MLA to take Catalyst concerns further after ABC dismisses complaint

James Nason, 30/09/2018


Meat & Livestock Australia has vowed to pursue a complaint with a higher authority about an ABC Catalyst program that depicted Australian beef production as an unsustainable user of land and water, after an internal ABC review concluded the program had not breached editorial standards.

Meat & Livestock Australia has expressed ‘extreme disappointment’ in the ABC’s response, believing it failed to directly address the core complaint that the program selectively used information to paint a misleading and negative picture of Australian beef production’s water use and impact on the environment.

MLA managing director Richard Norton said the complaint will now be furthered through the Australian Communication and Media Authority, a move that has been publicly backed by the peak industry body representing Australian cattle producers, the Cattle Council of Australia (more below).


In August an ABC Catalyst program titled “Feeding Australia – Foods of Tomorrow” introduced a segment about insects becoming a future protein food source for humans by presenting a critical overview of the impacts of Australian beef on environmental and health grounds.

The presenter stated that it took 20 litres of water to produce one gram of beef, that cows “need a lot of land, a lot of feed, and they’re big producers of greenhouse gases”, and that meal worms and other insects provide the same level of nutrition while being healthier than beef.

Despite considerable scientific evidence existing to challenge each of these claims no further context about the sustainability of beef production was provided by the program.

MLA managing director Richard Norton subsequently wrote to the program’s producers expressing concern that the presentation of information was misleading and inaccurate and not consistent with the ABC’s charter to provide high standards of accuracy, impartiality and objective journalism, and to present factual content in a way that does not materially mislead the audience or unduly favour one perspective over another.

Mr Norton said the program failed to recognise the drastically different methodologies used to calculate water use, or to reference the latest available scientific information on water use in the Australian beef industry.

In contrast to the figure replied upon by the ABC that it takes 15,000 litres to produce one kilogram of beef, ‘more meaningful’ Life Cycle Assessment studies showed the real figure was actually 30 times lower at around 515 litres/kg.

He said an ABC report in 2009 featured an Australian researcher debunking many of the exaggerated claims that exist around water use in the Australian beef industry. In that program Brad Riddout stated that it was “very misleading” to suggest to consumers that by avoiding eating a kilogram of beef they would somehow return thousands of litres of water to a river system.

It was also false to suggest the Australian livestock industry was unsustainable because of the land size it uses and its emissions, Mr Norton told the ABC. The majority of land supporting Australian livestock was extensive rangelands and semi-arid areas unsuitable for other agricultural systems. “Because of this, there is a legitimate argument that cattle and sheep farming is an efficient use of this land for producing highly nutritious protein and vitamins.”

The claim that insects provided similar nutrition but were healthier than beef ignored the documented important role lean red meat played in a healthy, balanced diet, and recommendations in the Australia Dietary Guidelines. (See Mr Norton’s initial letter to ABC Catalyst here)

Mr Norton said ABC Catalyst, as a science program with a national audience, had a responsibility to present the most accurate information to all Australians.

“Through the program, the ABC has presented an opinion that is inaccurate, does not reflect the latest science and is highly damaging to the Australian beef industry.”

ABC response

However, in a response sent to MLA on Sep 18, the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit said it had reviewed the program and was satisfied the Catalyst segment was in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy.

In its written response to MLA, the ABC said the statement that it takes 20 litres of water to produce one gram of beef drew on a 2017 United Nations “World Water Development Report”, which included the statement that “15,000 litres of water are needed for 1 kg of beef” – (The report can be viewed here – in making the 15,000 litre reference, the report provides no further information as to the original source or scientific process used to support that figure)

The ABC’s response said it understood the 15,000 figure was “widely used globally” and noted the information was “cited in a report from a reputable source, the United Nations”.

The response said the ABC was satisfied the program made reasonable efforts to ensure material facts were accurate and presented in context in relying on the figure as cited by the UN.

It also rejected the view that the program had claimed the Australian livestock industry is unsustainable because of the land size it uses and emissions:

“The program stated that “Cows also need a lot of land, a lot of feed, and they’re big producers of greenhouse gases”. We are satisfied that this statement was not materially misleading in the context of a program concerned with the challenges of feeding millions more people in future decades, including the likely need for additional ways of producing protein sustainably.”

It also disagreed with the view that the program presented the future of beef eating as non-existent and unsustainable in the long term or that the only viable future of protein is either insects or plant-based alternatives to meat:

“Catalyst advise that the segment on meal worms was light-hearted in nature and “designed to introduce Australians to an unconventional and potentially uncomfortable new food source.” Dr Leong pointed out some of the benefits of insects as a protein source, both in terms of nutrition and environmental impact but at no point did the program claim that red meat should not play a role as a food source in the future. Rather the program explored some of the other possible future food sources that may be developed.”

 The letter noted that if MLA was dissatisfied with this response, it may be able to pursue its complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

MLA ‘Extremely disappointed’

Mr Norton said MLA was extremely disappointed with the ABC’s decision and the stated basis for its decision, and would be pursuing the complaint through ACMA.

