Why it's critical grass-fed cattle producers have a peak body

Shan Goodwin
By Shan Goodwin
Updated January 13 2022 - 10:09pm, first published 3:00am
Why it's critical grass-fed cattle producers have a peak body

CATTLE producers are leaving the gate wide open to devastating knee-jerk government and societal reactions in the face of a crisis by not having in place a strong representative group.

The warning, from former National Party senator Barry O'Sullivan, has been echoed widely by prominent producers across both the commercial and seedstock sectors, and from farmer representatives in other agriculture sectors.

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It comes in the wake of revelations that a steering committee of people involved in representing producers via various state and national groups was attempting to put in place a new body for grass-fed cattle producers. It would effectively replace Cattle Council of Australia and has set itself a six-month timeline.

The lack of detail around how it would be funded and structured is now raising questions as to whether it will eventuate.

Mr O'Sullivan was heavily involved in the grass-fed levy senate inquiry in 2014 and advocated throughout his years as a politician for better cattle producer representation. He still has family interests in beef production.

The main recommendation from that inquiry was that a producer-owned body be established by legislation, one with the authority to receive and disperse the research and development, and marketing component, of the cattle transaction levy funds. Reforming Cattle Council of Australia to achieve these outcomes was one suggestion.

Mr O'Sullivan this week said the danger of not having a strong, united voice for the cattle producer was that in the event of an emergency, for example an outbreak of mad cow disease in Australia, the government would have no immediate strong guidance on what path to take.

Campaigns from extreme anti-livestock lobby groups, such as calls for a meat tax, were also a major threat that might fall into this category, he said.

"In these circumstances, governments look for advice on how to act from the industry affected and in the absence of that they will be guided by whoever speaks the loudest, or they'll make up their own way forward," Mr O'Sullivan said.

"Do we want those decisions affected by the voices of well-funded, well-organsied lobby groups looking to shut down our industry?

"A pollie should be trembling in their boots to learn the people from the body representing cattle producers is in the lift coming up to see them. That has not been the case in Australia for a long time. In fact, the pollies are confused because what they get is just a heap of different acronyms."

Too complex

As to whether the grass-fed producer was too complex a beast to be represented by one voice, Mr O'Sullivan said while the sector was indeed made up of many different views and business types and sizes, it was possible.

"You won't get equity, that is each voice getting an equal say, and frankly that never happens in representation," he said.

"There will always be people with more weightage or power within the sector but it's possible to have balance and harmony and work towards common goals. It happens in other industries.

"The first thing is to develop a structure that recognises the needs of all involved are different. There is the north and the south, the boxed beef supplier and live-ex supplier. Then take a long, hard think about how they can all be accommodated.

"I don't know precisely what that would look like but I know it's possible.

"And above all, it must meet principles of openness, transparency and the inclusion of those affected by its policies, because without those things it will never be viable."

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Levy not the way

OTHER peak industry councils in the red meat industry have expressed concern about the idea of the transaction levy being drawn on to fund one lobby group.

Strong membership is the only viable long-term funding solution, they say.

The Australian Meat Industry Council's Patrick Hutchinson also expressed concern about any backward steps into adversarial positions between the processing and production sectors.

"We support the need for a solid grass-fed cattle producer PIC as we believe it is the best outcome for the total supply chain," he said.

"However, we would argue against levies being utilised to underpin any industry organisation in an ongoing manner. The grass-fed group should work towards being independently financially viable to ensure independence in advocacy, which allows for a total supply chain approach to lobbying.

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"It also needs to recognise in 2022 that issues management has changed, and that to be willing to work with, not against, other sectors, provides the best outcomes to its membership base.

"We've done a huge amount of work to have strong relationships with state farming organisations, individual producers and other industry groups.

"AMIC now advocates for the production sector in supply chain issues such as sustainability, as an example.

"The industry today is interconnected. Processors own feedlots, pastoral companies slaughter their own product under their own brand and even own their own abattoirs.

"As such, representative groups must be interconnected in issues management and advocacy."

Mr Hutchinson believes the strength of advocacy groups is in their mutual end goals and joint collaboration, without the need to always be sitting around every negotiation table on every issue.

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"We should each draw on our strengths and have trust in each other to deliver. That's how we will galvanise this industry," he said.

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Shan Goodwin

Shan Goodwin

National Agriculture Writer - Beef

Shan Goodwin steers ACM’s national coverage of the beef industry. Shan has worked as a journalist for 30 years, the majority of that with agricultural publications. She spent many years as The Land’s North Coast reporter and has visited beef properties and stations throughout the country and overseas. She treats all breeds equally.

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