Death knell for live trade?

Live export is in the news again – and not in a good way. 60 Minutes recently aired whistle-blower footage revealing appalling conditions for sheep transported to the Middle East from Australia. The death of 2,400 sheep aboard the Awassi Express in August last year has been the catalyst for renewed community concerns and calls for an end to the trade. The total death rate on the voyage in question, at possibly 3.79%, was nearly double the 2% limit that triggers automatic regulatory review. However, the Department of Agriculture cleared the voyage of any breaches. That investigation was re-opened by Ag Minister David Littleproud after the 60 Minutes footage aired.

This isn’t the first time live exports have come under fire, nor is Littleproud the first minister to launch investigations into live exports. In 2016, activist group Animals Australia released video footage of cattle being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers in Vietnamese abattoirs. The organisation’s footage was presented alongside footage of miserable conditions onboard export ships that were compliant with industry standards. Back then, live exports to the abattoir in question were suspended and then ag-minister Barnaby Joyce launched an investigation into the regulation breach. The previous Labour government imposed a temporary ban on live exports in response to a similar expose.

In its analysis, Guardian Australia found that of 70 investigations into animal deaths during live export shipments, no punitive measures such as fines or loss of export licence were imposed on exporters. The paper suggests a conflict of interest within the department of agriculture, which holds responsibility for both regulating the live export industry and promoting the interests of farmers.

The now familiar promises from the live export industry to do better on animal welfare have been rolled out, with measures such as reducing over-crowding and offloading sheep earlier in the voyage to lessen exposure to high humidity and heat stress. The Australian Live Exporters Council (ALEC) has said it would back a government-appointed independent inspector-general to oversee the export of cattle and sheep, and audit the Department itself to ensure it fulfils its regulatory obligations. The National Farmers’ Federation gave conditional support to the ALEC proposal, and called for a bi-partisan approach to improving animal welfare.

The industry has also rolled out now familiar arguments about market needs for live animals, and claimed if the animals weren’t sourced from Australia they would be supplied from other countries whose standards could be lower. The Australian Farm Institute released a video highlighting previous analysis by ABARES that valued the live export industry in excess of A$2 billion, and the net cost of banning the trade at A$300 million annually on livestock farmers. The video argues simultaneously that Australia leads the world in animal welfare standards for live export, is losing share to competitors like Brazil, but also that higher standards could offer a marketing advantage.

It’s unlikely that economic analysis will overcome the outrage the community feels about a trade that appears to impose unnecessary cruelty on animals. While the industry may attempt to paint farmers as the innocent victims of any ban on live exports – the general public see the animals as the victims. The ongoing challenge for live animal export is a supply chain that is difficult to assure from farm to end consumer. The ongoing incidents of excessive deaths, and broadcasts of conditions onboard or in destination markets appear to give lie to industry claims that Australia’s welfare standards are world-leading and improving, as each incident chips away at the industry’s credibility. It’s a bad look for the livestock sector generally which is under fire from activists who want all meat production to cease, and more and more consumers who are concerned about the treatment of animals in food production systems. How sustainable is it to keep live exports afloat?