MLA managing director Richard Norton addresses the field day audience

In comments provided to Beef Central Mr Norton said Australian red meat producers – many of whom had been some of the most loyal ABC listeners and viewers – had held the ABC in high regard for many years.

“However, the obvious agenda of metropolitan ABC to discredit agriculture in Australia is a disgraceful attack on farmers and the communities and workers they support, many of whom are already suffering through a major drought,” he said.

He said that rather than directly addressing the MLA’s complaint about the selective and misleading nature of the program’s portrayal of Australian beef production’s water use and impact on the environment, the ABC’s response relied instead on “sweeping statements within the guise of context and a report that uses global averages from the United Nations”.

The UN water figure replied upon by the program was a global average and not appropriate when considering a highly efficient system like Australia, he said.

Mr Norton said he drew the ABC’s attention to the large body of work that had been undertaken within Australia looking at water use for food production by CSIRO and other leading research organisations.

Within this field, he said, experts agreed that to meaningfully look at the environmental impacts of food production for water, either Life Cycle Assessment (LCA’s) or water foot printing measures should be used.

“I have also pointed out that the Australian red meat industry – in its current state – is more than capable of feeding the additional 15 million Australians by 2050 cited in the Catalyst program.

“While Australia is a relatively small red meat producer at the global level we are one of the largest exporters globally, producing far more meat than the domestic market consumes (as referenced in the State of the Industry Report 2018 available on the MLA website).

In 2017 Australia exported 69pc of total beef/veal production, 69pc of sheepmeat production, and 91pc of goatmeat production (excluding live exports).

“If this production were to be retained domestically rather than exported it could feed in excess of 50 million beef and sheepmeat consumers each year, based on current Australian per capita consumption figures.

“MLA regularly engages with ABC journalists, but we’ve renewed an invitation to the broadcaster for its journalists to contact MLA whenever it requires information about the industry’s credentials and its focus on continual improvement, including industry initiatives such as the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework and our continued research and development investments in the productivity and sustainability of our industry.

“MLA also continues to share our industry’s great story with consumers and the broader community.  This includes the recently launched online platform Australian Good Meat – which provides consumers with an open and transparent source of information about the production of red meat in Australia; our Paddock to Plate Story in Virtual Reality – currently touring South Eastern Australia; and our other community engagement initiatives including community events; education and schools program; and producer advocate development.”

Cattle Council backs taking complaint to ACMA

Cattle Council of Australia CEO Margo Andrae said beef producers strongly supported MLA taking its Catalyst complaint to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

“For a story specifically about Australian food production, it is wrong to lump Australian cattle producers in with the rest of the world by citing data which reflects overseas beef production systems,” Ms Andrae said.

“We’re proud that our beef is produced with exceptional water efficiency. We’re talking about producing clean, green, high-quality beef on the world’s driest inhabited continent with environmental credentials which are the envy of the world.

“We welcome any discussion about the sustainability of beef production, because Australian cattle producers have a unique and compelling story to tell in terms of land and water management. And we’re proud of the proactive role our industry is playing in terms of aligning productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability for the future.

“It’s a positive story that media outlets, including the ABC, generally do a great job in sharing with their audiences. But when any program or journalist is wide of the mark, they must be held to account.”



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  1. Rod Barrett, 05/10/2018

    Question to those using simple mathematics of water consumed to kg of beef produced.
    What account is taken of the animals water cycle where consumed water is sweated out, returned to the atmosphere in moisture laden breath, urine & dung. Evaporation in whatever form is evaporation – the water cycle.
    Figures of water consumed versus beef produced are totally misleading.

  2. donald brown, 04/10/2018

    all very good comment. Maybe the ABC should do a story on how Livestock management can improve our soils hence our ability to feed the world by working on the carbon cycle as advocated by Allan Savory and Dr Christine Jones?

  3. Will Robinson, 01/10/2018

    The points above are all good and valid. However, independent Australian and indeed international scientists of considerable repute are also telling us that all is not well in terms of the health and well being of the land and the grass on the land over about 500 million acres. Even a novice driving past bare paddocks around Gilgandra could see that there may well be an environmental issue at hand. It is a worry if any person who suggests that there may be an environmental issue is written off in the same manner as the poor American GI who picked up a huge entourage of Japanese bombers on the radar heading for Pearl Harbour sometime before there was some real excitement at Pearl Harbour. It may well be that the environmental and political excitement around sustainability is about to click up a notch? Perhaps, thinking in terms of prevention rather than treatment in this area will be considerably cheaper financially and emotionally? Do we really want to be caught with our pants down – environmentally – like the Yanks were at Pearl Harbour?

  4. Lee McNicholl, 30/09/2018

    Just got our “close out ” report on 146 steers fed at Lillyvalee Feedlot via Condamine . I hope the ABC and their dodgy Catalyst ” scientists” will take note . Their entry weight was 391 Kg. They were fed for an average 91 days. Their average daily gain was 2.47 Kg/day at a Dry Matter conversion rate of 4.49 intake for 1 Kg of live weight gain. Lets say they drank 50 litres/day. Therefore they put on 1 kg LW per 20 litres of water. At 55% dressing percentage and a carcass yield of say 65 % , 1 Kg Live weight translates to .34 Kg of saleable meat for 59 litres consumed. This ignores the fact that all the carcass after the saleable meat has been removed has a plethora of commercial uses . Nothing is wasted .
    So ABC how about getting out of your twisted urban mind set and start talking to some real Australians that daily bust their guts to feed you sustainably from the world’s driest continent ??

