Red meat and sustainability: A modern fairy tale?

The Australian red meat industry promotes itself on the basis of environmental sustainability but its claims may comprise more spin than substance.

This post considers the issue under the following headings:

INDUSTRY STRUCTURE

A key industry participant is the Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC), which has described itself as an industry advocacy group consisting of producers, lot feeders, manufacturers, retailers and livestock exporters of beef, goat meat and sheep meat. Figure 1 depicts the industry structure.

Figure 1: Australian red meat industry structure

In November 2015, RMAC appointed a Sustainability Steering Group (SSG), with day-to-day management and funding provided by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA). [1]

MLA’s reasons for existence are research, development and marketing on behalf of cattle meat, sheep meat and goat meat producers, which are depicted as the first four red circles in Figure 1. MLA also works closely with meat processing and live export organisations (depicted as the remaining red and blue circles) to develop programs that address key industry issues, manage projects and communicate outcomes.

Its stated core purpose is to foster the prosperity of the red meat industry.

There may be an inherent tension between MLA’s marketing and communication roles on the one hand and R&D on the other, as negative research findings on sustainability or other matters would hardly be good for marketing or public perception.

SUSTAINABILITY AS A MARKETING WEAPON

With the significant long-term decline of domestic beef and sheep meat consumption, it is not surprising that MLA is focused on enhancing the reputation of its members’ products. [2] [Footnote 1] Claims regarding sustainability appear to be a key weapon in its marketing efforts, including for critically important export markets. Australia is the largest sheep meat exporter globally and the third largest cattle meat exporter. [3]

MLA is an accomplished marketer, having run extensive campaigns over many years and winning prestigious advertising and PR industry awards, including Marketing Team of the Year and Advertiser of the Year. [4] The campaigns have been developed by high profile marketing firms such as: The Republic of Everyone; The Bravery; Totem; One Green Bean; BMF; and The Monkeys.

MLA has even gained access to schools, utilising material accessible via its marketing and promotional pages in the form of so-called “national curriculum study guides”, classroom posters, lesson and activity sheets, virtual excursions, virtual reality roadshows, digital lessons and online board games. [5]

Its key marketing catchcry is currently its claimed goal of achieving a carbon neutral red meat supply chain by 2030. The program has been branded “CN30” and appears to have been accepted largely without question by mainstream media outlets and political parties.

A central plank of the opposition Australian Labor Party’s 2019 federal election campaign was its climate change policy. Less than four lines were devoted to the agriculture sector specifically but they included reference to MLA and CN30.

WHAT DOES “SUSTAINABILITY” MEAN?

In 1987 the UN’s Brundtland Commission defined the term “sustainability” to mean “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. [6]

It comprised environmental, social and economic dimensions on the basis that all must be considered together in order to achieve lasting prosperity.

The industry’s approach appears to be narrowly defined for the benefit of its members, as demonstrated below in relation to the SSG’s 2019 Beef Sustainability Update. The comments also challenge the substance of various industry claims.

Economic dimension

The UN’s economic dimension was based on the notion that human communities around the world are able to maintain their independence and have access to the resources required to meet their needs, with economic systems intact and activities available to everyone.

SSG’s approach focuses on the economic resilience of the red meat sector.

This may be achieved at the expense of other sectors, such as the tourism industry on the Great Barrier Reef, where livestock production has been a major contributor to coral loss (as referred to below).

Environmental dimension

Under the UN’s environmental dimension, ecological integrity is maintained, the earth’s environmental systems are kept in balance and natural resources within them are consumed at a rate which enables them to replenish.

Again with a focus on industry participants, SSG states, “without a healthy natural environment . . . the industry is unable to prosper”.

However, landscapes transformed for cattle grazing and feed crop production are anything but natural.

SSG’s approach to land management and climate change are considered in more detail below.

Social Dimension

The UN’s social dimension aims to ensure that all people can achieve human rights and basic necessities and have access to sufficient resources to keep their families and communities healthy and secure.

SSG aims for a “safe, healthy and capable workforce” and “prosperous and resilient regional communities”. It claims to support the community “by providing safe and nutritious beef”. However, the safety of red meat was challenged in a 2016 study by researchers from the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. [7]

The researchers reported on the health and climate change benefits of changing diets, including reduced consumption of animal products. They estimated that if the global population were to adopt a vegetarian diet, 7.3 million lives per year would be saved by 2050. If a vegan diet were adopted, the figure would be 8.1 million per year.

More than half the avoided deaths would be due to reduced red meat consumption (with red meat being defined as “all mammalian muscle meat”). The results would primarily reflect reductions in the rate of coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

The study allowed for the fact that, based on the strength of available evidence, processed meat (which can include beef and other red meats) has been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. Unprocessed red meat has been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

Another problem with meat production is that its gross and inherent inefficiency works against the UN’s aim of providing all people with “access to sufficient resources”. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, converting cropland currently used for livestock feed and biofuels to food for humans would provide the capacity to feed an additional 4 billion people. As biofuels only represent 10 per cent of the relevant crops, the figure attributable to livestock production is 3.6 billion.

