AUSTRALIA’S beef industry has recorded a decrease in carbon emissions, more forest on grazing lands, and, for the first time, the setting of ambitious goals to guide investment and attention into the future, according to the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework (ABSF) 2023 annual update.
The ABSF annual update is a yearly scorecard and snapshot of the industry’s sustainability performance, reporting on several priority issues to monitor progress against recognised standards and metrics.
This year, in its sixth edition, it has increased the number of indicators to 54, spanning the four foundational themes of best animal care; environmental stewardship; economic resilience; and people and the community.
ABSF Sustainability steering group (SSG) chair, Mark Davie, said this year’s annual update showed great progress and opportunities for further improvement.
“There is plenty to celebrate; Australian beef businesses produced over 20 billion meals this year and progressed on nearly all our sustainability metrics,” Mr Davie said.
Australia’s red meat industry has set a target of being carbon neutral by 2030, known as CN30, and progress towards this goal is evident, with net carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 of 45.21Mt, 64.07 per cent below 2005 levels.
“This is an outstanding result and the lowest recorded to date, given a number of contributing factors,” Mr Davie said.
“Methane emissions in 2020 were the lowest recorded, primarily due to a reduced national herd, and carbon sequestered in on-farm vegetation was the highest ever recorded.”
Encouragingly, as much of Australia broke drought across 2020 and 2021, and the national herd increased, satellite imagery shows forest on grazing land in the same period increased by 780,000 hectares.
“This demonstrates the responsible management of natural resources by our producers, further underscored by the removal of primary vegetation also at a record low,” Mr Davie said.
Fresh data has flowed from an updated life cycle analysis, the first in four years, which calculated 400 litres of water were required per kilogram of live-weight gain for raising cattle, a decrease of 18 per cent. The improvement comes from reducing reliance on irrigation, reducing losses associated with the water supply and a slight reduction in water consumption through improved genetics.
The Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement coming into force promises to reinforce the economic resiliency of the industry, with a big increase in tariff-free beef access in year one and a transition to tariff-, quota- and safeguard-free trade over a 15-year period.
Advances have also been made in animal welfare, with the feedlot industry increasing the percentage of feedlot capacity with access to shade to 63 per cent and on track to reach its goal of 100 per cent by 2026.
Awareness of Australian Animal Welfare Standards for Cattle has reached 100 per cent for the first time, and the mortality rate of stock on live export ships continues to improve. According to reports tabled in Parliament in 2022, cattle mortality during sea voyages has more than halved in two years to a record low of 0.05 per cent.
“The only two negative trends were a decline in water efficiency by processors due to reduced throughput and a reduction in ground cover across semi-arid regions due to a drought,” Mr Davie said.
Mr Davie said there are also challenges to overcome, such as finding an appropriate metric for on-farm biodiversity, while work was underway to develop an indicator of mortality on domestic road transport.
“We want to make sure our consumers and stakeholders understand there is more to do, but the supply chain is serious about continuous improvement when it comes to sustainability; when you buy Australian beef, you are investing in a supply chain that can have a positive impact on 50 per cent of the Australian land mass,” Mr Davie said.
Chair of the Red Meat Advisory Council, John McKillop, said setting goals was a natural evolution for the ABSF.
“Australia’s global competitors have either set or are currently developing, sustainability goals for beef,” Mr McKillop said.
“To stay competitive, to keep building trust with our consumers and maintain our favourable access to markets, we need to continue to be proactive on sustainability and place metrics around what it is we want to achieve.”
After a process of stakeholder engagement, development and consultation, the Australian beef industry has committed to the following five goals:
*The Australian beef industry is guided by the five domains of animal welfare. The industry provides all cattle with an environment in which they can thrive in accordance with these domains;
*By 2030, the Australian beef industry will demonstrate its net positive contributions to nature;
*The Australian beef industry will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across its production and processing sectors by 2030;
*The value of Australian beef industry products and services to double from 2020 levels by 2030, resulting in a profitable and resilient industry, and;
*The Australian beef industry to be trusted, attractive to a diverse workforce, a source of pride and belonging, and to make a positive contribution to the food security of Australian and international communities.
Mr McKillop said the next step would be to set targets to track progress towards achieving the five goals.
“It is important to show our progress, even if we fall short because sustainability is about constant improvement in an evolving ecological, economic and social setting,” he said.
“The industry has made great strides over the past decade or more and established its sustainability credentials.
“We should be proud of what has been achieved, but we need to keep improving. As an industry, we need to prioritise what work needs to be done to be world-leading in our sustainability performance and clearly demonstrate to our stakeholders we are serious about it.”