  5. Chris Engelbrech, 29/09/2018

    “Practice what you preach “ how about that ABC reporter and team go and have a month of worms for breakfast lunch and dinner, live on television. Surely they can put 10 min aside for each meal. If you want to eat worms and crickets so badly go and have it then. No extremist has done any good in the world. Eat more beef and lamb..

  6. margaret campbell, 29/09/2018

    my family run about 10,000 head of beef cattle on approximately 1000 sq miles of rough range country unsuitable for any other production.My estimate of water used per kg. of beef produced is as follows. 1 beast at 3 years average producing 300kg beef. average 25 litres water per day , [some of the time its a baby calf], 3years x 365 days, =about 1100 days,x 25 litres per day = 27,500 litres. Divide this by 300 kg of beef =55 litres per kg. Now roughly double this for processing at meat works[ not my field of expertise] However what must be taken into account, is the value of hides, for leather, and all the other side products, all included in the original amount of water used. The water drunk by the cattle would not have been able to be used for any other purpose , and would have evaporated, except for the needs of wildlife. C heers. Margaret Campbell

  7. Elizabeth Corfe, 29/09/2018

    I totally agree with the previous comments re the ABC. It’s attitudes and content have been hijacked by inner-city values and those who have no connection with agriculture. I read figures that show ‘vegan’ is the fastest growing fad in food choice. That is fine for those who can cope with it, but everyone’s body is unique, and it is not for every one of us. Some of us can feel the difference when deprived of red meat, and NO amount of spinach/lentils etc can make a difference. Today’s way of extrapolating data to prove a point without deeper research is destroying good scientific accuracy in many fields.

  8. Sandra Jephcott, 29/09/2018

    At.least this is a constructive use of Producer funds

  9. David Hill, 28/09/2018

    I too have been told by the Audience and Consumer Affairs (independent) division of the ABC to take my complaint to the Australian Communications and Media Authority if I wish to take the matter further.

    I was also told that the provision most relevant to my complaint was 2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure material facts are accurate and presented in context.
    Whilst the program mentions the 2017 UN report, the related info section in the transcript mentions a report titled ‘The water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison’, this report then references a 2010 report titled The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products.

    The short version is that at an average age of 3.1 yrs, and consuming an average of 47kg of feed(dry mass) per 1kg of product(beef) the global beef animal produces 110kg of beef. the live weight of the animal was considered to be 253kg at end of life(3.1 yrs).

    The other claim I found to be absurd was that it takes 25kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef. This was attributed to a mob called ‘The Conversation’ who were referencing a report titled “Can we feed the world and stop deforestation? Depends what’s for dinner? They believe healthy democracies need access to high quality, non-partisan, evidence based information. they claim to produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. it then says please donate and help us(tax deductable). seems that you can ring an Australian phone number to start the process. This is what we are dealing with here!
    In a reply to the original article, I mentioned that I thought it may be better for us in the end if we concentrated on portraying the positives of our industry. At the end of the day, we are not the only ones that seem to be having trouble holding the ABC to account over their so-called journalistic standards.

    David Hill
    Independent Director
    Cattle Council of Australia.

  10. Sally Black, 28/09/2018

    The ABC as the last week has proved is beyond critism. Anyone who dares to disagrees with their agenda is laughed and vilified, they are beyond reproach. So sad, as the ABC has some relevant programmes The Country Hour Landline weather and flood reports essential listening or viewing. Their incredibly biased political left leaning loses any credibility. Climate Change being just one eyed, their Green Agenda is more than obvious.

  11. Colin White, 28/09/2018

    Not surprised that the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit thought the program “in keeping with ABC’s editorial standard for accuracy”; the broadcaster you cannot trust.
    I hope the MLA pursue them with diligence as it is part of the ABC’s agenda to end livestock farming.

  12. Samuel Mackay, 28/09/2018

    Well done Richard and Margo. You have full support of the Forbes Livestock Agency and its clients in the central west. We needed to take a stand!

  13. Jenny James, 28/09/2018

    Just what did they expect? Didn’t they learn anything from past dealings with ABC? Unbelievable

  14. David Crombie, 28/09/2018

    Well done Richard Norton and MLA….. Loose and damaging assertions such as these presented as scientific fact on the National broadcaster cannot pass unchallenged..

  15. Paul Zlotkowski, 28/09/2018

    I am so pleased to see the response by MLA and Cattle Counci to the clearly
    inaccurate Catalyst program. It is clear to see by the current turmoil in the ABC
    that this wonderful institution has lost its way. I am sure that most of my generation are appalled at the journalistic route that the ABC has taken and as I move around the bush I find that many younger people are finding the ABC
    becoming more and more irrelevant Chairman NT Pastoral Land Board

  16. Mark Minnis, 28/09/2018

    ABC has totally lost it in PC and just are socialist network

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