This means that the 821 million people who are currently under-nourished globally could easily be fed with a general transition away from animals as a food source. [8]

Figure 2: The number of undernourished people in the world

SSG’s Additional Dimension: Animal Welfare

SSG has added an animal welfare dimension to its sustainability model. It focuses on the five domains of animal welfare, relating to: nutrition; environment; health; behaviour; and mental state.

In claiming that “cruelty to animals is a criminal offence”, SSG maintains the charade created by exemptions to so-called “prevention of cruelty to animals” legislation in favour of the livestock sector.

In Australia and elsewhere, painful and distressing practices such as hot-iron branding and de-horning are legal. Videos of those practices are available here but please be aware that they may upset some viewers.

Other cruel practices involving cattle include: forced breeding (often involving stimulation by humans and penetration with artificial devices); and castration.

SIX KEY PRIORITY AREAS

In 2017 the industry identified six key priority areas for sustainability: animal husbandry techniques; profitability across value chain; balance of tree and grass cover; antimicrobial stewardship; manage climate risk; and health and safety of people in the industry.

Of those, this article addresses the balance of tree and grass cover and climate risk.

UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS

In the 2019 Australian Beef Sustainability Annual Update, the industry claimed that the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of beef production (as opposed to absolute emissions) had reduced, with the only citation being “2019, S.G. Wiedemann et al”. [9] This writer’s requests for further details, which date back to June 2019, have not been responded to.

In a review of an earlier paper by the same lead author paper and related promotional efforts of MLA, this writer highlighted the following concerns: [10, 11]

  • Out of date 100-year “global warming potential” (GWP) used for the purpose of assessing the warming impact of non-CO2 greenhouse gases;
  • 20-year GWP should be considered, in addition to the 100-year figure, in order to allow for the nearer-term impact of the various greenhouse gases;
  • The figures were based on the live weight of the animals, rather than the more conventional carcass weight or retail weight, resulting in lower emissions intensity figures than would otherwise have applied;
  • Livestock-related land clearing had been increasing despite MLA’s implication to the contrary;
  • Savanna burning was omitted;
  • Foregone sequestration was omitted;
  • Short-lived global warming agents such as tropospheric ozone and black carbon were omitted;
  • Soil carbon losses may have been understated.

Without a copy of the relevant material, it is not possible to say whether or not similar concerns would apply to the more recent analysis.

Although some aspects of the approach adopted are not uncommon, they arguably cause emissions from animal agriculture to be understated.

Allowing for the relevant factors, researchers from the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne and climate change advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) have estimated that the livestock sector is responsible for around half of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The findings were reinforced in a subsequent peer-reviewed journal article, which had two co-authors in common with the BZE paper. [12, 13]

The Australian Beef Sustainability Annual Update also claimed “a 55.7% reduction of absolute carbon emissions” of Australia’s red meat sector between 2005 and 2016. Its cited source was “CSIRO” (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), with no further details. [14]

When this writer requested details, MLA replied: “The calculations were undertaken by CSIRO, but we are still awaiting the final report to upload to our website.”

The response was received more than four months after the Annual Update was released. MLA indicated that the lead author had been on extended leave, and that they would notify this writer when the report had been received. At the time of publishing this article, the relevant details were still awaited. [Footnote 2]

Also of concern is the fact that MLA used a different figure (57.6%) in its 2019 State of the Industry Report, released in October 2019. Once again, CSIRO was referred to but no specific details were provided. [15]

Questions will remain until the relevant details have been released.

HOW RELIABLE A SOURCE IS CSIRO?

CSIRO was established through legislation in 1949 with the role of conducting scientific research to: assist Australian industry; further the interests of the Australian community; contribute to the achievement of national objectives or the performance of the national and international responsibilities of the Commonwealth; or any other purpose determined by the relevant minister.

Although CSIRO has achieved much, it has also been criticised for various collaborations and connections, including research funded by MLA that was used in “The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet”. The book was originally published in May 2005, with a new edition published in October 2006. It has since been further commercialised into an online program by the firm Digital Wellness, under license.

CSIRO continues to be involved in promotion, as exemplified by the appearance on national commercial breakfast television by dietician Pennie McCoy in January 2020, along with two customers. [16]

Other collaborations and connections have included the coal industry, the tobacco industry and Chinese government organisations.

Below are some samples of relevant commentary, but before that is some background on the people quoted.

Clive Hamilton: Author and currently Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Founder and former executive director of progressive think tank The Australia Institute.

Rosemary Stanton OAM: Nutritionist, lecturer and author. Visiting Fellow, School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales and member of National Health and Medical Research Council’s Dietary Guidelines Working Committee.

Tim Crowe: Nutritionist and former Associate Professor in Nutrition,

Jim Mann: Professor of Human Nutrition and Medicine at The University of Otago.

Gyorgy Scrinis: Currently Associate Professor of Food Politics and Policy in the School of Agriculture and Food, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Melbourne and formerly Research Associate in the Globalism Institute, RMIT University.

Patrick Holford: Founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, UK, a charitable and independent educational trust for the furtherance of education and research in nutrition.

Geoff Russell: Mathematician, researcher and author of “CSIRO Perfidy”.

Michael McGowan: Guardian Australia journalist.

