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Opinion: Take ownership of your industry, or be bound by regulation

Ian Burnett, AgForce general president, 24/04/2014
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Ian Burnett

THE recent meeting of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) in Brisbane has again stimulated a stream of debate as to the merit, or perceived damage, of membership of the group.

Given the historically combative relationship agriculture has shared with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) these concerns can be understood.

Certainly, our decision to sit at the Roundtable, through our membership of the Cattle Council of Australia, has been one made with careful consideration of both the previous behaviour of WWF and our responsibility as industry participants to be proactive in taking ownership of the future demands that will be placed on the grazing sector.

This criticism has this week extended to the Grazing Best Management Practice (BMP) program, an industry-owned benchmarking scheme jointly delivered by AgForce, the Fitzroy Basin Association (FBA) and the Queensland Department of Agriculture.

The critique has been largely based upon the FBA’s membership of the GRSB and the potential for this to undermine the beef industry through its association with WWF.

To be frank, this extrapolation, and subsequent condemnation, of the BMP program is as misguided as it is destructive to the advancement of the Queensland grazing sector. Such fear-mongering demonstrates a clear inability to look beyond today and to prepare for a new era of both opportunities and challenges for our primary producers.

The pressure cooker of consumer expectation is ever-growing with green radicalism cleverly recognising it can fuel public appetite for information about the production of food and fibre.

The ship has sailed on this. We cannot wind back our consumers’ interest in their food’s origin but we can be proactive in using this curiosity to better market our product. The BMP’s modules including soil health, animal health and welfare, grazing land management, animal production and people and business, provide us with a framework to do this while also measuring our business performance and profitability.

Why would any prudent operator not see this as beneficial to not only their own enterprise but to the greater industry they are a part of?

If you don’t like the sound of that, consider how future governments will respond to pressure from not only green groups but from an electorate demanding sustainable primary production.

The underlying premise of politics is fundamentally simple – in their quest for votes politicians respond to public opinion. They are, more often than not, guided in their decisions by the demands of the greater number of their constituents.

If we, as an industry, cannot demonstrate to those constituents we are transparent in our production systems and invested in sustainability, make no mistake, we will be heavily regulated.

Of course, some regulation already exists and BMP aims to collectively demonstrate our industry’s compliance with these prerequisites. However, if for a moment you think a left leaning Government will not attempt to appeal to green sensibilities through stripping authority over our industry from us you are mistaken.

As the Asian middle class grows and demand for high quality beef upsurges our need to differentiate ourselves from competing countries also intensifies. We cannot be the food bowl to Asia, that role will be filled by nations producing larger quantities of lesser grade protein, but we can be the provider of a premium product which attracts a premium price tag.

Be sure we are not the only country to have identified this opportunity and it is now critical we work hard to develop a clear competitive advantage over our rivals. Demonstrating product quality, animal welfare and sustainable production systems is a key tool to be used in this market positioning.

As an industry we cannot afford to persist with refusing to document and verify our credentials. Our future opportunities are boundless and there is no doubt we are on the dawn of great prosperity.

However, unless we can take responsibility for our own future, keep regulation and green tape at a minimum and be proactive in demonstrating the performance of our own product I fear we will be left behind.

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