Dragging animal welfare through a kangaroo court

Katie McRobert, Australian Farm Institute, 13/04/2018

Activists tend to decry economics as a weak defence of poor behaviour, but this is a naive approach writes the Australian Farm Institute’s Katie McRobert in this cross-posting from the AFI website


Let’s be clear: mistreatment of animals is incompatible with the ethics and farming practices of the overwhelming majority of Australian farmers. Any breach of our world-leading animal welfare standards should be investigated and rectified as soon as it is known.

But let’s also be clear about the reality of the social contract. Our society is omnivorous, not vegan, and livestock farming is likely to continue indefinitely in Australia. Continuous improvement of farming practices to enhance welfare, ecological management and productivity is in everyone’s interest, and fostering a combative approach helps no one. More importantly, substituting emotion for fact is destructive to the process of creating social good.

On March 29, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud received an incident report from his Department about an Australian live sheep export voyage to the Middle East in August 2017 which involved high heat mortalities. The following week he saw footage supplied by Animals Australia of voyages from 2016 and 2017 depicting “disgraceful” conditions which “shocked, angered and saddened” him.

Decisions on what happens next cannot be made in a vacuum.

These welfare breaches provoked the usual social media flurry, including an expectedly passionate response to the Australian Farm Institute’s request that the Twittersphere consider potential impacts of a live trade ban within the national economic context.

Activists tend to decry economics as a weak defence of poor behaviour, but this is incredibly naïve. Naturally, economic rationalism should not be used to defend practices we as a society agree are unacceptable. We don’t contemplate sending our kids to work in a sweatshop in their pre-school years to cover the costs of kindergarten, even though it may be economically beneficial to do so.

But here’s the rub: every social benefit we enjoy in our first-world community is directly related to our economic prosperity. Our standards of education, health care and indeed animal welfare are all correlated to our comparative wealth as a country.

Like it or not, economic context dictates social improvement – and wilfully ignoring this context obstructs change.

Effective decision-making requires a complex understanding of the existing issues and consequences of potential actions. Keyboard warriors shouting for attention can indeed change public opinion – but what needs to change next is the regulatory environment, not public perception. As the National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar said in the subsequent Twitter exchange:

“More information means better understanding of the challenges and must result in more ways to address the failures.”

The footage aired by Four Corners in mid-2011 prompted an instantaneous reaction from then-Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, and the subsequent live export ban caused incredible economic damage. This week Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon renewed her push to replace live exports with domestic processing for the boxed (chilled) meat trade. However, a report released by the AFI in 2017 concluded that this option was not feasible. Comprehensive economic modelling by ABARES and the Centre for International Economics demonstrated that a cessation of livestock exports would impose a gross annual cost of about $300 million on livestock farmers Australia-wide and would only generate around $100m in extra revenue for the meat processing sector. Live export is a significant economic contributor to Australian agriculture worth approximately $1.8b annually in farmgate returns, and agriculture in turn was the largest contributor to national GDP growth in 2016-17, contributing 0.5 percentage points of national total 1.9 per cent growth.

In contrast: concerned that a mortality report from the independent regulator did not accurately reflect the conditions seen in the Animals Australia footage, Minister Littleproud has announced a review into the investigative capability, powers and culture of the regulator (his own Department). In a show of bipartisanship, the federal Labor party stated that the Opposition wants to “end the cruelty without hurting our farmers” and reiterated calls for an Inspector General for Animal Welfare and an Independent Office for Animal Welfare. The RSPCA has also long advocated for the establishment of a national animal welfare advisory body to coordinate national standard-setting. The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council CEO Simon Westaway said the on-board conditions filmed were plainly unacceptable and showed more work needs to be done for the trade “to remain ethically and economically viable” by building on existing welfare practices.

These responses are thoughtful and proportional. Banning live export is not.