Nature editorial: Nature is a leading international weekly journal of science, which was first published in 1869.

COAL:

“Since when did it become normal for publicly-employed scientists to spruik for the coal industry? The Australian Coal Association’s slick new website aimed at promoting ‘clean coal’ features video grabs of CSIRO experts mixed in with industry spokespeople.”

“Participating directly in coal industry propaganda is the culmination of an increasingly intimate relationship between the industry and Australia’s peak scientific research body.”

Clive Hamilton [17]

TOBACCO:

“Concerns about CSIRO management’s commitment to independent science go back at least to 1994 with the appointment of Donna Staunton as director of communications. Staunton was the chief executive of the Tobacco Institute of Australia where she had rejected the science linking smoking and cancer, telling a Senate committee: ‘I do not believe that cigarette smoking is an addiction, based on any reasonable definition’.”

Clive Hamilton [18]

RED MEAT:

“But CSIRO – which runs Australia’s main network of government laboratories – has an unusually good public reputation. It is widely perceived as a trusted national institution.”

“But the commercial success of the book . . . is irritating some scientists, and for good reason.”

“The benefits of a high-protein diet remain a hot topic of debate among nutritionists. But even some of those who approve of such a diet question whether it should rely as heavily on meat as this one does, given the health risks associated with high meat consumption.”

Nature Editorial [19]

“The main trial showed no difference in weight loss compared with a conventional diet.” 

“I think it is dangerous long-term.”

The commentary also referred to elevated risks of breast and prostate cancer, stressed kidneys and adversely affected bone mass.

Patrick Holford [20]

“Robertson’s claim that the Total Wellbeing diet can ‘contribute to reducing obesity in Australia’ is hype, not science . . . Recent cohort and laboratory studies . . . also highlight the potential increased risk of colorectal cancer with a high intake of red and processed meat – both prominent in the CSIRO diet. Add the high financial and ecological costs of diets high in meat, and they are not justified in the absence of any superior weight-loss benefit.”

Rosemary Stanton and Tim Crowe [21]

“The CSIRO’s research was partly funded by the Meat and Livestock Industry [sic] and Dairy Australia. So it is no surprise the sponsors’ products figure so highly in the recommended meals and weekly meal plans: beef, lamb and dairy products.

The CSIRO’s endorsement of a high-meat diet is perhaps an indication of the extent to which our scientists have taken on the role of consultants to industry in their bid to raise funds, and their willingness to deliver research findings that industry finds agreeable.”

Rosemary Stanton and Gyorgy Scrinis [22]

“The CSIRO name unquestionably sells more copies but the hype goes beyond what the research proves.”

Jim Mann [23]

“Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation in late February 2008 show that the CSIRO board was informed of the work of its bowel-health researchers at its April 2006 meeting. It was told: ‘Recent findings from [CSIRO] scientists have established that diets high in red meat, processed meats and the dairy protein casein can significantly increase the risk of bowel cancer.‘”

In late October 2006, in time for Christmas shoppers, the second edition of The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet was released . . . The second edition contains a page discussing red meat and colorectal cancer, including this statement: ‘Studies have shown that fresh red meat (beef and lamb) is not a significant risk factor for colorectal cancer.‘”

(Underlines added for emphasis.)

Geoff Russell [24]

CHINESE GOVERNMENT ORGANISATIONS

“The submission, by prominent Charles Sturt University author and ethicist Professor Clive Hamilton and Australian National University researcher Alex Joske, says China uses its United Front Work Department to exert its influence on Australian society.”

“Its influence extends across Chinese associations on university campuses and the CSIRO.”

Michael McGowan [25]

“Universities in Australia . . . are driven by money, but the CSIRO is even more obsessed by it.”

Clive Hamilton [26]

The comments shown above are some of many examples of concern expressed over CSIRO’s potential lack of objectivity and independence. Such concerns may have become more acute than they would otherwise have been due to dramatic reductions in CSIRO’s funding by successive federal governments over many years.

In terms of meat industry collaboration, CSIRO scientist and co-author of The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, Manny Noakes, joined the board of Meat and Livestock Australia in November 2018. Her current role with CSIRO is Senior Principal Research Scientist, Nutrition and Health Program.

With no acknowledgement of the criticism it has attracted, the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet has been ranked by CSIRO as number 6 on its Top Ten list of “inventions”. [27]

OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE INDUSTRY’S APPROACH TO SUSTAINABILITY

RELIANCE ON OFFSETS

In the 2019 Beef Sustainability Update, SSG stated: [28]

“Offsets will be investigated in the short term but ultimately the industry aims to balance carbon in the landscapes in which it operates. In 2018, some operators have begun to claim carbon neutrality and, in the short term, have used offsets to achieve this.”

Carbon offsets are considered to involve activities away from farmers’ own properties. Activities on those properties are referred to in the next section.

There is no guarantee that the use of offsets will be limited to the short term.

The overriding problem with offsets, including those administered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, is that they excuse an ongoing carbon emitting activity when that activity itself must be addressed.

Related to that concern, the offsetting activity: (a) may have occurred independently of the emitting activity; (b) may contribute to activities that increase emissions in the longer term; and (c) to the extent it does provide longer-term benefits, should be undertaken in its own right as part of a global emergency response to the climate crisis.

