Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Beware the ‘panda people'”

2 May 2014

There is a Looney Tunes cartoon that features Bugs Bunny and a witch. As Bugs lay fast asleep, the witch pores over her cauldron, concocting her brew, stirring in the ‘eye of newt’ and the other ingredients.

Bugs is awoken by the witch’s stirrings. He sees the cauldron, which he mistakes for a bubble bath. The witch encourages this belief and even offers to scrub Bugs’ back with a stick of celery.

It is only once Bugs has hopped into the cauldron and adjusted to the temperature of the witch’s brew that the bunny realises he is the one on the menu.

This image of Bugs Bunny awakening from his snooze and excitedly climbing into his “bath” reminds me of the risk being taken by the Australian beef industry if it continues to participate in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The argument adopted by some is that if our beef producers are not at the table, they will be on the menu. The trouble is, Australian producers are not at the table. They are the ones climbing into the cauldron.

Our beef industry is already on the menu.

Graziers should be wary of the power of the panda because the policies that govern the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are not as black and white as its iconic logo.

Despite the WWF’s protestations that the global roundtable process might not necessarily become a certification scheme, recent history suggests otherwise.

The WWF-initiated ‘Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) took just six years to become a full scale certification system.

Companies that were unwilling to join the roundtable faced having their offices picketed by protesters in orang-utan costumes, with television cameras recording the occasion for a global audience.

The final offering from the roundtable was a certification scheme where more than 1000 members from 50 countries are now forced to employ an “approved independent certification body.”

Under the scheme, growers are assessed for certification once every five years, and if successful, they are assessed annually for continued compliance.

Every five years the main assessment is repeated.

At all stages of this process, these growers are expected to foot the bill in order to get the panda people’s tick of approval.

I have been encouraged by the support I have received from my announcement this week that the Queensland Nationals team will convene a ‘square-table’ of grass roots beef industry representatives in the coming weeks.

The planned series of conferences will gather our beef industry representative bodies to work towards collating the already-existing programs and reports that establish the Australian beef sector’s ongoing commitment to sustainability.

This will enable a final statement to be provided to reassure our major business customers.

Much of this work is already well underway.

The ‘square-table’ aims to save time and money.

There is no need for the Australian beef industry to sit alongside the WWF and the chorus line of foreign-owned multinational corporations at the global roundtable.

We already have some of the best biosecurity and food health standards in the world.

Australian producers already meet, and in most instances exceed, any accepted key performance indicators or world’s best practices.

We are well placed to serve these volume market demands as the Asian middle classes expand.

We are already proving our sustainable credentials. It is simply a matter of collating, describing and then communicating these combined efforts.

The onus should be on the WWF to explain what possible benefit it can offer our world class beef sector.

Whether it is drought, flood, debt or the live export ban, Australian graziers have confronted a lifetime’s brew of unsustainable struggles in recent years.

Producers cannot afford another unnecessary layer of regulation that will serve only to reduce farm-gate profitability.

The WWF is trying to get its hands into the pockets of Australian producers at a time when no one can afford it.

Singing from the same song sheet as the WWF is the biggest mistake our beef industry could make.

That would be a real looney tune.