In a follow up to a recent ABC Catalyst program which presented a critical view of the sustainability of beef production, Meat & Livestock Australia has written to the program highlighting what it describes as several misleading and inaccurate statements made by the program in the context of Australia’s beef production system.
In response to a Beef Central article about the ABC Catalyst program last week, some readers posted comments questioning if an industry-level response to the program was being prepared.
MLA has since forwarded to Beef Central a copy of a letter written to ABC Catalyst by managing director Richard Norton and sent to the ABC’s Manager of Science Aidan Laverty last Wednesday, August 22. MLA said it has held off from releasing the letter until it had provided the ABC with the professional courtesy of receiving, and an opportunity to review, the complaint before sharing it with other media.
MLA says it has received an acknowledgment of the letter’s receipt from ABC and has offered to keep Beef Central informed of the broadcaster’s response to the various issues with the program identified by MLA.
A full copy of the letter sent by MLA to the ABC Catalyst program is published below:
Dear Mr Laverty
Re: Catalyst program “Feeding Australia (Part 1) Foods of Tomorrow”, 14 August 2018 I’m writing to you regarding the inaccuracy of content and commentary on the beef industry by ABC TV’s Catalyst program which aired on Tuesday, 14 August 2018. These are matters which we consider are inconsistent with:
(a) the ABC Charter to provide “within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”;
(b) the ABC’s statutory duties to ensure that the gathering and presentation of information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.
(c) reasonable efforts having been taken to ensure accuracy in all fact-based content as noted in your Editorial policy and Editorial Guidance Note.
(d) presenting factual content in a way that will not materially mislead the audience and ensuring that a program does not unduly favour one perspective over another as also noted in your Editorial policy and Editorial Guidance Note.
On several occasions, the beef industry was singled out for its impact on the environment through water use, land use and greenhouse gas emissions. While beef production is a global industry, the commentary and so-called ‘facts’ presented were misleading and inaccurate in the context of Australia’s beef production system.
Claim 1: Use of water in beef production – “Just one gram of beef is produced from these 20 litres of water here” and “According to a UN report, it takes 7,000 litres of water for a grazier to produce a 500g steak like this”.
Catalyst’s attempt to demonstrate the amount of water required to produce a steak fails to recognise the drastically different methodologies used to calculate water use in the beef industry. The program also failed to reflect the beef production system utilised in Australia, or reference the latest available scientific information on water use in the Australian beef
The Australian red meat industry acknowledges that producing beef requires water, from that consumed by animals on farm and in feedlots through to the water required for processing. However, by simply citing an unnamed “UN report”, the Catalyst program has failed to investigate and acknowledge available scientific literature containing more recent and relevant water use figures, the improvements made by the industry and the continued research and development investment occurring to lower water use in order to promote environmental stewardship.
Much of the criticism of the beef industry’s water use over the last decade is based on rudimentary assessments of water use that include calculation of rain water required to grow grass or crops (so-called ‘green water’) and water used for livestock drinking and irrigation (so-called ‘blue’ water). In the vast majority of instances, rain water is the dominant source of water ‘use’ in these assessments.
There are major limitations to this type of assessment, because water falling on grazing land is not necessarily available for competing uses, and has a weak connection with fresh water sources such as rivers, dams or ground water. Calculations such as these incorrectly attribute all rain that falls on a property to beef production, when in reality the water is clearly being
used for other purposes, such as supporting ecosystems.
Since 2009, scientists (Ridoutt et al. 2012; Wiedemann et al. 2015; Wiedemann et al. 2016) have used a much more meaningful assessment of water, taking into account the ‘stress’ that water use places on aquatic environments and water resources (eg. rivers and groundwater).
The red meat industry, through Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), publishes information on production systems of Australian red meat. For example, MLA’s Australian Good Meat site sets out peer-reviewed research, published in Agricultural Systems
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X14001565) that quantified the environmental impacts of Australian beef production, using Life-cycle Assessment (LCA) methods. One of the most notable results in beef production included a 65% reduction in consumptive water use, from 1,465 litres/ kg of liveweight to 515 litres / kg of liveweight (over the last 30 years, from 1981-2010).