In the words of Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester: [29]

“Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”

Sharon Beder from the University of Wollongong has argued: [30]

“Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism that enables individuals to buy themselves green credentials without actually changing their consumption habits, and nations to avoid the more difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming.”

BALANCE OF TREE AND GRASS COVER

As referred to earlier, one of the industry’s six key sustainability priority areas is the balance of tree and grass coverage.

This relates to improved sequestration and storage of carbon on a farmer’s own property rather than (as in the case of offsets) assisting others to reduce emissions or sequester and store carbon elsewhere.

Where this occurs, the industry is claiming credit for (where relevant) vegetation regeneration activities when it has been responsible for most of the nation’s land clearing with all its negative consequences, including loss of habitat and biodiversity. [31]

The ongoing loss of carbon sequestration resulting from the clearing is not accounted for in official greenhouse gas emissions reporting.

Although increased tree coverage is an essential measure, it shares a problem of offsets, in that it needs to happen anyway, without being used to excuse the ongoing carbon emitting activity of meat production.

The industry is understandably keen to maintain traditional revenue-generating activities on the land in question but society as a whole needs to adequately value natural capital so as to enable the land owners to generate that revenue without farming animals. [32] Other forms of farming may also be viable in many areas.

Legislation and anticipated legislation concerning livestock-related land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales was the reason WWF included eastern Australia in a list of eleven global deforestation fronts in 2015 (and since re-confirmed). [33]

Land clearing laws depend very much on the government of the day. The Queensland Labor government introduced a partial ban on broadscale land clearing with effect from December 2006. The partial ban was overturned by the conservative Liberal National Party government in 2013, only to be reinstated by the Labor government in May 2018.

Due to the ongoing reliance on self-assessed clearing in Queensland (including the clearing of mulga forests for livestock fodder) and the government’s approach to exemptions, the legislation in that state falls short of what had initially been promised. This includes an area of 23 million hectares (representing 13 per cent of the state’s land area) for which exemptions from the vegetation management framework will not be reversed. [34]

In New South Wales, the Native Vegetation Act was repealed by the conservative Liberal-National coalition government in late 2016. Land clearing approvals in that state have since increased nearly 13-fold according to a secret report submitted to the state cabinet by its Natural Resources Commission. The report was only released after an independent member of parliament threatened legal action for the government’s failure to do so. [35, 36]

The commission found the extent of clearing and “thinning for pasture expansion” was placing the state’s biodiversity at risk. The government had promised to protect between two and four times the area approved for clearing but had failed to do so in most regions.

The commission also highlighted the lack of an effective monitoring and compliance regime to ensure laws were enforced.

In March 2019, 394 scientists signed a declaration calling on: [37]

“Australian governments at all levels to return to, or pass new, effective legislation, supported by sound regulations, to protect native vegetation from broad-scale land-clearing”.

The scientists stated:

“Large-scale clearing of woody native vegetation contributes to increased fire risk by exacerbating climate change through carbon emissions and increasing the severity and duration of droughts through changes in local and regional climates”.

“Native vegetation protects soil integrity, water quality in freshwater and marine systems, stabilizes local climate, and supports native wildlife, which in turn provide crucial ecosystem services that support agricultural production.”

One of the signatories, Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Deakin University, has highlighted the need to protect significant regrowth in addition to old growth vegetation. [38]

A key target of meat industry land clearing in Queensland has been the Brigalow Belt Bioregion, which is referred to further below. It is likely that brigalow forest that was left to regrow after chaining or pulling could eventually resemble mature stands of uncleared brigalow. [39] The red meat industry generally regards regrowth in a negative light, largely due to its impact on production.

At a federal level, the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act provides no direct protection against land clearing. The Act will only apply where it can be established that clearing would affect a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. [40]

INTRODUCED PASTURE GRASSES WREAKING HAVOC

The removal of forest for pasture has tragic consequences far beyond the direct loss of ecosystems and carbon sequestration and storage.

Many of the grasses planted for farmed animals are introduced varieties that wreak havoc on native plants and animals. Buffel grass and gamba grass are two examples.

Both have the capacity to spread and dominate landscapes. This is achieved partly through their deep root systems (which enable them to monopolise available water) and intense fire load.

In vast areas of Australia, native grass fires are slow moving and of low intensity. Buffel and gamba fires are fast moving and extremely intense, destroying trees and other forms of life that would easily survive native grass fires.

Buffel grass has invaded extensive areas of the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia and is spreading into New South Wales and Victoria. [41]

The government of South Australia has declared the grass a weed and banned it, stating: [42]

“Buffel grass is arguably the single greatest invasive species threat to biodiversity across the entire Australian arid zone . . . The potential value of buffel grass for livestock production is offset by its serious conservation and social impacts. It has been identified as a ‘transformer weed’ of the Australian rangelands . . . due to its ability to transform the basic attributes of habitats. Modelling suggests buffel grass could establish in over 60% of mainland Australia . . .”

