Exporting livestock via sea and air freight has been a staple of the Australian economy for nearly 200 years.
As of January 2021 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 criticised by some parts of the community 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. There is also a growing area of animal activism which has focused on this trade with significant resources. 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 the globe from South East Asia to the Middle East for both food consumption and breeding purposes. Australia is seen as a genetic supermarket with high quality disease free livestock. Our importing partners prefer live animals for consumption for a variety of reasons including cultural and religious preferences. Some places also lack the local supply chain assurance systems to handle frozen meat and some countries are trying to improve their own food security position by buying breeding 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.
Australian exports live animals to meet worldwide demand for protein and genetics. One reason for the protein demand as a live animal is that many other countries do not have the proper infrastructure for handling fresh or frozen meats and other products. Another reason for live animals is culture preferences and religious requirements. Genetic demand comes from other countries wanting to improve their own national herd and food security from meat or milk products.
Consider a country like Vietnam, which has a population of 95 million. According to Statistics, only 11.7 million or 12.3% of Vietnamese people have refrigerators. Eating meat is often a luxury item and not consumed regularly. 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 countries like Vietnam with cattle.
Exporting live animals is currently a legal, highly regulated 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 or suffer during any part of the supply chain. 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.
Thousands of people rely on the live export trade 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. This was seen post the banning of the trade in 2011.
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, involves selling animals for live export.
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 to continue to grow 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.
Most sheep historically exported were a by-product of the wool industry. These older animals are not prefered for consumption domestically and have lower fat content which is preferred by Middle East importers.
Some farmers sell up to 50% of their cattle or sheep during poor seasons or droughts to help manage their land. If Australia were to eliminate the live export market options, it could create animal welfare issues at these critical times when producers need to de-stock (reduce livestock on properties).
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.
Each country has its own reasons for preferring live animals over boxed meat. Some places have religious or cultural reasons, while others lack infrastructure for fresh or frozen storage. Transporting live animals from Australia to the importing countries meets their demand and ensures food security through affordable and fresh meat as well as opportunities to sustain local breeding stock.
Food security 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. Halal preferences in many countries require animals to be processed in their country, 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 and the preference is for fresh products to ensure food safety. 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 have demand for protein and hence a need for live animals, regardless of whether or not Australia provides them. For many people in other countries, it isn’t feasible to eat red meat any other way. Banning the practice would only negatively impact the rural communities, Australian economy and billions of dollars in financial loss and loss of valuable trade relationships.
If Australia doesn’t meet the demand for livestock , someone else will. The most likely candidates to replace the cattle supply would include Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. Other nations like Somalia, Sudan, Romania and recently South Africa are leading candidates to step up and fill the supply of sheep.
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 use of ASEL 3.0 and the implementation of ESCAS. The regulatory systems Australia has in place are being looked at and used by other countries exporting livestock.
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.
These guidelines make the export industry safer and more compassionate for Australian livestock.
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.
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 protein through 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.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.