A hard-hitting Q&A panel tackled the ‘elephant in the dining room’ – whether the Australian dairy industry was taking environmental, animal welfare and social issues seriously.
Nestle Oceania head of corporate and external relations Margaret Stuart told the conference the dairy industry kept her awake at night.
She challenged the industry to call out the “bad behaviour”.
“The industry is only as strong as its weakest link,” she said. “The bad behaviour will pull you all down.”
She said Nestle had been broadsided in the United States when cruelty was exposed on one Wisconsin dairy farm that supplied a processor, one of whose customers was Nestle.
“Activist groups tend to go for the biggest brand they can find in the value chain because that gives the biggest headlines,” she said.
That supplier was cut off and animal cruelty charges were laid but Nestle was still dealing with the consequences with the Slice of Cruelty website targeting Nestle over the incident still operating.
Ms Stuart said it did not matter whether it was fair or whether undercover videos were “cool”.
“Ultimately what your stakeholder sees as cruel or risky or a crisis is cruel, risky or a crisis, no matter how it came about,” she said.
“We carry the consequences for what happens on farm.”
RSPCA chief executive Heather Neil said animal welfare was now matching environmental concerns for consumers.
Hot button issues were bobby calves, cow/calf separation, live export and the use of pain relief in young and old animals.
Animal welfare expectations were constantly changing – what was expected now was different to what was expected in the 1950s or 1970s.
Animals should not be thought of as just a “production unit” but needed to have a good quality life and a positive experience.
But she conceded that consumers had not been prepared to pay for their higher expectations.
“The race to bottom with animal products is counterproductive,” she said.
“As consumers, we need to be prepared to pay.”
She said labelling identifying production systems was essential to ensure consumers had a choice, but she cautioned the dairy industry against using the words ‘free range’.
If a farm described as free-range was fundamentally no different to one that was not, then the use of the term sent a message to consumers that there was something wrong with parts of the industry.
The RSPCA was involved in developing an approved veal so consumers would understand that the product was not about calves being raised in crates.
Senior adviser with the Ethics Centre Philip Wright said farmers needed to operate within an ethical framework that included being transparent because that helped develop trust.
“The more transparent you are even when things go wrong, the better you are in the matter of trust,” he said.
Farmers needed to engage with consumers.
“If you ask about animal welfare, people say they rate it highly but at the checkout it is a different story,” he said.
“The consumer is not valuing in their food what they say they value.
“All primary producers are going to have to figure out a way to engage with society.”
But he also said farmers needed to think about what would happen if they did not address issues such as bobby calves.
“You will be told what to do – for example, that you must keep calves for 12 months,” he said.
Fourth-generation New Zealand dairyfarmer, veterinarian, agri-ecologist and head of environment for Landcorp Farming, Alison Dewes, set the scene for the panel with a discussion about growing negative impact dairyfarming had on the environment in New Zealand.
She said dairyfarming there had reached its economic, social and environmental limit, and growth in the past 15 years had been inefficient.
The biggest challenge in NZ for the dairy industry was its licence to operate in its own country.
She said a new approach was needed with the production of higher value products from a lower environmental footprint within an ethical system.
Farmers needed to recognise that they had to be green to be able to be black.
Australian dairyfarmers on the panel Graeme and Gillian Nicoll and Lisa Dwyer said the discussion was challenging and farmers needed to recognise the need for change.
Mrs Dwyer said the majority of farmers did the right thing, but there were the recalcitrants who still did the wrong thing.
The industry was good at providing ‘carrots’ for people to do the right thing, but it did not have enough ‘sticks’ to deal with those who did not.
“We need the courage to explore difficult questions and the courage to make difficult decisions,” she said.
There was a cost, but there was a bigger cost in doing nothing.
Mrs Dwyer, who is also a non-executive director of the Australian Livestock Export Corporation, defended the live export trade after Ms Neil advised dairyfarmers to avoid it.
Animal welfare was now that organisation’s number one objective with 40 per cent of its budget spent in that area, she said.
The regulations in Australia now applied to the country of import, which meant local animals in those countries were also benefitting from Australia’s live export trade.
Gillian Nicoll said although Australian dairy farms did not face some of the challenges of the NZ farms, farmers needed to look at their systems with open minds.
They needed to challenge themselves to assess whether they were doing the best they could.
It was also vital to work in partnership with other organisations.
She cited the example of Dairy Australia, GippsDairy and the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority working together to promote industry programs.
This had resulted in 100 per cent of dairyfarmers in the Corner Inlet region taking part in dairy nutrition management planning to protect that “pristine waterway”.
She pointed to the existing industry resources such as the animal welfare code and DairySAT tool that farmers could access to help them deal with these issues.
Graeme Nicoll said some of the issues raised by the panel were confronting.
“From a farmer’s perspective, this is really challenging,” he said.
Farmers needed to think about the things they were doing and how people might perceive them. They also needed to recognise the need to change.
Mr Nicoll said in some cases meeting community expectations would require going beyond the current industry standards.
Calf disbudding pain relief was an example of this. His farm had been using this since the local veterinary practice first offered it in 2016.
There had been a big uptake by other farmers of the service as farmers heard from others about how effective it was, he said.
Mr Nicoll said dairyfarmers also needed to recognise and challenge those who did not do the right thing.