MLA has acknowledged that most sown pasture development in inland Queensland has occurred on fertile soils that have been cleared of brigalow and gidgee woodlands and that buffel grass is the predominant introduced pasture species in the region, comprising over 75% of the area sown to tropical grasses [43]

In Queensland and northern New South Wales, brigalow forests once covered 130,000 square kilometres. They have been reduced by over 90% to around 10,000 square kilometres in 60 years through land clearing, primarily for farmed animal grazing. [44]

According to Dr Rod Fensham of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland: [45]

The very most important thing is to make sure that none of the remaining remnants are cleared . . . but the remnants are in trouble from more than just clearing because they get filled up with the exotic grasses that grow on the cattle pastures, and that . . . makes them really flammable and fires chew away at the little remnants bit by bit . . .

Paula Peeters and Don Butler of the Queensland Herbarium agree. They have stated: [46]

“Introduced pasture grasses, including buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) and green panic (Panicum maximum var. trichoglume), are the most serious environmental weeds in brigalow vegetation, because they create high fuel loads and increase the risk of hot fires.”

Ecologist John Read says buffel in the Northern Territory is moving like “a cancer across the countryside”, taking out trees and all the other grasses. It is also adversely affecting the ability of indigenous communities to utilise native food resources and access cultural sites. [47]

Grazier Steven Cadzow of Mt Riddock Station, located north of Alice Springs, seems unaffected by such concerns, saying: [Footnote 3]

“We’re in a business. I mean, our business is growing kilos of beef per square kilometre and that’s what we do and if this grass is going to help us do that and stay viable, well, we’ll keep it.”

Figure 3: Mixed brigalow/gidgee woodland degraded by exotic grass invasion and subsequent fire in central Queensland

Gamba grass has been banned in Western Australia, and its use is restricted by legislation in the Northern Territory and Queensland. [48]

The livestock sector has resisted a call by two hundred scientists for gamba to be banned from sale in Queensland and the Northern Territory.  The cattle president of Queensland’s peak farm lobby group, AgForce, Greg Brown has said: [49]

“It was legitimately introduced and as far as we’re concerned it . . . should remain as one of a suite of pasture species that is available to the pasture industry.”

Referring to the cattle sector, researcher Denise Goodfellow has said: [50]

“. . . the importance of Gamba to the cattle industry has meant that various stations have been allowed to keep grazing cattle on the weed to the dismay of indigenous rangers who find themselves fighting a losing battle trying to control the weed and fight fires, and those of us who care about our wildlife.”

The pastoralists’ tragic legacy is well described by Timothy Neale of Deakin University: [51]

“The disaster of Gamba’s slow expansion has the potential to create an enduring set of transitions. A transition to an ecology in which the one excludes the many. A transition from an ecology assembled through millennia of use by indigenous peoples to one assembled by the fallout of unsustainable settler pastoralism. A transition from an ecology in which fire is a source of common renewal and flourishing (humans included) to one in which it is a common mortal threat.”

INDUSTRY COLLABORATIONS

The industry’s 2019 Sustainability Update listed various organisations as members of its “consultative committee”.

One of those was Youth Food Movement Australia (YFM), which collaborated with MLA through the industry’s “Target 100” initiative. YFM’s purported aim is “to build the skills, knowledge and experience that young people have around food”. [52]

Although ostensibly about sustainability, Target 100 had a strong promotional focus, with MLA stating: [53]

“MLA / Target 100 need to engage key opinion leaders to prevent the anti-red meat / vegan lobby to get traction in the areas of food media and dietary professionals to ensure red meat is not excluded or limited when advice is provided to consumers”

The collaboration included the “bettertarian” concept, which was developed by MLA in conjunction with marketing firms Republic of Everyone and The Bravery (referred to earlier). [54, 55] A 13-minute promotional video “The journey of a bettertarian” (curiously referred to by various parties as a “documentary”) featured television chef Darren Robertson and included one of YFM’s two co-founders. [56]

Another collaboration was “BeefJam”, which YFM described as “a 3-day event that takes young producers and consumers on a crash course of the Australian beef supply chain and gives them 48hrs to reshape the way we grow, buy and eat our red meat.

Target 100 and YFM released a video about the project that appeared to be a form of meat industry promotion. [57] Neither party appears to have provided evidence of meaningful outcomes.

A participant in Beefjam has indicated that YFM and MLA said nothing about adverse industry impacts, such as: the extent of land cleared in Australia for beef production; cattle’s impact on land degradation, biodiversity loss and introduction of invasive grass species; or legalised cruelty, such as castration; dehorning; disbudding; and hot iron branding (usually performed without anaesthetic). [58]

In working with YFM, MLA has not been alone amongst Australian livestock sector participants.

One of YFM’s co-founders spent nearly two years (while also holding senior positions with YFM) as manager for membership, communications and policy at industry advocacy group Dairy Connect.

The other co-founder was a speaker at the two-day 2016 Australian Dairy Conference, sharing speaking duties with high-profile industry participants. She was given two speaking opportunities; a plenary speech and a workshop, with the title of the latter being, “How to herd consumers toward Australian dairy: A workshop in human behaviour change”.

