Exporting livestock via sea and air freight has been a staple of the Australian economy for nearly 200 years. The industry contributes more than $1.8 billion to the annual gross domestic product (GDP) and employs approximately 13,000 people across Australian urban and rural territories. Live animal export is also one of the leading employment opportunities for indigenous people in northern Australia.
The practice has been highly criticised in the past two decades as the Australian community has become more aware of animal welfare practises, and has questioned animal welfare conditions on live export vessels. These are genuine concerns that demand consideration and thoughtful responses. While it may seem like the simple solution, the call for the end of live animal export altogether would see Australia miss out on significant opportunities, and we believe that with a collaborative approach we can reform the current industry and offer practical solutions that benefit all involved.
Live animal export involves sending sheep, cattle, goats, llamas, and other livestock from Australia to countries across South East Asia and the Middle East. Our importing partners prefer live animals for a variety of reasons and value Australian livestock in particular because of our high quality and disease-free livestock. Some places also lack the local supply chain assurance systems to handle frozen meat or have religious or cultural preferences for live animals.
Live animal exports in Australia date back to 1829. The burgeoning nation opened Australian cattle stations in the Northern Territory and Kimberley in the following decades, quickly becoming the global epicentre for live export of animals. Today, Australia remains one of the largest players in the export trade, shipping nearly three million animals per year across the land, air, and sea.
One reason Australia exports live animals is that many other countries do not have the proper infrastructure for handling fresh or frozen meats and other products. Consider a country like Vietnam, which has a population of 95 million. According to Statista, only 11.7 million or 12.3% of Vietnamese people have refrigerators.
While experts project that number to grow to 18.3 million by 2024, a considerable percentage of people cannot use chilled or frozen meat. The only way to meet demand is to provide Vietnamese with live sheep, cattle, and goats. Live animal export remains the best option until people in these importing countries become more able economically and logistically to import animal products that need refrigeration.
The Australian live export industry supplies millions of people around the world with healthy and clean animals. Thanks to the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), Australian cattle, sheep, and other livestock have a very high standard of humanitarian care. In recent years live cattle and sheep exports also have their lowest rates of mortality in recorded history.
In 2015, Australia exported 1.3 million cattle and 2.0 million sheep. According to the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment, Australian cattle had a mortality rate of 0.11% while sheep were 0.62%. Last year, those numbers had fallen to 0.10% and 0.25%, respectively, even though exporters made more voyages. This result was due to exporters making a number of recommended changes to stocking densities, better screening procedures before loading and high quality care onboard the vessels.
Exporting live animals is currently a legal and ethical practice, despite Australian exporters having made the export industry more humane, activists have tried to ban it. In August 2011, two bills went to the Australian Parliament to end live export due to inadequate animal welfare. The Parliament rejected both of them.
Many people point to the live export mortality rates as a negative fact of the industry. We at The Livestock Collective understand this concern and are here to communicate the number of changes that the industry has made to improve the trade. Animals such as cattle and sheep have lower rates of death than they did five years ago, while buffalo have fewer than 50 fatalities per year.
The last thing the industry wants is for an animal to die in the trade. It’s an emotionally and financially wrenching outcome that all areas of the supply chain seek to avoid at all costs. However, banning live animal exports would do little to improve the conditions of livestock and would do irreparable harm to communities around the world.
Here are some of the reasons why we believe that live export remains in Australia’s and the world’s best interest.
More than 13,000 people rely on live export to earn a living. That number encompasses Australians living in rural and urban communities, including indigenous peoples. Banning the trade would damage their livelihood, if not destroy it.
Currently, farmers in Australia have four ways to earn income. They can sell their livestock to other farmers, sell their grain and fodder to livestock farmers, or sell their stock to local processors. The fourth option, which constitutes roughly 30% of the average income involves selling animals for live export.
Therefore eliminating live export is the same as telling a farmer to take a 30% pay cut. Few people, regardless of their occupation, can take 30% less money and stay afloat financially. The live export trade also represents a critical outlet for farmers who cannot sell their livestock through one of the first three supply chains.
Most Australian cattle in live export are yearlings, that is they are about a year old. These young and lightweight animals often go to feedlots for fattening. The markets’ propensity for young stock means that farmers can utilise the option to sell stock via live export during very dry seasons so that they can destock their farms. This is often a more humane option than trying to get livestock through a drought on farms.
Some farmers sell up to 50% of their cattle during droughts. If Australia were to eliminate the live export market, it would create animal welfare issues at home. Farmers would not have the resources to support their cattle due to the extreme weather. The current system gives them a way to stay in business while providing livestock with humane living conditions.
Banning live export would also negatively affect livestock prices across the country. According to the ABC, reducing the supply would cause an 18% to 35% decline in sheep prices. That translates to $80 to $150 million in losses for farmers in Western Australia in particular.
The outlook for Australian cattle is even worse with experts estimating that cattle prices would fall between 20% to 40% across the country. Slashing this $1.8 billion trade would also have ripple effects throughout other industries in Australia.
Veterinarians, transport operators, dock workers, and feed providers all depend, in part, on the live export industry for income. While they don’t work directly in the industry, they experience its multiplier effect. The phenomenon states that making a change in one place can cause significant changes elsewhere in the supply chain. In this case, banning live export in Australia would hinder the livelihoods for tens of thousands of people – outside the industry.
Every country has its own reasons for preferring live animals over boxed meat. Some places have religious or cultural reasons, while others lack the proper infrastructure. Transporting live animals from Australia to these different places ensures the recipients affordable and fresh meat as well as an opportunity to bolster local breeding stocks.
