MLA at Senate Estimates questions Virgin’s beef with cattle

James Nason, 24/10/2018

COMMENTS by Virgin Airlines boss Richard Branson, a man who has made billions from jet travel, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting the world should stop eating beef for environmental reasons, have prompted industry calls for him to rethink his approach.

On a visit to Australia earlier this month Mr Branson, who gave up eating beef two years ago, told the Australian Financial Review that Virgin airlines will stop serving beef on some of its flights in future.

He said one of Virgin’s airlines had experimented offering no beef on 50 percent of its flights and had received no negative feedback from passengers.  “If every airline in the world could do that, we could actually start saving the rainforests,” he told AFR.

However a spokesperson for Virgin Australia told the same newspaper the Australian branch of the company was not planning to ban beef: “Beef is incredibly important to agriculture and the economy in Australia so it is not something we are looking to do at this stage.”

In response to Mr Branson’s comments Mr Norton told the Australian Financial Review that the Australian beef industry had reduced carbon emissions by 45 percent since 2005 and was on a pathway to carbon neutrality by 2030.

“My question to Mr Branson is, is Virgin Airlines on that pathway?” Mr Norton said.

Aviation and business analysts quoted in the same article speculated that perhaps Virgin’s real motivation was actually one of cost-cutting, given that beef was more expensive than other meat, and rising oil prices were increasing the pressyre on airlines to find savings.

Victorian beef producer Mark Wootton, who has developed a carbon positive cattle enterprise, said Mr Branson’s actions could hinder people moving to best-practice farming. The right approach, he believed, was for businesses like Virgin to work with farmers to reward and encourage best practice and support the industry to achieve carbon neutral farming.

Quizzed by Senators about the red meat industry’s progress towards its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 at this week’s Senate Estimates hearings in Canberra, Mr Norton said MLA has commissioned a university to review the impact on land usage, emissions, monocultures, pesticides, insecticides and synthetic fertiliser requirements if 20 percent of the Australian population moved to a vegan diet.

He noted that a similar recent study by Virginia Tech University found the agricultural and land use changes that would occur if the US was to move to an exclusively plant-only diet as advocated by vegans would cut greenhouse gas emissions by just 2.6 percent, while causing cause massive nutritional deficiencies across the population.

Mr Norton said the CSIRO has identified 15 to 20 different avenues the Australian red meat industry can follow to move towards carbon neutrality, which included supplementary feeding livestock with seaweed or using probiotics (the equivalent to ‘inner health plus’ for cattle and sheep) to reduce methane emissions, early Savannah burning and balancing production systems.

“As an industry I think it is a really positive message to consumers and people that this industry doesn’t walk away from the issue but is prepared to actually challenge the issue and deliver.

“…and again, perhaps unlike the airline industry, we have reduced it by 45 percent through genetics and innovation and research that this country is so good at delivering, and I think over the next decade we will well and truly achieve our target.”

Ending livex would not mean growing jobs

Independent SA Senator Tim Storer asked if more jobs would be created if Australia replaced live exports with more domestic meat processing. Mr Norton said the WA sheep industry demonstrated that would not be the case.

Eastern States forward contract prices for 16-26kg lambs were currently sitting around $8/kg carcase weight, with an average spot price of around $7.30.

“In WA with no live export industry at the moment it is $5.80/kg,” Mr Norton said.

“If the live export industry starts progressing ahead and starts buying sheep I think you will find that (WA price) will increase.

“At the moment that is the reality – there is a significant price difference between the eastern seaboard where there is significant processing capacity versus Western Australia which has been traditionally a live export market.”

Mr Norton said if the WA live export industry closed down, there would be less jobs in Australia because there would be a lot of farmers in the State who “just wouldn’t breed sheep”.

“The economics of it would be that the market over there would be controlled by very, very few processors because there is not the processing capacity in WA.

“The chair of WAMMCO, one of the largest processors in WA, has publicly declared that WA does not have the capacity to slaughter the number of sheep sold off-farm in WA.

“At this present day at this moment it would have a dramatic impact on the income of farmers in WA if the trade was closed.”

Qld Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan added that many live trading partners wanted live animals because their countries lacked adequate refrigeration: “If the live job were stopped, it is not going to be replaced by chilled or boxed meat to those market places.”

Combining RDCs could create cost savings

Mr Norton, who is leaving MLA in December to join Elders, said Rural Development Corporations in the red meat industry should consider merging to reduce duplication of costs and board structures.

“An RDC should be judged like every corporate organisation, what is the annual income and what expenses are sunk expenses like board costs, lease costs, that aren’t generating research for that organisation,” he said.

“I have quite proudly said that 8-10pc of MLA’s annual income is sunk costs, that means that 90pc of what we bring in we deliver in either marketing or research and I challenge other RDCs to achieve that type of outcome.

Parting tribute

At the close of session, Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committee chair Senator O’Sullivan paid tribute to Mr Norton’s time as MLA managing director, saying he had been very much respected by the committee and by the industry.

“Not everyone agreed with you on many things, but you have proven over time that a lot of the things you have set out to do and indeed achieved have proven to be the right course for the beef industry and I think it is fair to say they will be indebted to you for a generation or more to come,” Senator O’Sullivan said.



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  1. Andrew Negline, 25/10/2018

    Lots to be discussed from this very clear message from the Virgin boss however it is equally clear that our governments are seeking clarification from our agriculture industry on “spear headed” representation to manage timely and fact driven responses to this sort of discussion. Food for thought.
    Andrew Negline

  2. Andrew Dunlop, 24/10/2018

    All Australian farmers should Boycott Virgin!!

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