By WAFarmers President Tony York
As a farmer and, in particular, a sheep producer, I have a keen interest in the story aired on 60 Minutes on the weekend on the live sheep trade. A sense of dismay overwhelmed me upon my initial viewing, and what followed were feelings of being misled.
Given the constant assurance producers and industry receive that livestock are being humanely treated on live export vessels, this vision was deeply disturbing. It challenged my confidence that the trade had been meeting animal welfare standards. Like most, I had accepted the assurances that guidelines and protocols were being met; that arrangements were in place and could adequately ensure compliance of our ‘best practice, standards and guidelines’. Having viewed the footage, how can the evidence in front of me relate to what my mental picture has been up to this point?
We are constantly vigilant on the farm, keeping an eye out for stress points and risk areas for both our farm staff and our livestock. Checking on feed and water, and then checking again. Checking on the staff, checking on my brother, on my son Oscar, on our stockman Tiger and, in turn, be checked upon myself. We must do this to ensure our stock are all being cared for, and so that we are prepared for the unexpected.
My family have been active users of the live trade for years. In fact, we have 650 lambs scheduled to be travelling on the next shipment which is currently in port. The livestock we produce are largely tailored to meet this market. Our flock is predominantly merino with the bulk of our whether lambs going on the ships. We cross our older ewes to Awassi rams to specifically meet the requirements of a niche live trade in this style of animal. Given the low rainfall as a result of our geographical position, our breeding and management means that this is the most efficient production and marketing option we have, and that about 75 per cent of our annual turn-off is to this live trade. Heavier lambs, sought after by export abattoirs and for local markets, take more time, more feed and more management. In an increasingly busy production system, holding these animals longer only serves to reduce our efficiency and total production capacity. This is our personal situation, but in WA, it will not be uncommon.
I can fully appreciate that this is incident has supposedly occurred in an isolated Middle Eastern heatwave event. But because of it and its consequences, I find myself questioning the adequacy of industry guidelines and whether they were really being met – in this situation and in others. Clearly, what we saw in the footage was not an example of those ‘best practice standards and guidelines’.
Now, as I find myself as President of WAFarmers, I must help find a way forward that farmers can accept. A way where farmers can not only have their faith in the traders restored, but also a level of trust can be assured for the long term.
My colleagues and I have had the opportunity to offer comments to Ministers Littleproud and MacTiernan on this issue. We have asked to have a means for complete and transparent oversight, as we want to see what is happening right through the supply chain. In this way, as on the farm, we can check on the animal welfare situation, and check on the custodians of our animals on the ships, in the feedlot and in the abattoirs. These arrangements must be of the highest priority and be absolute. As individuals and as an industry, we must demand that the standards of the farmers be met so that we can be confident that the very best animal welfare practices are in place and in use, not that bear minimums are being met in order to ‘get it done’.
Our Ministers also demand reform. Thankfully, they demand this whilst ensuring the trade can continue with the best outcomes in mind and safeguards in place. They also realise that reforms with no assurance of compliance are useless; we therefore expect greater reporting demands and accountability to be placed on the export operators. Conceptually, we support these reforms. We will await the detail, but how can accountability be a bad thing in this case?
Further, government and market participants realise that an overnight cessation of the trade would create a vacuum for some farmers and, importantly, consumers in those markets who rely on our produce for food security. Past experience has shown this to be the case.
So what else can we consider? It is time to contemplate everything at our means to ensure our demanded outcomes. Only the very best ships should be used through the summer months. Suspension from some ports over those high-risk months of the Middle Eastern summer should be considered. Better off-load planning during a delivery voyage is a must. Further, airfreight and local processing. Anything that can help ensure good animal welfare practices and humane treatment of our livestock.
If we are to have any confidence in the oversight process, we need this review to be collaborative and transparent. It is our right as producers to demand this, and it is the responsibility of government, exporters and carriers to uphold these demands.