Another member of the industry’s consultative committee is RSPCA, which has been reported (under the headline “RSPCA stamp ‘dupes buyers’“) to earn royalties from the livestock sector equivalent to 2 per cent of sales in exchange for endorsement under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme. [59]

In 2013, Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) exposed horrendous conditions in RSPCA approved pig farms following a fourteen month undercover investigation. Although pig farms do not fall under RMAC’s umbrella, the findings highlighted the questionable role of an organisation trusted to a high degree by the general community and with whom RMAC has a close relationship.

ALV has stated: [60]

“Pig farms that have been approved by the RSPCA have failed to provide every one of the ‘five freedoms’ animals are entitled to under the RSPCA’s Approved Farming Scheme. During our investigation 18 pigs were rescued, they suffered various injuries and illnesses including pneumonia, broken legs, cerebral palsy, testicular hernias, open necrotic wounds, septic arthritis, vaginal prolapses, and failure to thrive due to skeletal deformities. We routinely saw pigs living chest deep in their own excrement. We also repeatedly found corpses in various stages of decay, and dead pigs being cannibalised.”

“Our investigation has shown that ‘free range’ pigs being bred and killed as part of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme are living lives of misery in disgusting unsanitary conditions.”

A short video highlighting some of ALV’s findings can be seen here. Once again, please be aware that the video may upset some viewers.

GREAT BARRIER REEF

The Queensland government’s “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) supporting its 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement and the Reef 2050 Reef Water Quality Improvement Plan highlighted the need to increase and accelerate efforts to mitigate local stressors on the Great Barrier Reef’s waters, including land-based sources of pollution. [61, 62, 63]

Of those pollution sources, livestock grazing (covering 73 per cent of the reef’s catchment area) is a major contributor of sediment and nutrients, with extremely adverse consequences.

The government issues report cards which measure progress towards the improvement plan’s goal and targets. The most recent report card, issued in August 2019 (and showing the status as at June 2018) rated overall grazing management as “D”, indicating “poor”. [64, 65]

That result reflected 35.8 per cent of grazing lands being subject to best management practice (BMP) systems, representing an improvement of only 0.5 per cent since 2016. Specific results were: gully management 24.7 per cent; pasture management 31.1 per cent; and streambank management 51.1 per cent.

Despite the industry highlighting the grazing BMP program in its 2018 Beef Sustainability Update, in practice the results have been tragically inadequate for the reef itself and the many marine species and Australian livelihoods outside the agriculture sector that depend on it.

Figure 4 shows an example of gully erosion which can be initiated by cattle grazing, leading to major increases in sediment load.

Figure 4: Gully erosion

IS THERE A LINK BETWEEN INDUSTRY MARKETING AND SIGMUND FREUD?

Whether it’s commissioning climate change research from CSIRO or seeking to generate support from physicians in relation to health issues, the red meat industry may be utilising marketing methods introduced in the 1920s by the “father of PR”, Edward Bernays, who was a nephew of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

Here is an extract on Bernays from the documentary The Century of Self [66]:

“Bernays was the first person to take Freud’s ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires.”

It was Bernays who successfully applied principles of psychoanalysis that had been developed by Freud to convince Americans that bacon and eggs should become a standard choice for breakfast. He had been commissioned by the Beech-Nut Packing Company, which specialised at that time in vacuum-packed pig meat products.

Here is how his campaign has been described in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology: [67]

“But in creating the new Freudian-style campaign, Bernays asked himself, ‘Who influences what the public eats?’ His answer was to survey physicians and ask them whether they would recommend a light breakfast or a hearty breakfast. Physicians overwhelmingly recommended a hearty breakfast, paving the way for Bernays to convince Americans to swap their usual juice, toast and coffee for the now-ubiquitous, all-American ‘hearty’ breakfast of bacon and eggs.”

Bernays was also famous for developing the “torches of freedom” campaign that convinced women that it was acceptable to smoke in public. [68] Decades later, he claimed he would not have accepted the American Tobacco Company’s assignment if he had known of smoking’s health dangers.

Bernays’ approach in relation to physicians appears similar to a “nutrition strategy” developed by MLA in 2001 and 2002. Phase 3 was the general practitioner communication campaign, which had the following objective: [69]

“To establish red meat as a healthy food in the face of increasingly negative perceptions of the category among general practitioners (GPs). The GP campaign was designed to work synergistically with Meat and Livestock Australia’s (MLA) consumer nutrition campaign. GPs are key influencers of the public’s beliefs on diet and health. The aim was to change GPs’ attitudes to red meat, thereby creating a positive environment for the consumer campaign launch.”

The overall nutrition strategy was aimed at rebuilding public confidence in and demand for red meat.

The GP component involved “core ads”, “advertorials”, “tactical ads” and direct mail with business reply cards offering recipe books and barbecues.

One wonders how much respect for GPs and their patients MLA and their advisors had based on the title of the document outlining details of the campaign: “Are you getting it 3-4 times a week? How red meat ads turned general practitioners on”.

In the same way that MLA sought to influence GPs, they and the coal and tobacco industries have allegedly (as referred to earlier) sought endorsement or support from CSIRO, another trusted name that could potentially influence community sentiment.

CONCLUSION

Consumers need to critically assess information provided by the Australian red meat industry. It is wise to bear in mind the significant role of marketing in MLA’s mission (and specified in the board’s charter) along with the organisation’s core purpose of fostering the prosperity of the red meat industry.

