Total world supply in of beef in 2018 was approximately 61,583,000 metric tons. The United States (20%), Brazil (15%) and the European Union (13%) are the largest producers of beef (grass and grain fed) in the world, together producing 47% of the world supply in 2018. Australia is the 5th largest producer, producing 3.35%.2016 feedlot capacity in Australia was 1.2m head an increase of 3% from prior year, with Queensland having the largest feedlot capacity followed by NSW feedlot capacity has been declining by 4.2% nationally between 2012 – 2016.
In 2016, there were 887,600 cattle on feed which was a 8.4% decrease from the previous year. Overall cattle on feed increased by 16.4% from 2012 – 2016 across Australia. Total turnover was $4.6b for feedlots out of a total of $62b for the meat and livestock industry in Australia, which increase 11% year on year. This represents $18b in Gross Domestic Product.
In 2016 Australia exported over 1Mt (Metric tonne) of beef and veal in 2016, a decrease of 21% compared to the previous year. There are three types of live exports – slaughter meaning cattle that will be killed overseas, feeder meaning immature animals that will be fed overseas before slaughter and breader meaning cattle that will be used for breading overseas. Volumes of slaughter and feeder live exports increased by 102% from 2012-2016 and breeder live exports decreased by 7%. This represented 73% utilisation of feedlots.
Record numbers of lot fed cattle occured in Australia in March 17 due to high cattle prices and cheaper grain. The lot feed industry has had a period of growth following due to US loss of trade to Japan and Korea, and the growing International market for grain fed beef. The top importers of beef from Australia are Japan and South Korea.
The major importers of Australian Grain Fed Beef are Japan and South Korea. Cattle do not naturally eat grains in their diets and must be slowly introduced to grains and monitored closely for grain poisoning. This happens when grains release carbohydrates that rapidly ferment producing acidosis which causes the animal to become dehydrated and slowing of the gut which can sometimes cause death. Wheat and barley are the most common grains that can cause this in Australia.
In the last 50 years the industry has become industrialised with large corporations controlling most of the supply chain, focusing on cost cutting, homogenisation of supply, control of supply, at the expense of safety and health of the industry.
In the TV documentary “Food Inc” we gain a horrifying insight into the world of food production in the US. This is a world where hugh multinational corporations control the market, producing highly commoditized products using modern manufacturing techniques. They control the supply chain from farm to supermarket, food outlet,[more] and fiercely defend their turf. In 1970 in the US the top 5 food producers represented approximately 25% of market share, and today this top 4 (Tyson, Swift, Cargill and National Beef) represent over 80% of market share. More worrying is the cover-up as to how this food is produced and the dangers that it presents to consumers, who have until recently been kept in the dark about how their food is produced.
The film exposes many practices and structures that have been put in place to serve an industry that produces cheap, unhealthy food for consumers, that is heavily subsidised by government, limited in terms of biodiversity, and laden with antibiotics and growth hormones, fueled by the overproduction of US corn. The industry also turns a blind eye to the high environmental impact, the welfare of its animals and human workers, and the dignity of its farmers. It appears that government regulation also favours producers, who have sought to have those in power on sit on their boards.
“Even if you don’t eat at a fast food restaurant you are eating meat produced by the system” Eric Schlosser, Author: Fast Food Nation
Americans eat 200 pounds of meat per person per year and the only way that this is possible is due to the intensive food production system which enables America to produce a lot of food on a small amount of land at a low price, through the use of subsidized oversupply of the commodity crop corn (approximately 30% of the US land base currently planted with corn). But there are unintended consequences.
Almost all cattle in the US are fed corn, even though they may start out their lives on grass, however cows evolved to eat grass not corn. Corn is cheap and fattens cows quickly. A corn diet, feedlot life, and industrial scale processing, had led to the development of a new and dangerous e coli strain o157H7. As a consequence the vast majority of all beef in the US is treated with antibiotics. However, Americans have died from eating tainted meat. The global demand for marbled beef is also driving the grain-fed industry, with countries such as US, Japan and China importing large quantities this more fatty beef each year, and the runoff from these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is contaminating other crops. America has thousands of slaughterhouses in the 1970s, however in 2006 there were only 13. The factory workers are subject to repetitive, boring, monotonous tasks, enabling low wage rates, but offering little job satisfaction or job security. Migrant workers have been exploited some living and working in America for numerous years only to then get deported by the country they have served. American has had numerous large scale recalls of meat since 1993 and has has over many e coli 0157H7 outbreaks in leafy greens. Mass production from only a few suppliers significantly exacerbates these food safety issues.
