 framework report and look at the further detail on the website and of course reach out to members of the Sustainability Steering Group with any questions.
    Tess Herbert

  4. Bev Marbach, 20/07/2019

    Farmers and graziers have managed this land for 200 years and most own their land . Do any of these groups have millions of dollars invested. Farmers are responsible custodians and care for their land so that it is productive . Disturbed ground grows more vegetation some of which takes a lot of costly management and in western Qld this new growth is preserved to feed livestock in the coming year. In early Aboriginal times they managed the land by cool burns. To-day the forest management practices and laws do not have the correct management laws in place and fires devastate thousands of hectares. Have any of those groups who oppose
    visited to see for themselves how the land is managed or made a living from agriculture .

  5. Joanne Rea, 19/07/2019

    What I would like to know is not only how the now discredited WWF not only inveigles its way into every beef industry forum and committee but why, uniquely among participants, they and the other environmental virtue signallers get pretty much whatever they ask for.
    Producers and their interests are very low on the list of priorities in spite of it being their levies that are being spent.
    The satellite tools developed by the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework (as per the report) have the ability to measure “deforestation” according to some unknown definition down to 10 ha.
    This gives international customers who have been leaned on by WWF to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, the ability to discriminate against individual producers.
    Other countries are just not co-operating with these demands.
    The report also sees fit to include a quote from a WWF report to the UN that Australia is the only developed country with a record of deforestation comparable with Brazil.
    This dishonest piece of hyperbole where apples are compared with oranges goes unrebutted in the annual report for the whole world to read.
    Producer’s economic need for an economic tree grass balance have been forgotten in favour of appeasing the environmental gods.

  6. Dixie Nott, 19/07/2019

    The whole focus on “forests” is designed present the “savanna” environment largely grazed in Australia, as a sort of “rain forest”, for the uninformed. This notion is confirmed by constant comparisons of clearing rates to Brazilian rain forest clearing. In any scientific sense “savanna” is an open canopy system where grass is the dominant strata and the system relies on disturbance to maintain its integrity. After decades of grazing this has been the primary disturbance. This has opened the ground layer to exploitation by woody unpalatable regeneration. A balanced system, under grazing, maintains savanna by cyclic clearing the “thickening”. This is Science 101, as explained by Dr Bill Burrows and his team after 40 years research in grazed woodlands and research overseas in similar grass dominated ecosystems.

    In mesic Queensland coastal woodlands the eucalypt over-story has responded strongly to 20th century government imposed clearing hence the cyclical re-clearing or thinning is a more frequent event. “Spindly regrowth” is not characteristic in these areas. On the coastal woodlands, landowners are busy staying one step behind the regrowth.

    Landowners have been advised on the ecologically sound methods of timber retention since the 1980s by (a) QDPI when that group generated research to take out to industry and (b) catchment groups using that historical research. Sound land management concepts are not new. The principles based on local science are sound and need acknowledgement. We do not need pseudo-science from WWF.

  7. Bill Burrows, 19/07/2019

    Hello Everyone
    I attended 3 or 4 meetings of the ‘expert group’ assembled in 1918 by MLA (as sub-contractor to the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework steering group). I got involved because I thought that I had much to offer on the nominated topic of the ‘Balance of Tree and Grass Cover’ – given my 40+ years of researching this very topic whilst employed by the Queensland Government.

    Clearly I was ineffective, as the matters I thought were highly relevant to the on-going management of grazed woodlands in Northern Australia failed to excite my fellow ‘experts’, along with the organisers charged with progressing our discussions for the ABSF. The subjects that I considered to be core issues – for example, woodland and regrowth ‘thickening’, tree – grass relationship curves, the effect of increasing tree/shrub cover in lowering livestock productivity, the economic impacts of increasing woody plant cover on grazing enterprises and the woodland structures that could enhance both production and conservation aims in grazed woodland communities – were all essentially ignored.

    This failure to get these matters seriously considered was despite my providing the expert group and workshop coordinators with copious documentation which I believed backed up my arguments. The only conclusion I can reach is that my co-attendees simply did not understand grazed woodland dynamics and production drivers within the woodlands, or were blindsided by a curtailed meeting process and agenda that I was not party to. My frustration would have been obvious to all attendees at our meetings, but as an old-timer perhaps I was merely there for appearance sake in any event?

    Funnily enough an opportunity to condense the matters I had raised (in documents circulated to the above ‘experts group’) arose with a Submission I made to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture & Water Resources 2019 Inquiry into the impact of land management policies on the agricultural sector. This Submission is still available via the following link: . Many readers may find details therein relevant to future discussions on this issue if they have not seen this Submission already.

    Finally, I find many of the WWF spokesman’s attributed statements in your article to be misleading and not based on fact. Unfortunately Beef Central probably does not have the space nor I the time to address these matters now. But few of your readers are unfamiliar with the modus operandi of the WWF (and its activist agenda) which does not have the welfare of grazed woodland beef producers at heart.

    Editor’s note: Bill Burrows is a former Senior Principal Scientist with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Forestry, and is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology, the Tropical Grassland Society of Australia and Central Queensland University, a past President of the Australian Rangeland Society and the Tropical Grassland Society of Australia and is recipient of a Centenary Medal for services to Australian society in the field of ecology.

  8. Paul D. Butler, 18/07/2019

    They are interested in tree production…….NOT beef production. Of course their main interest is in control. Telling you what to do and how to do it.

    Resist these beef enemies as you can.

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