Author

Paul Mahony

Footnotes

  1. From 1991 to 2018, Australian per capita consumption of beef and sheep meat has declined by 32 and 62 per cent respectively, while the figures for pig and chicken meat have increased by 51 and 99 per cent respectively. (Although the World Health Organization regards all mammalian “muscle meat” as red meat, MLA’s use of the term only includes meat from cattle, sheep and goats.) [70]
    x
  2. Based on a 2018 report from MLA which investigated potential pathways toward carbon neutrality, the main sources of reduction in relation to the latest claims may have been in the form of land management practice change (savanna burning management, reduced deforestation, sequestration of carbon in trees) and reduced methane emissions from digestive processes (enteric fermentation emissions) through improved production efficiencies. The industry is also working on feed additives and vaccines to reduce methane emissions. [71]
    x
    Although additives such as seaweed appear promising for feedlots [72], their broader application may be questionable. The bulk of Australian enteric methane emissions come from grazed cattle and sheep. In large areas of northern Australia, accounting for a significant portion of national production, graziers may only handle their cattle once or twice a year. Achieving the industry’s emission reduction target would require new technologies and delivery methods in such settings. [73]
    x
  3. At the time of writing, the transcript of ABC’s Landline program had mistakenly attributed Steven Cadzow’s comment to Stewart Taylor of North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCO). Cadzow’s Mt Riddock Station is not a NAPCO property. The author has notified the ABC.

Key red meat industry organisations

Australian Livestock Export Corporation (LiveCorp)
Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC)
Australian Lot Feeders Association (ALFA)
Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC)
Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC)
Cattle Council of Australia (CCA)
Goat Industry Council of Australia (GICA)
Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)
Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC)
Sheep Producers of Australia (SPA)

Update

Comments on Animal Liberation Victoria’s RSPCA investigation added on 22 April 2020.

References

[1] The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, Governance and principles, https://www.sustainableaustralianbeef.com.au/governance-principles

[2] OECD (2019), Meat consumption (indicator), doi: 10.1787/fa290fd0-en (Accessed on 02 November 2019)

[3] Meat and Livestock Australia, 2019 State of the Industry Report, released 10th October 2019, p. 1, https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/soti-report/mla-state-of-industry-report-2019.pdf

[4] Baker, R., “The Marketer: Meat & Livestock Australia, cleaving, the brave way”, AdNews, 16th November 2015, http://www.adnews.com.au/news/the-marketer-meat-and-livestock-australia-cleaving-the-brave-way

[5] Mahony, P., “Red meat in the classroom”, Planetary Vegan, 24th November 2019, https://planetaryvegan.net/2019/11/24/red-meat-in-the-classroom/

[6] University of Alberta, Office of Sustainability, “What is sustainability?”, undated, https://www.mcgill.ca/sustainability/files/sustainability/what-is-sustainability.pdf

[7] Springmann, M., Godfray, H.C.J., Rayner, M., Scarborough, P., “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change”, PNAS 2016 113 (15) 4146-4151; published ahead of print March 21, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1523119113, (print edition 12 Apr 2016), http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full and http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full.pdf

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[14] Red Meat Advisory Council, Sustainability Steering Group, op. cit., pp. 46 & 65

[15] Meat and Livestock Australia, 2019 State of the Industry Report, op. cit., p. 31

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[23] Dennis, C., op. cit.

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[26] Hamilton, C., “Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia”, Hardie Grant Publishing, 2018, p. 188

[27] CSIRO, Our Top 10 Inventions, https://www.csiro.au/en/About/History-achievements/Top-10-inventions (last updated 30th April 2019)

[28] Red Meat Advisory Council, Sustainability Steering Group, op. cit., p. 48

[29] Anderson, K., “The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets”, Nature, Vol. 484, Issue 7392, doi:10.1038/484007a, 5 April 2012, https://www.nature.com/news/the-inconvenient-truth-of-carbon-offsets-1.10373 and https://www.nature.com/news/polopoly_fs/1.10373!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/484007a.pdf

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[31] Russell, G., “Bulbs, bags, and Kelly’s bush: defining ‘green’ in Australia”, ANU Human Ecology Forum, 19 Mar 2010, p. 10

[32] Mahony, P., “Quantifying the cost of environmental damage”, Terrastendo, 4th October 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/10/04/quantifying-the-cost-of-environmental-damage/

[33] World Wide Fund for Nature (World Wildlife Fund), “WWF Living Forests Report”, Chapter 5 and Chapter 5 Executive Summary, http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/lfr_chapter_5_executive_summary_final.pdf; http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/living_forests_report_chapter_5_1.pdf

[34] Cosgrove, A.J., Reside, A., Watson, J., Maron, M., “Queensland’s new land clearing bill will help turn the tide, despite its flaws”, The Conversation, 16th March 2018, https://theconversation.com/queenslands-new-land-clearing-bill-will-help-turn-the-tide-despite-its-flaws-93370

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[36] Hannam, P., “‘Devastating biodiversity loss’ made worse by rise in land clearing”, Sydney Morning Herald, 27th March 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/devastating-biodiversity-loss-made-worse-by-rise-in-land-clearing-20200327-p54em2.html

