Accelerating global demand for animal protein offers great economic opportunities for Australia – the world’s second largest beef exporter. Professor Alan Bell, Chief of CSIRO Livestock Industries, discusses the formidable challenges the beef industry needs to tackle to capitalise on these opportunities in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.
Such challenges include climate change, the need to mitigate the environmental impact of beef production, welfare issues surrounding animal management, transport, and slaughter practices and the growing risk of devastating exotic diseases invading our herds.
Looming particularly large is the potential impact of climate change on the already dry and erratic climate of much of pastoral Australia.
If, as cautiously predicted, northern Australia maintains or increases its present average rainfall without becoming too much hotter, beef production in the tropics and subtropics may be expanded.
This will depend heavily on increased access to water for production of forage and grain crops for intensive feeding, potentially by the introduction of mosaic irrigation. Such a system involves small patches of irrigated land dispersed across the landscape as an alternative to large-scale, dense irrigation.
The use of more moderate stocking rates has been shown by recent field research to bring long-term financial as well as environmental benefits to producers Intensive beef cattle finishing enterprises could also take advantage of energy-rich by-products from other crops grown in northern Australia, such as molasses from the sugar cane industry.
However, the effects of cattle-grazing on rural landscapes, such as land clearing, land degradation and threats to biodiversity, have their own negative impact on the environment and need to be minimised.
This will require development and widespread adoption of sustainable grazing management practices. For example, the use of more moderate stocking rates has been shown by recent field research to bring long-term financial as well as environmental benefits to producers.
Reduced stocking rates can also help sequester significant amounts of carbon through improved land condition and increased tree cover, which may reward producers with carbon credits under new Australian legislation.
A much-debated environmental effect of the beef industry is its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, predominantly in the form of methane released from the gut of cattle.
Significant progress has already been made in reducing the intensity of these emissions through readily adoptable changes in management practices. Continued scientific research and the implementation of the Australian Government's new Carbon Farming Initiative should further accelerate these gains.
The long-term solution to animal welfare issues will require a paradigm shift in beef-importing nations to switch from wet markets and live import to boxed beef.
Another major challenge for the beef industry is the urgent need to address heightened public visibility and concerns about management, transport, and slaughter practices.
The latter issue was dramatically emphasised earlier this year when the ABC television program Four Corners, showing distressing images of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs, triggered temporary suspension of live cattle export from Australia to Indonesia.
Some of these welfare issues can be addressed by research and development. However, the long-term solution will also require trade diplomacy to encourage a paradigm shift in beef-importing nations, such as Indonesia, to switch from wet markets and live import to boxed beef. This long-term challenge will in turn require substantial investment in the transport and processing infrastructure in northern Australia.
Although Australia is largely free of the world's most devastating infectious animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, this current trade advantage is vulnerable to the increasing risk of incursions of exotic viruses.
Globalisation of trade, increased human travel and climate change are all intensifying this risk of infectious diseases that can cause huge economic losses to the industry or spread to humans.
To protect our disease-free status and preferential access to export markets we need to boost research to improve diagnostic tools and surveillance systems. These must be complemented by rapid-response strategies involving isolation of infected animals and targeted vaccination of potentially vulnerable populations.
The challenge of disease surveillance across the vast, sparsely populated landscape of Australia demands increased public investment and improved integration of federal and state or territory resources.
The isolation and scale of grazing land in Australia, along with shortage of skilled labour, is also a hurdle for management of pastures and animals.
However, emerging technologies such as satellite-driven systems for remote management and access to high-speed broadband are set to help reduce this challenge. Social policy to re-engage Indigenous Australians with the pastoral beef industry could also help address the labour shortage in central and northern Australia.
Other factors, such as the lack of transport, processing, and shipping infrastructure in northern Australia, will require significant public and private investment and risk mitigation strategies.
As producers are now starting to see ways of managing their properties more sustainably, scientists, policy makers and others need to provide them with better opportunities and encouragement to do so – and stay in business.