Recently, a partnership between some of Australia’s peak beef bodies has released a first ever Beef Sustainability Framework to define what sustainability means for the industry. So what did they come up with after consultation with the community, as well as producers? What will it all mean on the ground (or the land!) – and is it really enough or just an aspirational document?

As someone who both eats beef and one day hopes to farm it sustainably (and collaboratively!), I took a look.

Why industry decided to try and define sustainability

Sustainability has become a buzzword for food recently, and for good reason. We are reaching crunch time, by 2050 we will need to produce 70% more food! To do this we will need 50% more freshwater, which actually means shifting farming models to use 50% less freshwater (because there is only so much water available to us). Simply, we cannot do that without a sustainable industry. Some of the most committed sustainable farmers in Australia rear beef or sheep (you can read about one of them here), and it is clear that now more then ever, true sustainability is crucial to our markets.

So what do they define as sustainable beef in Australia?

There are four ‘themes’ of sustainability that have been identified by the Framework. These are the key elements that truly need to remain balanced.

Animal welfare

The Framework defines this through the five freedoms:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

There are four priority areas that the Framework has identified to enhance animal wellbeing. Competent livestock handling not only enhances wellbeing but reduces stress and as such improves meat quality. Safe livestock transport is also incredibly important, cattle can lose their healthy condition very quickly if they’re not looked after during transportation, which also becomes an economic issue. Animal husbandry techniques have also been identified, such as castration, branding and ear marking. The industry is on the lookout for less invasive techniques and even pain relief for animals. Finally, humane processing, the animal must not be subject to stress and should die instantly or otherwise be totally insensible to pain.

Two other priority areas have been identified for promoting animal health. The first is to maintain healthy livestock and appropriately prevent/treat disease. The second is to minimise biosecurity risks, such as foot and mouth disease or mad cow disease.

Environmental stewardship

Weather can have an enormous impact on farming. As such farmers are extremely exposed to environmental vulnerability. It goes without saying, if we do not look after the environment that makes or breaks us – the industry cannot survive, let alone thrive. That is why farmers need to work with their local environments and ecosystems in order to build a viable business, and provide a valuable product. The Framework focuses its attention on three main aspects:

  1. Land management
  2. Waste
  3. Climate Change

There are two priority areas for improving land management. The first is minimising nutrient and sediment loss, ground cover is essential for maintaining the health of a property. This also means appropriately matching stock numbers with available feed (don’t run more cattle then your property can handle). They also prioritise a well managed farming landscape, for example a balance of tree and grass cover.

The majority of waste is from food and packaging at the consumer and retailer end of the value chain. Solid waste to landfill is a priority of the Framework.

For climate change three main priority areas have been identified. The beef value chain emits greenhouse gases through fertiliser, use of fossil fuels and cattle digestion. This is an important consideration for managing climate change risk. Increased drought and storms due to climate change will also mess with the industry, so we need to be prepared for this and adaptable. Lastly, the efficient use of water – this will become a high priority as the global population grows.

Economic resilience

You might say beef is Australia’s golden child; globally we export a LOT! But this is very sad because whilst we add, add, add to national and international economies – farmers see incredibly low returns, especially compared with other industries. On top of this, input costs for farmers are only getting higher – you can see how unsustainable this is.

As such the Framework needs to support economic systems that will be resilient and give back at a local level. We need to make sure that competition in the market is strong by keeping it open to many competitors. That is how we see better returns for farming families.

To enhance productivity and profitability the Framework identified two priority areas. A positive rate of return must be generated on all capital used across the value chain. The second is that farm, feedlots and processor facilities must have sustained productivity improvements to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The Framework also identifies a need to optimise market access. They have two priority areas in regard to this, which are combatting barriers to trade and making sure Australian products have integrity.

People and the community

The welfare of people in the industry should always be a priority. The Framework recognises this as well as the need to consistently provide beef that is safe and nutritious to consumers.

When it comes to producing safe and nutritious food the Framework identified three priority areas. The first is advocating that beef needs to be eaten as part of a healthy and balanced diet. The second is to ensure that beef is safe to eat and always exceeds the standard. Thirdly, (and the most interesting one) antimicrobial stewardship needs to be upheld so that infections in humans and animals remain treatable.

The Framework also has two priority areas for building workforce capacity. These are accessibility to appropriate training and education, and embracing diversity in the workforce.

The health, safety and wellbeing of people in the beef industry is critical. These are real people with real lives that depend on a balanced industry. The workforce and the communities that are connected to it need to be safe, healthy and capable.

What does all this mean for me as an eater?

Ideally, this will mean more healthy, ethically produced beef available in Australia. In my mind I imagine more grass fed options for consumers – because in my opinion it is more nutritious compared with grain fed. That is just one quick example. To be clear, the Framework does not specify on this and may have a different approach in mind.

What does this mean for farmers?

Hopefully for farmers it means greater returns through more competitive markets. It also means more respect from the people they feed, and more concern for their wellbeing.

Now that environmental sustainability has been more clearly defined for the industry, it should also further the shift away from practices that are not environmentally friendly.

Last but not least, every farmer wants what is best for his cattle! So a strong stance on animal welfare will go a long way.

What does it do well, and what could it work on?

This is a framework, not an action plan. It is values based and holds an advisory/guiding role for decision making in the industry. The Beef Sustainability Framework Report makes note that the industry has a clear action plan, aligned with strong governance that will see this Framework’s vision realised.

Ecosystems of specific areas vary incredibly; in fact even different farms vary, so the solutions for each place will be highly specific. It is difficult to apply this in sweeping generalisations. Each area will need to take this Framework and focus in on what it means for them.

Short term gain will be the enemy of this vision. If it does not hold tight to its longevity then inequality between the four themes will break it away from achieving true sustainability. Greater profit, FAST! It’s a mindset that could be our undoing. Let’s hope the steps taken to realise the Framework vision pack the proper punch! The punch that is needed to really help the industry prosper not just economically, but in all four strands.

Read more meaty thoughts and tips from eaters to farmers and conscious cooks.

Image credit: Nam Giang

Ethan Gordon