Australian animal activism reminds of the need to be squeaky clean

Vegan protests and criticism of the live export trade are making headlines in the country again. They are a reminder of the need to be whiter than white when it comes to animal welfare.

Australia’s live export of animals is a practice that dates back to the early 19th century, thanks to demand for cattle, sheep, dairy cows and a host of other animals from countries across the globe. Today, nations in the Middle East and South-East Asia are among the industry’s biggest customers.

It’s a practice, though, that keeps making headlines for the wrong reasons, whether for livestock deaths on board vessels or for cattle suffering in their destination country.

There are strict standards in place, of course, but it’s when these standards are not adhered to that publicity is generated, and these are the images the public is being presented with time and time again.

To be clear, we are not accusing any particular investors or corporate farmers of malpractice. The overwhelming majority of farmers take animal welfare extremely seriously and look after their animals well, and we’ve seen this first-hand on properties that we’ve visited.

An investor recently told Agri Investor that the live export trade’s days were “numbered” and it was only a matter of time before practices would have to change to avoid the headlines that keep being generated – and to keep attracting institutional money into livestock investments.

This echoed comments made by a former live exporter to Australian broadcaster ABC last year, when he said: “We must plan the future shutdown of the [live export] industry, which I think is inevitable. We’ve got our head in the sand if we think it’s not going to happen.”

With responsible investing becoming ever-more important for LPs around the globe, live exports could be an increasingly heavy millstone around the neck of some operators.

There’s a parallel to be drawn here with other farming practices that still exist in Australia, such as mulesing of sheep.

For those not in the know, mulesing is the practice of removing skin from around a sheep’s buttocks to prevent flystrike, a parasitic infestation. It’s been described by one farm manager to Agri Investor as “barbaric.”

The defense of the practice is that flystrike is a terrible disease and arguably even worse than mulesing itself. This may have some truth to it, but it rather misses the point.

If a member of the public (or, for the sake of our argument, an investor) were to see a video of mulesing in action, they would be horrified – and the argument is lost, whether there is a rationale behind the practice or not. People won’t be willing to accept it.

There have been moves to deal with mulesing, with New Zealand banning the practice last September.

In Australia, though, the wool industry abandoned a 2010 deadline to phase it out. Animal welfare groups renewed calls last month for Australian Wool Innovation, the peak body for the industry, to set a new timetable.

All this is not to unduly criticise the sector.

The point is that, in a climate where animal rights activism in Australia has been prominent in recent weeks (even if its tactics are less than savoury at times), people and investors are taking more and more notice of these issues.

Perhaps the sector needs to do a better job of getting positive stories out there (and Agri Investor is keen to hear about these), helping to fight back against criticism when it is genuinely unfair.

We’ve previously discussed the benefits of environmental sustainability when putting together an ag strategy.

The ongoing sagas around live exports, and mulesing, serve as a reminder of the need to also be squeaky clean when it comes to animal welfare if the ag investment sector wants to keep growing and attracting institutional capital from around the world.

Those investors won’t settle for anything less.

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NB: This article was amended to change “infection” to “infestation” on 10 April 2019.