HISTORY OF THE TRADE
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Australia’s livestock producers were amongst the nation’s first exporters, with live animal shipments dating back to 1829. Exports of live animals, notably horses and cattle continued throughout the 19th century.
The opening of large cattle stations in the Northern Territory and Kimberly in the 1880s was driven by the potential of exports to Asian markets and Australia’s northern cattlemen have been accessing these for more than 100 years. The first shipments of cattle exported from the Northern Territory were recorded in the 1880s, destined for Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore and later to the Philippines. By the early 1890s the South Australian Government was subsidising trade of 2,000 cattle a year to Asian ports and at the same time, new ships were designed to increase capacity to supply growing demand overseas and new wharves and facilities for housing animals awaiting export were also constructed.
From its earliest days, the industry intended to deliver well-conditioned livestock to foreign markets. From the early 1800s to today, losses of animals in transit mean reduced profits. The desire to improve conditions of transport and to understand the dynamics of successful shipments has underpinned ongoing industry research and guides investment in new ships and on-board infrastructure.
THE 20th CENTURY – THE EARLY YEARS
The trade in live cattle continued to in the first two decades of the 20th century, interrupted only by war. By the 1920s Australian farmers were exporting around 60,000 head of cattle to the Philippines and around 50,000 cattle over the decade to Hong Kong, Singapore and Java.
Between the first and second world wars the trade continued to fluctuate. Market dynamics both helped and hindered the growth of the trade. By the early 1960s livestock exports were established as a small, steady trade, built on a solid base. The next five decades saw the trade flourish into an industry worth $1.8 billion a year, and Australia establish itself as the world-leader in delivering livestock to countries throughout Asia and the Middle East. This growth coincided with the economic expansion in these regions, promoting increased demand for meat.
THE MODERN TRADE EMERGES
Arguably, the modern trade began in 1960 through a partnership between Australian exporters, a Danish ship-building firm and Kuwaiti businessmen. The Kuwaiti businessmen had secured a tender to supply Government schools with meat, and were importing Danish cattle. The Danish-owned Clausen Steamship Company and Australia’s Emanuel Exports shipped 2,500 sheep to Kuwait in 1960. The success of the venture led to three purpose-built ships being commissioned and more than 780,000 sheep a year being exported from Australia to the Middle East within a decade of the original shipment. The success of the initial venture also encouraged other exporters. Live exports of sheep grew to more than 6 million by the end of the 1970s, with export markets as far afield as Iran and Brazil.
During this time cattle exports played a smaller, secondary role, focused largely on traditional markets in Asia. The purpose-built ships that helped increase sheep exports played an important role in boosting cattle exports, however foreign markets were often ill-equipped to deal with large numbers of cattle.
Cattle exports to Hong Kong and the Philippines fluctuated during the early 1960s and a small trade to New Guinea continued throughout the decade, with occasional exports to Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite the small scale, these market allowed the trade to continue, the industry to expand its knowledge base and to ensure significant infrastructure was established. The presence of these markets and the desire to expand the trade also saw new breeds of cattle considered. One of those breeds was the Brahman, particularly suited to northern growing conditions and well regarded within foreign markets. By the early 1980s Australian cattle were being exported in growing numbers to the Philippines, along with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
This growth has not been without problems. Industrial action in the late 1970s briefly threatened the viability of the industry, Saudi Arabia’s rejection of sheep transported on the Cormo Express in 2003 drew media attention and a government inquiry, and the recent 4 Corners expose on comparably inhumane slaughter practices in Indonesian slaughterhouses demonstrated the range of factors that affect markets.
The industry is remarkably resilient, not least because of its willingness to improve. Since the late 1990s the industry has accelerated its commitment to animal welfare through research and development and target projects through the Livestock Export Program, a partnership between LiveCorp and Meat and Livestock Australia. The industry has also helped in the design and implementation of Government backed regulatory regimes that are the strictest in the world.
From its earliest forays exporting animals, Australia’s competitive advantage remains. Australia’s proximity to markets as well as a lack of severe livestock disease have driven Australia to become a leading exporter of livestock. This competitive advantage is now supported by industry investment into supply chain innovation, research and development and animal welfare.
Australia’s livestock export industry is driven by the World’s increasing demand for red-meat protein, as well as cultural and religious preferences for meat from freshly slaughtered animals, infrastructure limitations (such as refrigeration) in some markets and the value adding opportunities for offshore feedlot or meat processing industries. Through the export of Australia livestock, the industry is increasing food security in countries with insufficient resources to feed their population while also providing meat for religious and cultural purposes.
Through an industry initiative, Australia provides training in animal handing offshore, delivering skills to people working in the livestock supply chains in Australia’s export markets and the Australian Government regulates animal welfare standards throughout the entire supply chain, right through to the point of slaughter in off-shore markets.
As the global demand for red meat continues to rise, a reduction in livestock exported from Australia will force importing nations to source animals from alternative exporting nations, none of which has welfare standards or assurance regulations near comparable to that of Australia.
Today, the livestock export industry employs more than 10,000 Australians, contributes $1.8 billion a year to the Australian economy and, through a combination of industry initiative and government regulation, is helping to improve animal welfare globally – a fact acknowledged by Dr Derek Belton of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) at an industry forum in Australia in October 2013