In addition there are examples in the documentary of conflict of interest. For example the Food and Drug Administration conducted 50,000 food safety inspections, but 10 years later in 2006, conducted only 9164. In addition during the Bush Administration the Chief of Staff of the United States Department of Agriculture was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington. The Head of the FDA was the former executive vice president of the National Food processors. Eric Schlosser, Author: Fast Food Nation. And the list goes on.
“If you take feedlot cattle of of their corn diet, give them grass for 5 days, they will shed 80% of the e coli o157H7 in their gut, but of course that’s not what the industry does, the industry’s approach is when it has a systematic problem like that not to go back and see what’s wrong with the system, its to come up with some high tech fixes just to survive”. Eric Schlosser, Author: Fast Food Nation.
I have not been able to source any meaningful information about improvements in food production practices in the US since the Food Inc documentary was made in 2008.
Animal welfare has also become an area of concern for the industry. In the first half of 2017 in Australia, more than 500 cattle died during shipping to overseas trade partners. The cruelty, waste, and harm that this does to the industry needs to be addressed. Worryingly a recent Guardian report revealed that it appears that the Federal Government regulator has been reluctant to penalise exporters for inhumane transport of animals.
Every six months the minister for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources tables a report to Parliament that details livestock mortalities. Summary information from the latest report for cattle exports in Australia. Little improvement in the deaths of animals being exported has been achieved over the last 8 years.
It is estimated that the global production of methane gases from cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens contributes 6b tonnes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere annually which represents 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These include up to 2.7b of greenhouse gases from livestock digestion, 2b tonnes of nitrous oxide (feed) and 1.6b from land management. The importance of reducing emissions from livestock cannot be ignored.
Most cattle in Australia are fed on grass, and finished in feedlots. In June 2013, the Australian Lot Feeders Association issued a report on the differences between the American and Australian industries. The report states that 34% of Australian cattle are finished in feedlots, versus approximately 90% in the US, and Australian cattle spend approximately 10-15% (95 days) in feedlots vs up to 25% (up to 180 days). It is stated that therefore that “US based human studies of grass vs grain fed beef cannot be compared to Australia.” Antibiotic use occurs only for sick animals in Australia however growth promoting hormones are used more prevalently in grain fed vs grass fed cattle.
There are warnings for the beef industry in Australia, in so far as we must not go down the dangerous and risky American path of over-industrialisation, limited competition, subsidisation and corruption that exists in the US, fueled in part by the growing market for grain fed beef worldwide.
The recent deaths of sheep bound for the Middle East in Australia has resulted in the suspension of Emmanuel Exports following a whistleblower’s footage where 2,400 sheep died due to heat stress,and the company is under criminal investigation. However the Government in Australia has favoured tougher penalties including imprisonment for breaches. The RSPCA as called the recommendations “weak” and “not based on science or evidence”. The opposition spokesman has advised that Labor will ban the summer trade “at the first opportunity”. Based on the current responses of government, the banning of live exports across the cattle industry does not seem likely to occur in future.
Red meat is the highest contributor of emissions. It is important that the global livestock industry recognises and invests in technologies and practices to produce meat more efficiently in order to reduce the emissions of the industry. Such measures could include improvements in feeding (better pastures, improve practices for handling manure, improved genetics, increasing production of lower emission meats eg kangaroo meat, etc, better land management to free up land for other food production, forest regeneration, etc. Governments also need to support these improved practices.
Due to innovative new technologies ‘the impossible burger’, a burger made from a plant based product called heme which comes from the roots of soy plants, has made its burger debut with Air New Zealand. Dr Patrick Brown said that, “Cow’s meat simply wasn’t good for the planet”. The article states that ‘The impossible burger’ uses 75% less water, generates about 87% fewer greenhouses gases and need 95% less land than conventional ground beef from cows. Dr Bown states that “Everytime we sell 2000 burgers, that’s one less cow”. This alternative way of eating ‘beef creates a window into a more sustainable future and decreasing greenhouse gases.
As more social awareness emerges around the help impacts of consuming grain fed beef more ways to decrease the consumption of consumers will keep arising while more and more alternative and more healthy ways to eat ‘meat’. This is all likely to have a positive impact of the environment and will help feed the growing world population. The beef industry will reduce in product by will become a luxury item.