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Is it ethical to take part in animal export?

by Simon Illingworth
13 December 2013
This is an interesting ethical dilemma. First, there are many different reasons why animals are exported live. Excess dairy cattle are sent overseas for the purpose of providing milk and for breeding. Likewise, beef cattle are sent for both breeding and slaughter (serving the purpose of providing fresh meat).

You cannot stop all live export by slaughtering the animals here if the animal is being exported for the purpose of milk production or for breeding purposes. While this sounds obvious, most people don’t understand the range of options for live export and want the industry banned completely.

With respect to export for slaughter, many countries receiving our live export animals have very basic refrigeration or indeed, none at all. This is a major stumbling block to the idea that cattle should be slaughtered here in Australia, packaged and shipped to developing countries in refrigerated containers. The reality is often that intended recipients can’t store refrigerated produce.

It is widely believed that animals shipped overseas are treated cruelly whilst on the boat. But how informed is this view? The conditions that many people witness when driving past a typical cattle truck are not the same conditions on an export boat. The boats used for cattle export today are fitted with extraction fans, food, veterinary assistance and pens that satisfactorily house the cattle. This may not have been the case years ago, but improvements have been and are being made to the live export boats. Nevertheless, an ethical farmer will make enquiries to ensure this is the case.

Some people believe live export should be banned but forget that cattle are not native to Australia. Indeed, our cattle were also brought here by boat many years ago. Many developed and developing countries rely heavily on other countries for sustenance. They are often so over-populated they cannot produce adequate food stocks, so they have no choice but to rely on imports. So the ideal position would allow developing countries to have access to live animals for slaughter, breeding or dairy purposes, providing animal welfare is set at a healthy level.

The best lobbyists for animal welfare are not people with hidden video cameras, but us, the cattle suppliers and farmers

Australia is a vast land with great capacity for food growing. That fact comes with great responsibility, both in terms of yield and trust. Yield in the terms of growing as much food as is sustainable and trust in the terms of being a reliable, trusted trading partner and sustenance provider. Any diplomat will tell you that trust is important in international relations and that also means we must be trustworthy.

This is why the recent immediate ban on live exports to Indonesia was met with such opposition in that country. The Indonesians had trusted us to provide them with sustenance and we failed. A handful of rogue Indonesian slaughtermen captured on film should not have stopped a billion dollar industry that supplies food.

Developing countries are exactly that: ‘developing’. So it should not be a surprise that the treatment of animals does not comply with world standards in some countries. Having said that, we must continue to assist these countries with education and facilities to improve the treatment of animals in this regard. This requires diplomacy.

So whose responsibility is it to ensure better standards? The strongest push for animal welfare should come from the farmers providing the livestock. An ethical farmer embarking on live exports should never be complacent; they must keep the pressure up to the export companies to ensure animal welfare is always paramount.

Where is the animal going and what is the price? It must be noted that in some countries animals are still, unfortunately, treated in a way that directly relates to their market value. The greater the value of the animal, the greater the care. The reverse is also true. This is an important point for an ethical farmer embarking on exporting livestock.

Price and destination are very important when deciding whether to export an animal. Australian abattoirs treat every animal the same irrespective of price. So, if the export price offered to a farmer is not likely to make the animal valuable in the recipient country, then it is preferable that an ethical farmer attempt to sell their animals in Australia. Granted, this may not be possible in remote Australia where farmers are geared only towards the export trade.

Of course, all of this assumes a farmer has choices around exporting. Few people realise that farmers selling cattle at their local saleyards or even direct to an Australian abattoir risk having the animal being exported live anyway. Many local saleyard buyers and even abattoirs divert animals from local slaughter and export them live.

These are the best options as I see them.

If possible, export only to countries you are happy with in terms of price per animal, supply chain facilities and handling. This will vary from exporter to exporter and country to country, so you need to stay on top of the information. You must keep pressure on the export company so they understand you expect the animals are treated well en route.

Similarly, if you don’t want your animals to be exported live, you will need to sell them privately. This is because many Australian abattoirs and local cattle buyers are live export agents. The unfortunate truth is that selling animals fitting the description of a current export order at a cattle auction will inevitably result in them taking a boat trip. And worse you will receive the local price, with the new owner of your animals getting the premium export price a matter of days later.

An ethical farmer is an informed farmer. The export decision has many factors and it is difficult for farmers to make informed decisions when so much of the live export debate is devoted to people whose agenda may be to stop people eating meat altogether. Rather than being vegan, vegetarian or a meat eater, the treatment of animals through the supply chain, up to and including the destination, is the issue at stake, and the best lobbyists for animal welfare are not people with hidden video cameras, but us, the cattle suppliers and farmers.

Simon Illingworth is a former detective turned garlic and livestock farmer