The hot summer months in the Middle East are coming to an end as the mean temperature drops from 43’c in July to 42’c and 39’c in August and September down to a much more manageable 36’c in October. In time for the first of the spring live export ships from Australia to arrive following the lifting of the summer live export ban on 22 September.
In its glory days the trade was moving over 7 million sheep annually driven by demand from the booming Middle Eastern oil states with their rapidly growing and increasingly wealthy populations. Starting in 1960s the trade hit its straps in the 1970s as farmers bypassed the strike ridden meat works as a new lucrative market emerged.
The trade has shrugged off oil price shocks, wars, revolutions, and collapsing global wool prices, pretty much anything the Middle East or global markets could throw at it, but the one thing it has not been able to stand up to has been the concerted and growing pressure by Australia’s own animal activists organisations that have been working to undermine the trade for the past forty years.
Anyone who underestimates the power of activist groups to slowly change community sentiment and influence political parties is naive in the way the world has changed. For good reason the words ‘social licence’ has entered the vocabulary of agri-politics. The old approach of growing and walking or elevating livestock and grain onto a ship and thinking no more of it, is a thing of the past.
Animal welfare and minimum residue limits take that responsibility back to the home paddock and the whole trade is now heavily reliant on everyone doing exactly the right thing all the way along the supply chain to ensure the activists can’t get the photo or the test results that undermine our entire industry.
We know that the animal activists have tasted blood so any future incident will be amplified in a social media world hungry to retweet dramatic photos or worse fake news, so the new rules set down by the commonwealth government have to be enforced to the letter if there is any hope of maintaining the trade into the future.
With over 80% of the two million head that the country exports, Western Australia is the capital of the live sheep trade. With 1 in 4 sheep produced each year in this state at some stage walking onto a boat, the loss of the trade can only mean one thing to our stock numbers…down down down along with the price our sheep will attract at the sale yards.
If we are going to avoid collapsing the market in years like this one when feed is short and farmers are looking to destock rapidly we need to keep the live export trade alive as a market release valve. As DPIRD tells us on their website advice for dry years farmers have only have two options ‘Retain’ or ‘Sell’. At the moment we have two markets live and boxed, no matter how much the state or federal government talks about new markets, the reality is if we lose the live export market the only other option for farmers is to sell to the abattoirs who have a poor track record of marketing big supply jumps in time of drought.
How long the live export industry can hang on will depend on who’s in power in Canberra. The industry dodged a bullet when the coalition government staggered across the line at the last federal election but 2019 was the first time there was a clear policy difference on the issue between the major parties. The historic bipartisan support was dumped as the ALP chased green preferences and marched to the tune of the inner city soy latte vote.
It will be interesting to watch whether this policy difference will remain after the ALP’s review of its 2019 election failure is released. Even if they came to their senses and backed the 3000 WA jobs the trade supports mainly in regional communities there is every chance that the Greens would force a future ALP government to trade the industry for some other political outcome in the Senate. In other word’s the industry is on life support just waiting for a future ALP government to pull the plug.
The State government on the other hand seems to have counted the sheep and recognised that the trade is important to supporting its growth target of 30,000 additional regional jobs. Or more likely fear wearing the collapse of one of the big regional abattoirs if sheep numbers continue their downward march accelerated by a sudden end to the live sheep trade. Also, sheep fit in nicely with the Ministers regenerative farming interests which rely on livestock as part of the sustainable farming mantra. Except for sheep to be run in an environmentally sustainable way during periods of drought there needs to be a quick relief valve to walk them off fast at reasonable prices or see the soils blow off even faster.
The live export option also provides a stock reduction model while allowing the retention of ewes, thereby allowing WA sheep farmers to position for a flock rebuild when seasons improve after bad years. An option that many farmers will be looking for as we roll into a very dry spring and a serious lack of feed and stock water across much of the state.
So, if the state government wants to keep sheep as part of the mix, they need to help the industry maintain standards and hold the exporters to account while improving the boxed meat supply chain as part of our back up plan. And if federal labor wants to build credibility in Western Australia, they might consider coming out with a strong policy that supports regional communities starting with the live sheep trade.