Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Matters of Public Interest

Cattle Industry

12:45 pm

Photo of Ron BoswellRon Boswell (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to issue this warning to the owners of Australia's 77,000 cattle properties: examine very closely the international campaign to make you prove you are environmentally sustainable.

Last week, on Monday, 17 March, a document was released that will potentially shape how Australian cattle producers are allowed to operate in years to come. It is a document written overseas, in Holland and the United States apparently, but one that is designed to oblige cattle producers around the world to prove they are environmentally sustainable. I believe it has been initiated and shaped principally by environmental activists. That makes me very suspicious. It is a document which cattle producers throughout Australia should scrutinise very closely. The document is called the DRAFT Principles and criteria for global sustainable beef. It has been produced by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The global roundtable was initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, based in Switzerland, and the US-based McDonald's hamburger chain. Another prime mover in the roundtable is an environment-related group, called Solidaridad, based in Holland. Producer bodies on the roundtable include the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, the US National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the Cattle Council of Australia. Other members include processors, retailers, restaurants and environmental groups. The organisation was established by the following bodies: McDonald's; WWF; Solidaridad; beef processors and commodity traders Cargill and JBS; pharmaceutical companies Merck and Elanco; and the giant retail chain Walmart. Australia's Woolworths has also since joined.

The draft document on principles and criteria for global sustainable beef anticipates having national or regional standards that must be met by cattle producers. Who is going to verify that those standards are being met? And how much will Australian cattle producers be charged for the privilege? All the attention right now is on establishing a definition for sustainable beef. No-one has an exact definition, and that is the focus of the recently released discussion paper. However, Australian cattle producers should be told not just what sustainability means but also the process for proving it—and the price tag.

The schedule for progressing the current principles and criteria document is as follows. It is available for public comment until May 16. There will be a final review in July. The members of the roundtable are then scheduled to ratify the principles and criteria, later this year. Organisations like this roundtable are really run by the secretariat, the people working full time writing up the agenda papers for meetings, publishing the newsletters, et cetera. The executive director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a guy called Ruaraidh Petre. He is based in Holland, and came to the roundtable after working for eight years for Solidaridad—remember, Mr Acting Deputy President, Solidaridad was one of the original members of the roundtable, along with McDonald's and WWF. Solidaridad has certification schemes in its DNA. According to its website under 'What we do', Solidaridad says it works on 'creating sustainable supply chains from the producer to the consumer'. It does this by helping agricultural producer organisations and industrial producer companies to qualify for social and environmental certification standards. That is where the CEO of the beef roundtable comes from.

As I said, WWF was also a prime mover in the process to establish the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. Imagine WWF sitting down and determining the environmental conditions that our producers are obliged to meet before they can market their cattle! This is the same WWF that waged a campaign against the land- and regrowth-clearing practices of Queensland farmers. It is the same WWF that, less than two years ago, made submissions to Queensland parliamentary inquiries, savagely denigrating the cattle industry's sustainability record. WWF also argued that compulsory standards must be implemented. WWF are no friends of the Australian cattle industry. With the excuse of having to meet so-called international sustainability principles, WWF in Australia would have even greater leverage to continue trying to force our cattle producers down the path of more and more restricted on-farm practices and compulsory standards.

Let us look at the costs associated with sustainability certification for producers. At this stage, we can only get a rough idea of what the costs might be. That is why I say Australian farmers should be told up-front what they might be charged to gain sustainability certification. However, we can gain some indication of costs. One of the other Australian members of the global roundtable is the Australian Land Management Group, a business that already offers what it calls a certified land management plan. Its website says that, to become certified, you begin by listing all your property activities, the aspects of those activities that might have environmental impacts, and what those impacts are. You then do a risk analysis and assign priority rankings to the impacts you have identified. After this, you develop a management plan to address the causes of those impacts. There is also an animal welfare component. To achieve certification, you need to implement your plan, which is then reviewed by an auditor. That review examines how the plan has been implemented and whether the outcomes are being monitored. If there are no problems, the auditor will recommend certification. After this, you enter into an annual review and audit cycle. The website says that the cost of delivery varies.

As a guide, in the first year landholders usually work as part of a group doing a start-up workshop and a review workshop. Each of the two workshops has an indicative cost of $800 per family farm or managed business. So that is $1,600 in the first year for a family owned farm. After this, there is a minimum certification fee of $150 and an annual business fee of $300. Based on 77,000 properties paying $1,750 for the two workshops and certification, that adds up to almost $135 million to be paid out by Australian farming families in one year.

In January this year, McDonald's headquarters in the USA announced its stores across the globe would buy verifiably sustainable beef from 2016. I wrote to McDonald's in Australia and asked a simple question: 'Can you provide me with a written assurance that Australian cattle producers will face no extra costs because of McDonald's future purchasing policy relating to "verifiably sustainable beef"?' The two-page response from McDonald's included the following paragraph: 'We understand that there is a concern of increased costs and whether McDonald's will pay increased prices for sustainable beef. It is too early to predict if or how beef prices will be impacted in the future but we are committed to working collaboratively with suppliers throughout the entire process and understand the existing pressures producers already face in the production of these animals.' Producers can reach their own conclusions as to what that means. I am sure McDonald's care about the planet. However, their ultimate responsibility is not to the planet but to their shareholders. They examine issues based on the view of improving value and returns to shareholders. Much of what they do is about marketing and money.

I know someone who cares passionately about the environment and livestock—and that is the average Australian farming family. I do not want to see them burdened with more cost, more paperwork and more unnecessary environmental obligations to keep WWF in business and provide a marketing point of difference for the likes of McDonald's.

I have had informal discussions with the Cattle Council president, Andrew Ogilvie, on this issue and I look forward to talking to him again. He is caught between a rock and a hard place. I am sure he is well intentioned and has what he perceives as the best interests of Australian cattle producers at heart. However, he needs to be informed by the widest possible range of views from cattle producers across the country before he goes back overseas to negotiate on these sustainability principles. I appeal to Australian cattle producers: do not take this issue lightly. Do not think it is just bulldust and that, if you ignore the issue, it will somehow go away and not affect you. Speak up now and have your say.

Finally, there is another question—a vital question—that I want answered. What happens if Australian cattle producers do not sign up to the sustainability principles determined through the global roundtable process? If Australian cattle producers do not allow a third party to certify or verify their sustainability, will McDonald's refuse to purchase beef locally? Will environmental activists like WWF campaign to ban the sale of Australian beef in overseas markets? We already see environmental activists campaigning to prevent the sale in overseas markets of Australian timber that was not produced from the sources they sanction. This is referred to as 'green blackmail' or simply 'green mail', something I have warned about in the past.

The apparent growing power of environmental non-government organisations and corporations raises fundamental questions about the future role of government, science and rational resource management in Australian primary production. This goes to the very essence of not simply who is running the Australian beef industry but who is running the country. Who determines how our primary industries are managed and administered? Who decides how our resources are utilised and where they are marketed? Who determines the prosperity of our communities, our industries and our nation? Those are the questions we must have answered.

I believe this issue should be referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. Before I do that, I will discuss this further with my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce. I believe it requires forensic examination in a Senate inquiry. We can call witnesses to the inquiry from the main players. We can thoroughly examine who will bear the cost of this sustainability scheme and who will enjoy the benefits. We can investigate what the implications are for rural and regional communities that depend on cattle and other primary production and for Australia's trade sovereignty and its ability to freely trade in primary products we already know to be sustainable.