Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The need for balance in livestock production

The news that, in spite of runaway increases in rainfall that have reached fifty percent vis-à-vis pre-1967 rainfalls, the Northern Territory is not faring as well economically as many other parts of Australia is one that has for a few months surprised me.

However, today’s Sydney Morning Herald has some quite revealing news about where the problems for the Territory are coming from. It is showing that Indonesia, out of a desire to make itself self-sufficient in beef, is gradually phasing in more and more severe restrictions on the importing of live cattle, the staple export of the Territory. The Territory is already suffering from government-imposed restrictions on treatment of all live animals exported from Australia, since methods of killing used in the Middle East (another major export destination) are not considered acceptable by the Australian government. Another problem is that Indonesia’s own herds are becoming unbalanced by the large-scale slaughter of breeding cattle, which could soon prevent it increasing numbers beyond their present level.

Because Indonesia is so mountainous, it lacks land suitable for grazing cattle. Even with the immense amount of volcanism few of Indonesia’s soils are especially fertile. This means that there is very much inherent danger in asking Indonesia to support large-scale cattle grazing, and there is danger that, even with the limited land supply inherent in young landmasses which encourages a level of conservation far beyond that of the “old lands” of Australia and Africa, Indonesia could lose quite a lot of its unique biodiversity.

As the second most biologically diverse nation on Earth, Indonesia has a lot of responsibility to preserve its ecosystems despite its relatively low fragility. Government support for tropical forest destruction (often, as in Australia, via big corporations taking control of the government) has led such species as the Javan Rhinoceros and Sumatran Rhinoceros to Critically Endangered status. If deforestation continues at present rates, large numbers of species could be lost and vital sink for CO2 destroyed.

This, along with the possibility of destroying the cattle industry in both Australia and Indonesia, calls for questioning what should be done to ensure sustainability and the lowest possible price for meat? There is a lot of evidence, such as that provided by Martin Taylor in Bludgers in Grass Castles, that pastoralists have turned to the “nanny state” to protect them under stresses such as droughts and low prices. This is evidenced by large-scale migration out of the less infertile crescent between Singleton and Birdsville over the past 130 years or so. It stands improbable that Western Australia and the Northern Territory could avoid similar emigration with an economy based on pastoral estates. However, the extreme labour efficiency of super-extensive pastoral economies makes free markets very dubious for conservation of these extraordinarily old and fragile lands: no matter how few people exist, energy-guzzling machinery will be capable of mustering stock over huge ranges, and if dismantling of Enriched World farm subsidies allows Australian pastoralists higher prices, there will be a natural incentive to expand into even more infertile land.

Nonetheless, there would be many benefits from eliminating restrictions on trade of live cattle. It would allow graziers who can afford to keep land, as well as meat packers catering for the specialised Halal means of killing animals under Sharica law, to increase the amount of money they can make, and provide a good animal supply for Muslim nations to develop a meat-processing industry that could well be highly competitive.

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