While the live export trade is not without its problems, Australia’s animal welfare standards for livestock set a benchmark far in advance of any other place on the planet. Along with the live export ban, reaction to the Four Corners revelations also prompted a serious review of export welfare standards, resulting in the introduction of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). Mecardo market analysis shows the overall trend is for improved outcomes on live export journeys and that the livestock mortality rate is steadily declining.


No other country holds the recipient nation of traded animals responsible for upholding the same welfare standards we insist upon. Again, this response (unlike the trade ban) was the result of careful thought and planning. The pace of change may not content all stakeholders, but removing Australia from the live trade scene also removes any incentive for the other 130 live-exporting nations to emulate or match these standards.

By deliberately provoking an extremist, knee-jerk response to an emotive issue, some activists risk creating a narrow-minded group of ‘sheeple’ who react mindlessly without thought for the consequences. As AFI’s General Manager Research Richard Heath wrote recently, reacting on assumptions rather than evidence can in fact have adverse outcomes for animal welfare overall.

As a society, we are indignant about a great many things which our neighbours find perfectly acceptable, including what we will and won’t eat. Our comparative wealth enables the luxury of choice. In order to fund social good, we must remain economically prosperous – and to remain prosperous, we must work cooperatively on solutions that benefit the whole.

This article originally appeared on the Australian Farm Institute website. To view original article, click here


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  1. Peter Vincent, 16/04/2018

    Defending the indefensible is impossible. The Minister and Department need to bite the bullet and withdraw export licences from repeat offenders. Leave the field to exporters prepared to abide by regulations and engage in transparent and accountable behaviour to rebuild trust in the urban and farming communities. The “vocal minority” is rapidly becoming a “vocal majority”.

  2. Paul Webster, 15/04/2018

    A very well written article. I also agree with the sentiments of Peter Hamilton and Paul Franks. Sometimes the squeaky wheel should just be ignored as long as there is a regular routine checking that all wheels are fit for purpose. Noise does not equal action.

  3. Paul Franks, 13/04/2018

    It is sad to read another article using the word “social licence”. There should be no such thing as a “social licence”, as it implies something is allowed not based on science or facts but rather the emotional whims of people who more often then not have nothing to do with whatever is being discussed. You will often find the “anti” whatever it is, often change their mind when it comes to something that might affect them. Should we ban the importation of smart phones because they contain Tantalum mined in Congo, the proceeds used to fund a civil war killing women and children? Or the workers making the phones are not working to Australian industrial working standards, to the extent that they commit suicide from the onerous working conditions. Of course you never hear anyone say that. Who wants to ban or increase the prices of electronic goods?

    Since the advent of social media, Australia has a major problem of people in glass houses, usually affluent urban demanding others must comply to some lofty standards they themselves have no intention of complying with on other similar matters. They seem unable to grasp the fact their entire lifestyle only exists because of the exploitation of people, animals and the environment.

    Any true cattlewoman/man abhors real animal cruelty, but I bet everyone of them has seen it happen somewhere, but it is not commonplace to the point we need to start to prove to the noisy minority our innocence. Personally I think the RSPCA should now be restricted to only dealing with non commercial cases of animal cruelty. Commercial cases should be dealt with by experts with much knowledge of the commercial industry like government agricultural officers.

    I also think our industry and government leaders need to stop being scared of the vocal minority.

  4. Peter Hamilton, 13/04/2018

    Very well written.
    I would like it though to place an emphasis put on regulation in order to control the exporters.

    I believe the producers must have s greater level of security over the trade. It currently has very little.

  5. Malcolm Caulfield, 13/04/2018

    The idea that Australia leads the world on livestock animal welfare is wrong. Objective analysis shows higher standards across Europe and indeed New Zealand.

    Most Australians assume domestic animal welfare standards apply during live export voyages. They do not, and the standards which do apply relate to getting the product to the destination in a commercially acceptable state.

    More objective evidence of what goes on in every live export shipment is needed. Were that available, live export’s social licence would be at risk of being cancelled.

    The average, rational Australian has put up with this sort of aggressive city versus country stance for years.

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