These logistical concerns impact hundreds of millions of people globally. A country like Indonesia has 267 million people with a majority Muslim population. This religious doctrine requires specific preparation rituals for meat so that it will comply with halal standards. Following halal works best if the Muslim people in Indonesia process the animals themselves, as opposed to having meat processed in Australia.
Indonesians also value freshness in their dishes. Visit a wet market in Jakarta, and you’ll find meat on display that’s still warm to the touch. The unparalleled freshness ensures quality and calibre that would be impossible if exporters were to process livestock in Australia before shipping the meat to Indonesia.
Indonesia has a wet market system because most people do not have access to refrigerators. According to the CIA World Factbook, nearly 50 million Indonesians don’t even have power. Buying boxed fresh meat would be illogical.
People around the world will continue to need live animals, regardless of whether or not Australia provides them. For many people, it isn’t feasible to eat red meat any other way. Banning the practice would only cause a gaping hole in the Australian economy and billions of dollars in financial loss.
If Australia doesn’t meet the demand for livestock in these countries, someone else will. The most likely candidates to replace the cattle supply would include Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. Other nations like Somalia, Sudan, and Romania are leading candidates to step up and fill the supply of sheep.
Many people don’t realize that handing off the competition would come at the cost of animal welfare. Australia has committed to high ethical standards for more than 30 years, a bar that would fall if other nations were to take over as the leading suppliers. Australia has been able to enforce these high standards of animal welfare due to demand for our healthy livestock which is highly valued. Look no further than Australia’s implementation of ESCAS.
Livestock export creates thousands of jobs in Australia and many more within the importing countries. Our importing countries have feedlot systems that fatten and nourish livestock that arrive from overseas. A single feedlot that supplies 6,000 animals needs 150 people working full time to keep it operational.
These feedlots have extensive ties within their local economy. They require products and services from businesses in water, power, feed, and farming supplies. While the feeding operation may only have 150 employees on paper, it impacts thousands of people in the community.
All Australian exporters must follow the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). It puts animal welfare at the forefront of the export trade, ensuring consistent and humane standards. The four core principles include:
Importing countries need to follow the recommendations of the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (OIE, formerly the Office International des Epizooties) regarding animal welfare.
Exporters must retain control of the entire supply chain, including transportation, management, and slaughter.
Exporters must trace each animal from the beginning to the end of the supply chain.
Importing countries have the power to audit the process independently.
The ESCAS guidelines make the export industry safer and more compassionate for Australian livestock. These rules minimise the chance for crowded quarters, heat stress, and illness for the animals. Some of the other improvements include:
ESCAS requires consistency and conformity up to the point of slaughter. Australia has also invested in training staff from other countries in the latest safe animal handling techniques so that when livestock arrive in their new destination they are being handled in a way that is familiar and calming for them.
ESCAS has taken on additional significance in the wake of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. The pandemic has shown how vulnerable all countries are to a potential outbreak and the impact this has on local food supply chains. Cold storage and abattoirs were one way that Covid-19 managed to infect large quantities of people. Having the livestock onhand in our importing countries meant that they could meet local demand for food when worldwide movement was restricted. This is still an important consideration for the future.
ESCAS provides the necessary regulation to mitigate the chances of an outbreak.
Exporters take animal welfare seriously, addressing potential problems with the utmost attention and resourcefulness. All live export trips of sheep to the Middle East include an Australian Accredited Veterinarian (AAV). The medical staff treats any sick animals until they return to health.
If the animal cannot survive the trip, the AAV will compassionately euthanise the animal. The animal’s remains go to an isolated section of the ship where the veterinarian can perform an autopsy. This post-mortem analysis lets the AAV understand the cause of death and address the potential spread of disease.
Each animal has a tag on its ear, identifying where exporters hold it on deck. The veterinarian can use this information to see if other animals may be at risk of infection. The AAV also records each fatality in a daily report that goes to the Australian Government. The hands-on veterinary support and the Government’s independent oversight ensure that Australian live export remains both effective and ethical.
The Sheep Collective was developed to provide some clarity about the live sheep trade on behalf of farmers, livestock agents, shearers, feed suppliers, livestock transporter, stockpeople, veterinarians, exporters, importers and everyone in between. We hope this helps provide you with some valuable information and why the health and welfare of our sheep is so important to us
The Cattle Collective provides first hand information from real people working around Australia and around the world in the live cattle export industry, to provide a balanced view to the wider community. We share the stories from farmers, station workers, livestock agents, livestock transport operators, stockpeople, veterinarians, exporters, importers and everyone in between. We care about the Australian cattle sector from the farm through to the community
Millions of people around the world rely on Australia for livestock exports. We are not only one of the largest exporters, but we also have the highest standards for animal welfare. Our commitment to a safe and sustainable trade has made us the gold standard in the industry.
Live export impacts a wide range of people, from farmers and producers in rural Australia to families in the cities, as well as many cultural groups. Banning the trade would cause irreversible harm to these individuals, as well as the economy, due to price fluctuations and job losses. Getting rid of live animal export would also do little to dissuade other countries from filling the supply void elsewhere in the world.
The best solution for the Australian people and our animals involves working together to meet community expectations. The industry has been continually updating and improving and we at The Livestock Collective aim to communicate these changes to the Australian public. Live animal export in Australia has continued to raise the bar on ethical standards, keeping both livestock and activists satisfied. Our commitment to continual progress ensures a sustainable trade now and in the future.