Most disappointingly, the ABC has attempted to tackle this issue before, and a simple search of the educational resources listed on the ABC’s own website would have provided the program with a more accurate and balanced summary of the issue of water use. The program, titled ‘Water footprints in food manufacturing’ which aired in 2009 (and available
to access http://education.abc.net.au/home#!/media/107290/?source=secondary-science) interviews scientists and industry representatives on the issue of water use. In this program, leading Australian researcher Brad Riddout debunks many of the claims around the water use in the beef industry. He states:
“You have to question those figures that I have seen in the media, ranging from 15 to even 100,000 litres per kilogram of Australian beef. I think it’s potential is very high for that information to be misunderstood and to be confusing because if Australian consumers, or dare say consumers in the UK, or wherever, get the sense that if they avoid eating a kilogram of Australian beef, they’re somehow going to return 100,000 litres of water to a river system that’s in need of extra water resources for its health, I think that’s very misleading.”
Claim 2: Large and unsustainable use of land by the Australian livestock industry and large
It is false to suggest that the Australian livestock industry is unsustainable because of the land size it uses and emissions. Although Australian livestock occupy half of Australia’s land mass, much of this consists of extensive rangelands and semi-arid areas which is unsuitable for other agricultural systems which might produce protein for human consumption. The majority (approximately 92%) of agricultural land in Australia is presently unsuitable for cultivation due to climatic factors (not enough rainfall), topographic factors (bad elevation and slope), and geographic factors (soil type and quality). 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.
In reference to the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, every sector of the economy contributes to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions total. The largest emitters are electricity generation (33%), transport (17%) and agriculture (15%), yet only the beef industry was singled out by your program.
Australia’s red meat industry has one of the lowest carbon emissions profiles of any major meat producing country. The results of R&D investment and other actions has seen the Australian red meat industry already reduce its share of Australia’s total emissions from 20% of Australia’s 600 million tonnes total emissions in 2005 to 13% in 2015. Further, in November 2017, the Australian red meat industry announced an ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2030. MLA is working with CSIRO and leading scientists across Australia to identify and deliver a number of pathways to achieve carbon neutrality. This is despite the lack of commitment to emissions reduction targets among other sectors of the economy.
Claim 3: Meal worms and other insects can provide the same level of nutrition as beef while being healthier for you
This claim fails to acknowledge the documented important role lean red meat plays in a healthy, balanced diet, and recommendations in the Australia Dietary Guidelines.
Red meat is a great, natural source of protein, zinc and iron that’s well absorbed by the body:
• Iron is particularly important during early childhood and for maintaining wellbeing in women.
• Zinc helps maintain a healthy immune system to help fight infections.
• Protein is important for muscle health, which is especially helpful in maintaining independence in later years.
Overall, it is extremely disappointing to note that while the program takes the time to investigate and report on the current research and development being undertaken in many other agricultural sectors (eg. barramundi farming, the avocado industry, tomato production), your program chose not to do the same for the Australian beef industry.
Catalyst has seemingly not engaged with the beef industry or even visited a beef operation. It has instead chosen to present the future of eating beef as non-existent and unsustainable in the long term (in fact suggesting that the only viable future of protein is either insects or plant-based alternatives to meat), with no reference to any research and development
currently underway to improve the productivity as well as reduce the environmental footprint of the Australian red meat industry.
As a science program with a national audience, Catalyst and the ABC has a responsibility to present the most accurate information to all Australians. However, in presenting Australian beef as the Catalyst program did on 14 August, the program has failed to use information that is reflective of Australian beef production and grossly overestimated claims of
environmental impact in order to promote alternative protein sources. 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.
I ask that you review the content you have aired in relation to the Australian beef industry, the research and fact-checking processes undertaken by the producers of the program and publically correct the record with your audience. MLA is happy to assist in providing the latest information and R&D being undertaken on behalf of the industry.