[37] Ecological Society of Australia, “Scientists’ Declaration: Strong legislation needed to curb Australia’s accelerating rate of land clearing” (undated), https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/scientists-declaration-strong-legislation-needed-curb-australias-accelerating-rate-land-clearing

[38] The Wire, “Experts call for dramatic increase in land clearing”, 11th March 2019, http://thewire.org.au/story/experts-call-for-dramatic-decrease-in-land-clearing/

[39] Peeters, P. and Butler, D., “Brigalow Regrowth Benefits – Management Guideline”, The State of Queensland (Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts) 2014, p. 6, https://www.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/68424/brigalow-management-guideline.pdf

[40] Hepburn, S., “Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?”, The Conversation, 8th March 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-arent-australias-environment-laws-preventing-widespread-land-clearing-92924

[41] Schlesinger, C. and Judd, B., “The summer bushfires you didn’t hear about, and the invasive species fuelling them”, National Indigenous Television (NITV), 12th March 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/03/12/summer-bushfires-you-didnt-hear-about-and-invasive-species-fuelling-them-1

[42] Government of South Australia, “South Australia Buffel Grass Strategic Plan 2012-2017”, pp. 2 & 3, https://www.pir.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/237340/SA_Buffel_Grass_Strategic_Plan.pdf

[43] Peck, G., Buck, S., Hoffmann, A., Holloway, C., Johnson, B., Lawrence, D. and Paton, C. (2011) “Review of productivity decline in sown grass pastures”, Project Report. Meat & Livestock Australia Limited, p. 12, http://era.daf.qld.gov.au/id/eprint/5037/ and https://www.mla.com.au/Research-and-development/Search-RD-reports/final-report-details/Productivity-On-Farm/Review-of-Productivity-Decline-in-Sown-Grass-Pastures/431

[44] University of Queensland, UQ News, “Australia’s Brigalow forests almost gone in 60 years”, 6 Sep 2017, https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2017/09/australia%E2%80%99s-brigalow-forests-almost-gone-60-years

[45] ABC RN Breakfast, 15th September 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/australias-brigalow-forests-almost-gone/8948244

[46] Peeters, P. and Butler, D., op. cit., p. 25

[47] ABC Landline, “Mixed Blessing”, 2 February 2015, https://www.abc.net.au/landline/mixed-blessing/6063502 (Accessed 11 April 2020, currently available until 5 August 2020)

[48] Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, “Invasive pasture grasses in northern Australia – gamba grass, para grass, olive hymenachne, perennial mission grass and annual mission grass – Gamba grass”, Sep 2014, https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/threat-abatement-advices/invasive-pasture-grasses-gamba-grass

[49] Roocke, N., “Gamba grass: Friend or foe?”, ABC Rural, 1 April 2018, updated 4 April 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2008-04-01/gamba-grass-friend-or-foe/6251774

[50] Goodfellow, D., Nature Territory – The newsletter of the Northern Territory Field Naturalists’ Club Inc., March 2019, http://ntfieldnaturalists.org.au/site/assets/files/1584/nature_territory_-_march_2019.pdf, citing Lawler, E., 2018, Protecting our natural environment: New gamba grass management plan released, media statement. Northern Territory Government, Sept. 2018 and Fitzgerald, D. & Burton, L. (2018). Indigenous rangers dismayed as NT Government allows cattle station to graze gamba grass weed. ABC News.

[51] Neale, T., “A Sea of Gamba: Making Environmental Harm Illegible in Northern Australia”, Science as Culture, January 2019, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2018.1552933, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.108/09505431.2018.1552933?journalCode=csac20

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[53] Meat and Livestock Australia, Target 100 Community Engagement, https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/search-rd-reports/final-report-details/Communication-Community/Target-100-Community-Engagement/1659 (last updated 11th April 2019 and accessed 13th April 2020)

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[59] Smith, A., “RSPCA stamp ‘dupes buyers’”, The Age, 9th January, 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/business/rspca-stamp-dupes-buyers-20120108-1pq6z.html

[60] Animal Liberation Victoria, “Free Range Fraud”, 26 August 2013, http://freerangefraud.com/free-range-fraud/

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[72] Kinleya, R.D., Martinez-Fernandeza, G., Matthewsa, M.K., de Nysb, R., Magnussonb, M., Tomkins, N.W., “Mitigating the carbon footprint and improving productivity of ruminant livestock agriculture using a red seaweed”, Journal of Cleaner Production, 259 (2020) 120836 (published online 2nd March 2020), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652620308830

[73] Mayberry, D., et al., op. cit., p. 42

Images

Feature image: Vladislav Kudoyarov, Shutterstock, ID 1076216759

Figure 1: Background image – Michelle Wignall, Shutterstock, ID 632441039

Figure 2: Background image – Feed My Starving Children, 5K2A9014 2, Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Figure 3: Don Butler, “Brigalow Regrowth Benefits – Management Guideline”, The State of Queensland (Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts) 2014, p. 7, CC BY 3.0 AU, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/au/deed.en

Figure 4: Queensland Government, Types of erosion, Gully erosion, CC BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Videos

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