Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Seafood strangled by green-tape ‘snakes'”

8 August 2014

What’s the difference between an Aussie cow and an Aussie prawn?

For starters, you are much more likely to find a slab of Aussie sirloin on a plane or boat headed for the bright lights of Asia because Australia exports between 60 and 70 per cent of its beef output.

In stark contrast, around 50 per cent of our prawns are imported, mostly from Thailand and Vietnam.

In fact, about 70 per cent of all the seafood Australians consume is imported.

At a time when most of our broader agriculture sector is engaged in a national discussion about how to best capitalise on the economic spoils from exporting produce into Asia, our Australian aquaculture industry is rigorously combatting Asian imports.

The market strength of imports means the Australian seafood industry is missing out on more than $1.5 billion worth of domestic consumption every year.

Seafood is the most consumed animal protein in the human diet. It comprises about 30 per cent of all animal protein in-take.

It’s also the most traded global animal protein.

Aquaculture has been the fastest growing food production sector internationally since the 1950s, roughly doubling production each decade.

The global growth of aquaculture is about 7 per cent per year. It far exceeds that of human population growth (about 0.5 per cent per year) and that of food production on land (about 2 per cent per year).

Despite this, the emerging gap between global seafood demand and supply represents a challenge for the world, as well as a big opportunity for our local industry.

This week I was invited to give the opening address at the Australian Prawn and Barramundi Farmers Symposium on the Gold Coast.

The gathering saw industry share some of the ground-breaking work that truly places our product heads and shoulders above our nearest competitors.

But the theme that rang loud and clear was that the environmental constraints on aquaculture are more restrictive than other industries in agriculture.

It seems the more the seafood industry does to address the concerns of greens groups, the more that is demanded of them.

As I told the symposium, the impediments confronting the industry reminded me of the story of the barramundi farmer who found – near one of his above ground ponds – a snake with a frog in its mouth.

Feeling sorry for the frog, he bent down and pulled the frog out of the snake’s mouth and watched him hop away.

Then feeling sorry for taking the snake’s dinner, the barramundi farmer pulled out a hip flask and gave the snake two nips of rum before the snake slithered off happily.

The farmer was feeling pretty content about his good deeds until there was a sudden knock on the side of the pond and he looked down to see the snake eagerly staring up at him with two frogs in its mouth.

The moral of the story is sometimes your good deeds only serve to encourage others to demand more.

No one doubts that we need to be sustainable. However, it must also be balanced with economic viability and commercial imperatives.

Take for example Australia’s $75 million prawn farming industry, which is one of the dominant seafood sectors in my state of Queensland.

Australian prawn farmers are among the only groups in the seafood industry to have a compulsory levy for research and development.

The money has been well spent, with research programs developing new efficiencies and sustainable practices that would be the envy of other agriculture sectors.

While most prawn farmers can only manage one harvest per year, the Holy Grail is to develop the industry to be capable of two harvests – specifically targeting Christmas and Easter, which are the two peak periods for prawn consumption.

The industry is getting ever closer to its goal. In recent years the CSIRO last year released the Novacq prawn feed additive.

Like many intensive livestock operations, feed is the greatest expense for prawn farmers, accounting for about 26 per cent of input.

However, repeated studies have shown that farmed prawns fed with the CSIRO developed Novacq grow, on average, 30 per cent faster.

So not only does it provide a clear economic benefit but it has also been celebrated because it will reduce farmers’ reliance on so-called ‘trash fish’, which have previously been criticised by environmental groups for depleting the number of fish in the ocean.

Prawn farmers around the world have traditionally needed to feed their prawns with a pellet that includes some fish meal or fish oil, in order to ensure that the prawns grew fast, and were a healthy and high quality product for consumers. The development of Novacq provides a clear alternative.

Similarly, the CSIRO has also released research that enables the Australian Black Tiger Prawns spawning to be grown domestically, reducing the need to collect parent stocks from the wild – a practice that means growers cannot fully control the prawn production process.

Not only does domestic breeding reduce the number of commercial fishing boats on the seas, which is another criticism of environmentalists, but it has also proven to vastly increase yields at farms.

For example, selective breeding at one Australian farm growing black tiger prawns saw an average yield of 17.5 tonnes per hectare, vastly higher than the industry standard of about 5-6 tonnes per hectare.

According to the CSIRO, if the entire Australian black tiger prawn industry adopted this new breeding technology it would increase the industry’s production from 5000 tonnes to 12,500 tonnes and add $120 million to the value of the industry by the end of the decade.

Finally, a strong dedication to research and development has seen the CSIRO release data heralding the Australian prawn industry as leading the world in minimising its environmental footprint.

The CSIRO states there is a large body of scientific research on the environmental impacts of prawn farm discharges that has led to the introduction of a discharge treatment system and among the strictest discharge water quality standards in the world.

As a result, there have been no adverse impacts on surrounding ecosystems for more than two decades.

Despite these commendable efficiency gains and underpinning independent scientific research that affirms the industry’s marginal environmental footprint, there have been no new aquaculture farms approved in Queensland in the past decade.

A key problem is that relentless pressure from green groups has created a spider’s web of green tape that virtually halts any development proposal and intimidates any investor interest.

Top on the list of grievances is the Great Barrier Reef, which covers a significant proportion of Queensland’s coastline and also happens to be the area that is most attractive as a location for prawn farms.

As I said earlier, no matter how many frogs the farmers save, the snakes keep returning with more in their mouth.

By 2025 Australia’s population will exceed 35 million and our national seafood consumption will have increased by 50 per cent.

This important and popular protein will need to come from somewhere.

Among the many challenges will be to secure our food supply as well as contribute to the food supply of the region and be competitive in global food markets.

So with such important crossroads confronting the nation, it is time the green ideologues began working with genuine industry efforts towards environmental sustainability rather than repeatedly raising the goal posts to the levels where economic viability is crushed.

** Senator Barry O’Sullivan will be meeting with a range of landholders as he embarks on a tour of Western Queensland next week. Stay tuned to FarmOnline for updates on his progress.