CHANGE in Australia’s beef industry is a continuum, partly incremental and in part disruptive, and as it unfolds in the coming years we should speak with a united voice.
This was the advice of one of the country’s most influential agribusiness leaders - producer, former National Farmers Federation and Meat and Livestock Australia boss, and one-time Wallaby, David Crombie, who delivered an absorbing talk at the Rabobank beef industry awards gala dinner held as part of Beef Australia in Rockhampton.
“There can be no better insurance for our beef industry than community trust and a widely-held belief that farming is important, we do it well and our farmers are doing the right thing,” Mr Crombie said.
We should move forward with confidence, he said, for our production systems are sustainable, they are ethical and we are producing a gold medal product that has integrity and will be keenly sought after in an increasingly protein hungry world.
On that note, however, Australia should not aspire to be the food bowl for Asia.
Mr Crombie believes our real opportunity is in the economic growth in our region and the emergence of fractionated markets where there is a demand for differentiated, safe, natural foods.
“We have evolved from a fair, average quality mindset with adversarial supply chains producing bulk commodities,” he said.
“We cannot compete in the basement with others who have a lower cost base.
“We need to position ourselves at the high value, quality end of emerging markets. To do this we need short, transparent supply chains with through chain accountability to our customers backed by credible verification and trace back.”
Mr Crombie’s talk revolved around the concept of change and the fact it is a journey, not a destination.
He spoke about the early pastoralists in the north relying on natural grazing and surface waters and walking their bullocks to southern markets.
Big changes came with the development of artesian water, fencing, roads and rail.
Meatworks followed and beef was exported to the United Kingdom.
This production system continued for a hundred years. The national herd increased to a record 33m head and then suddenly things changed when Britain joined the European Union and our biggest export market disappeared overnight.
At the same time, a global economic downturn, triggered in part by the 1973 oil price hike, saw the collapse of export markets and beef prices plummeted.
In the coming years, the “three Bs” - increased Bos Indicus content, bovine tuberculosis eradication and the boats supplying Asian live cattle markets - provided catalyst for change.
But it was perhaps consumer demand that sparked the biggest change to date, he argued.
“Our new Japanese customers demanded a consistent, high quality product that saw the emergence of grain feeding,” Mr Crombie explained.
“And domestic beef demand was on a slippery slope. Our customers at home were telling us that they liked beef but it was inconsistent. Sometimes it ate well and the next, via the same cut, butcher and price, it was tough.
“It was an uncomfortable time for our industry. The status quo was being challenged as never before. We were being questioned about our product and how we produced it with the clear threat that our consumers were making alternative meal choices.
“This was the start of the realisation we had to change from producing whatever we liked producing to producing what our customers wanted to eat.”
So began Meat Standards Australia.
Future gains, Mr Crombie believes, will come from disruptive technologies with better predictive models for climate, focused production research, remote sensing, agricultural robots on farm and in processing, drones, virtual fencing, through-chain estimated breeding values, genetic engineering and value based marketing using specialised tools.
“The biggest gains, however, could be in harnessing big data, with better connectivity allowing us to sort through what is a massive pool of data to allow more complete and timelier decision making,” he said.
“Smart phones with bendable screens are coming as are data sharing tools like blockchain, which will require another major paradigm shift for industry - away from linear supply chains where data is power for some, to a model where data is transparent and shared for the benefit of all.”
Eternal challenges will continue.
“Market access and trade rules will require continued advocacy if we are to enjoy the widest possible choice of markets,” he said.
“At home we will continue to be frustrated by overlapping and inconsistent government policy settings.
“Better science-based decisions are required across jurisdictions on biosecurity, natural resource management and regional infrastructure if we are to maintain our competitive position in world markets.
“Competitor products will also be in the mix including virtual meat and insect proteins and our traditional competitors, pork and poultry, will also keep pushing price competitive protein onto the dinner plate.
“Everything we do will be on social media and will be scrutinised by animal and green activists, climate change protagonists and from an inquisitive and better educated local community.”
As an industry, beef will need to keep adapting, with a laser-like focus on the changing needs of our customers and their communities, Mr Crombie said.
The bottom line: We need to tell our stories and through this develop a level of insurance.