Hold the pangolin - give 'em beef

View From the Paddock: Hold the pangolin, let's give 'em beef

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Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer.

Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer.

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If there is a silver lining to be gleaned from the scourge of COVID-19, it could be for a premium protein producer like Australia.

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To state the patently obvious, we are living in strange and peculiar times.

Aside from the clear and concerning health implications, COVID-19 is laying waste to every sector of the world economy.

Predicting a path forward through the fog is near impossible, but for the moment, I am trying to focus on the positives for when the dust does eventually settle.

One of the more overlooked aspects of the pandemic to date has been China's decision to amend its Wildlife Protection Law, which has permanently criminalised the consumption of wildlife and illegal wildlife trading.

(It is fair to say that the decree, 'Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People', lacks the allegorical flourish of Mao's 'Let a thousand blossoms bloom' campaign).

Since the virus hit in December, almost 20,000 wildlife farms across seven Chinese provinces have been shut down or put under quarantine, including breeders specialising in peacocks, foxes, deer and turtles.

Anecdotally, similar crackdowns are taking place in live animal markets in other South East Asian countries, such as Indonesia.

It should be noted that a similar ban was put in place in 2003. At that time, the SARS outbreak was traced to the civet cat, so in an effort to curb the spread of SARS, the Chinese government decreed the eradication of large numbers of civet cats at restaurants, on farms and in wild-animal markets. Clearly, this ban did not stick once the outbreak subsided.

China's wildlife trade and consumption industry is valued at US$74 billion and employs more than six million people, according to a government-sponsored report published by the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2017.

For clarity, I make no comment on the desire of our northern neighbours to eat exotic animals - this is a cultural practice that they have undertaken over centuries. Hell, visitors to our country turn up their noses at our consumption of kangaroos and vegemite, so who are we to cast stones.

But on recent evidence it appears that the combination of live, wild animals, poorly regulated animal husbandry and unsanitary butchery has created the perfect environment for viruses to emerge.

Aside from the human health benefits of closing these markets, it will also lead to a reduction in concerns relating to animal cruelty issues and the loss of biodiversity that the wild animal trade has allegedly created.

Now it would be Icarian hubris of the highest order to suggest that the wild animal trade in Asia is done and dusted. Even if China's ban is permanent and largely effective, the trade will inevitably pop up in less scrutinised rural areas or move into the black market realm.

Irrespective, it appears to be highly likely that these markets are done in the landscape moving forward.

The silver lining to be gleaned from this trade meltdown is that the up side for 'traditional' protein producers in the wake of these bans has the potential to be quite significant.

On the back of the already major protein gap created by the African Swine Fever in China - estimated to be in the order of 24.5 million tonnes prior to the COVID-19 outbreak - there is plenty of scope for a premium protein producer like Australia to fill some of the void.

- Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer

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