EARLY background research is being conducted into possible alternatives to ‘1990s-era’ animal traceability technology currently in use across the red meat industry, Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Jason Strong told a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra last week.
MLA, the Australian Meat Processor Corporation and Livecorp were the three meat and livestock industry R&D bodies to make appearances before the half-yearly senate estimates sessions yesterday afternoon.
MLA managing director Jason Strong was quizzed at length by senators, coving diverse topics including industry investment in seeking alternate markets (in the wake of trade tensions with China this year), the extent of R&D investment in sustainability, and the industry’s response to the recent ABC TV program, ‘Fight for Planet A.’
NSW Nationals senator, Perin Davey ,followed a line of questioning around MLA’s R&D investment in traceability systems.
She asked about MLA’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Integrity Systems Company, and specifically about R&D plans under ISC’s five year plan into systems development for alternate traceability technologies. ISC was a year into its 2025 five year plan, Mr Strong said.
“The first year was largely setting-up and preparation for identifying what areas might provide benefit and opportunity,” he said.
ISC expenditure to date on traceability technologies and systems development was $7.1 million in the 2020 year completed on June 30, from an overall ISC budget of $19.3 million, Mr Strong said.
Asked whether there had been any ‘duplication of R&D effort’ regarding traceability technology development, he said there had not.
“A key part in what we look at is ensuring that we are not re-inventing the wheel. The first port of call is in looking at currently available technology, and if there is a gap or a market failure in what is required, then looking at what might need to be developed,” he said.
“A good example of that is the electronic eartags that are used as part of the National Livestock Identification Scheme. That’s still the original technology that was developed for electronic identification of cattle in the 1999s.
“We’re certainly conscious of what might be happening in the next generation of identification,” he told the estimates hearing. “We’d expect that the next gen ID technology will be quite different to the tags currently being used, for example.”
Asked whether part of ISC’s work was in ‘horizon scanning’ to identify emerging technologies that would meet the industry’s objectives in individual animal traceability, Mr Strong said it ‘absolutely was,’ and that some of that work was already being done.
“There’s quite a long list of potential animal identification systems that already exist, or are being promoted. To date, none of those newer generation technologies have been approved,” he said.
Sen Davey asked whether MLA (or more directly, ISC) had sought to, or partnered with any private companies to leverage investment in development of new or emerging traceability technologies.
Mr Strong confirmed that it had. “There are projects that ISC is involved with, that certainly leverage other funds to look at what the best future traceability solution might be,” he said.
“A key part of that is looking at the broader R&D that is done within the MLA portfolio, to ensure that we are not duplicating anything that might be specific to ISC, and what might be being done otherwise.”
R&D investment in sustainability
In other lines of questioning from senators yesterday, Senator Tony Sheldon asked about the extent of MLA research into sustainability and Co2 emissions reduction.
“There are a number of projects we are working on in the sustainability portfolio, the most notable of which is the net carbon neutral program, which has been underway for a number of years, with the objective of the red meat industry being carbon neutral by 2030,” Mr Strong said.
Asked about specific projects, he referenced the red seaweed project, currently in late-stage R&D/early stage commercialisation, developed in conjunction with CSIRO and James Cook University.
The commercialising company, Futurefeed had now raised external capital to take the product forward to market, with a product that when used as a supplement to feedlot cattle significantly reduces methane emissions.
“It has no negative impact on animal productivity and in some cases shows positive impacts,” he said.
Other areas of MLA R&D around sustainability included working with BOM to focus on growing climate knowledge, programs focused on waste products management across the supply chain, and projects focused on productivity.
“When we think about sustainability, we think about reducing the impact on the environment – but it has to be done in a holistic way where we are either maintaining or improving the productivity and profitability of our sector, while leaving the environment a better place, and ensuring the inter-generational sustainability of the businesses,” Mr Strong said.
“We have to make sure that when we invest in these areas we not only maintain or improve the environment, but maintain or improve the health of the industry at the same time.”
Senator Sheldon whether it would be helpful if there were sustainability targets set by government, as well as those by industry (CN30).
“It’s important that we are all aspirational in this space,” Mr Strong said. “But it’s also important that we focus very clearly on the things that we can control. While there are things that the government might do that would be helpful towards our cause, we also have a responsibility to take as much pro-active action ourselves, as we possibly can – regardless of what (government) policies of the day might be.”
“We understand the challenge and opportunity of some of those discussions, but also think we as an industry have an opportunity to take a leadership position in many areas – and sustainability is one of them. In fact the industry took a leadership position a number of years ago (CN30) which allowed us to be very pro-active about our investment in sustainability – and in particular, understanding the impact of ruminants on the environment,” Mr Strong said.
“It also allows us to have a lot more control over the investments and activities we are involved in – not only can we be thinking about how much better we can make the environment, but also how we do that in a way that also adds to the profitability and productivity of our sector.”
Drawing attention to trade and political tensions that had developed between Australia and China this year, leading to challenges in the agricultural sector, Senator Sheldon asked whether MLA focused on trade and market access issues within its R&D spend.
“Yes is the short answer,” Mr Strong said, “but it has a big proviso in the importance of the collaboration with government, around market access and trade improvement.”
“Does that include looking at future or alternative markets?” Sen Sheldon asked.
“There is quite a bit of work done in understanding trade flows with current markets and their development over time,” Mr Strong said.
“There are two significant pieces of work currently on market access. One is new or better access to markets, and as far as agreements are concerned, the access agreements with the European Union and the UK are the last two substantial market agreements that are available to us. Obviously the government and industry is very focused on that at present, with the industry represented under a task force made up of cross-sectoral representatives working closely with the government.”
“Another part, where we probably have more activity, is in non-tariff trade barrier areas. The potential value of improvements in non-tariff trade barriers to the Australian red meat industry has been put at between $3 billion and $4 billion. A good example where we worked with government was in improving access to the Middle East, around improving shelf-life of chilled beef and sheepmeat. That added around $100 million in value to that market, in the sort of product that could go into the Middle East under an increased shelf-life allowance.”
Is MLA adequately funded to achieve its R&D objectives?
Focussing on MLA’s annual expenditure on R&D ($172m last year, out of a total budget of $269m) Mr Strong was asked whether MLA was ‘adequately funded to achieve its objectives.’
“The answer has to be yes, because we are custodians of socialised funds coming from multiple sources,” he said.
“We have a responsibility for those funds to be invested in the most responsible and impactful way. It’s not our position to be wishing we had more money, but what we do have a responsibility for is making sure we invest that in the best way we can. That’s a focus for us in our five-year strategic plan.”
“But what comes out of this sort of discussion, when thinking about the big issues like climate change, is the total cost of solving some of these ‘big national issues’. We can’t solve some of those on our own – we do need to collaborate, and find other sources of revenues or partners to speed up progress, and bring forward the potential impact.”
Sen Davey asked Mr Strong that, given all of MLA’s R&D work in improving sustainability, how his organisation felt about the ABC’s recent TV program, ‘Fight for Planet A’, which she suggested “did not depict red meat as a sustainable, conscientious industry.”
“It is disappointing to see an opportunity missed, when there are so many positives that could have been highlighted about the efforts of the sector to take a leadership position before many others, and be proactively not only trying to understand what the real impact of the sector is, but doing something about it,” Mr Strong said, with an element of diplomacy.
Asked whether MLA had lodged a formal complaint to the ABC/ACMA over the program’s contents, Mr Strong said it had not, but Cattle Council of Australia had, with MLA’s support. CCA had since received a response, but no detail was provided.