Export directly to slaughter banned since 2008
WELLINGTON, NZ––New Zealand agriculture minister Damien O’Connor on April 14, 2021 announced a permanent halt to live animal exports by sea, effective in 2023.
O’Connor, though his announcement was not a complete surprise, left New Zealand agribusiness, the international animal welfare community, and rival nations in the livestock export trade all scrambling like hoofed animals on a heaving steel deck, slippery with manure, to figure out what it might mean.
Explained the industry news web site Beef Central, “New Zealand banned the export of livestock for slaughter in 2008, but has [until now] continued to allow the export of livestock for breeding or dairy production purposes.”
118,000 breeding heifers
All 118,000 livestock exported from New Zealand since January 2020 were breeding heifers, sent to China. The New Zealand national television network TVNZ reported that the Chinese embassy was given two weeks’ advance notice of O’Connor’s decision.
New Zealand has reportedly exported live sheep, the focus of decades of humane protest against the vastly larger Australian live export trade, only once since 2008.
Continued Beef Central, “The New Zealand Government says the [live export] trade generates about $250 million in export dollars each year, but members of the trade said the 110,000 cattle exported in 2020 were worth almost $350 million, and the trade was growing toward the $500 million mark this year.”
Though $500 million might sound like a lot, the New Zealand frozen meat export trade is worth about $5.6 billion per year, accounting for 14.6% of all New Zealand export revenue.
“New Zealand has an opportunity to boost trade”
Said O’Connor, “There is split opinion about [the long-term value of live export] and how it fits with the story we want to tell internationally to consumers. The independent National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which advises ministers on animal welfare issues, advised [after a two-year review of live export] that the practice should stop.”
“I recognize the importance of our trade relationships with our international partners,” O’Connor continued. “We’re committed to working with them as we transition away from the shipment of livestock.
“New Zealand has an opportunity to boost trade,” O’Connor projected, “through our cutting-edge scientific work into dairy cow genetics and germplasm use.”
The Gulf Livestock 1
“During the transition period,” O’Connor pledged, “exporters will meet the extra requirements that we introduced following the tragic loss of the Gulf Livestock 1 in September 2020. I’ve asked the Ministry of Primary Industries to provide further advice on improvements to animal welfare during the phase out.”
The Gulf Livestock 1, a Panamanian-flagged converted container ship carrying 5,867 two-year-old heifers from Napier, New Zealand, to Jingtang, Tangshan, China, capsized on September 2, 2020 in the East China Sea.
Lost with the ship were 41 of the 43-member human crew, including two New Zealanders.
Live export vs. “Predator-Free New Zealand”
The New Zealand government had already begun “a review into live exports in June 2019,” summarized James Fyfe for Newshub, “and considered options ranging from improving export systems to a total ban on the trade.
“The review was held up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Ministry for Primary Industries providing its final advice to O’Connor” in March 2021,” Fyfe recounted.
“At the heart of our decision,” O’Connor emphasized, “is upholding New Zealand’s reputation for high standards of animal welfare.”
The New Zealand reputation pertaining to animal welfare, however, has been called into question in recent years much more by the “Predator-Free New Zealand” poisoning putsch waged by the environment ministry against non-native brush possums, cats, and other introduced species, than by the relatively small live export trade.
“Unacceptable risk to New Zealand’s reputation”
“We must stay ahead of the curve in a world where animal welfare is under increasing scrutiny,” O’Connor said.
“Ultimately,” O’Connor assessed, “we are not able to guarantee the welfare of these animals at sea, and that is an unacceptable risk to New Zealand’s reputation.
“I acknowledge the economic benefit some farmers get from the trade,” O’Connor conceded, “but I also note that support of it is not universal within the sector.”
In particular, the export of breeding heifers indirectly produces competition with the export of frozen cattle carcasses by other New Zealand cattle ranchers.
“This is not about China. It’s about animal welfare,” O’Connor finished.
“Political brownie points”
David Hayman, general manager of the livestock export company Genetic Development New Zealand, told Radio New Zealand listeners just ahead of O’Connor’s announcement that “The loss rate [in exporting heifers to China] is no different to what you’d have on a New Zealand farm.”
This did not appear to reassure anyone as much as Hayman apparently thought it might.
The Animal Genetics Trade Association, representing the livestock breeding industry, called the phase-out of live exports an “ill-informed, massively consequential decision for the nation, to earn short-term political brownie points from a few activists.”
Pressure from Saudi Arabia
Recalled one of the most prominent of those “few activists,” Scoop New Zealand columnist Lynley Tulloch, “New Zealand banned live export of sheep following a 2003 disaster when 5,000 sheep died on a ship bound for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia rejected a shipment of 57,000 sheep which then were left stranded at sea with no port for two months. Thousands of sheep died slow and horrific deaths on board. The remainder were gifted to the poor northern African nation Eritrea, where they were killed in makeshift slaughter houses.
“New Zealand has struggled over the years to maintain this ban due to pressure on New Zealand’s trading and diplomatic relationships with Saudi Arabia,” Tulloch continued.
“Between 2010 and 2012,” wrote Tulloch, “sheik Hmood Al-Khalaf, an influential Saudi businessman with significant interests in New Zealand animal agriculture, made his grievances public. This resulted in a multi-million cash payout, and a New Zealand-built Agrihub and slaughterhouse in the Saudi desert––all on the taxpayer. New Zealand was fearful that the influence of Al-Khalaf would blight free trade agreements with the Gulf States.”
Live export by air unaffected
Live export of animals by air will be unaffected by O’Connor’s announcement.
Pointed out Tulloch, “In 2015 New Zealand air-freighted 900 heavily pregnant sheep to the sheik’s new Agrihub, and 75% of the lambs died.”
Among the live animals air-freighted from New Zealand in 2017, Tulloch mentioned, were as many as eight million “day-old chicks and incubated eggs ready for hatching, 27,306 live cattle for breeding, and more than 15,000 kilograms of bees,” along with 123 sheep.
Finally, Tulloch reminded, “Ultimately exporting for breeding results in the animal’s slaughter.”
“It’s not a good look for New Zealand”
New Zealand SPCA chief executive Andrea Midgen recalled that her organization has campaigned against live exports since 1985.
“It’s just barbaric to be doing this to animals when there are other methods of helping other countries around the world,” Midgen said. “They don’t meet our animal welfare standards often,” Midgen contended, “and it’s not a good look for New Zealand.”
Save Animals From Exploitation recalled having in October 2019 petitioned the New Zealand Parliament to prohibit the live export of farmed animals to nations with lower animal welfare, transport and slaughter standards than New Zealand.
Other governments around the world must follow?
World Animal Protection New Zealand executive director Simone Clarke called O’Connor’s decision to halt livestock exports by sea a “significant moment in our history for animals, one which other governments around the world must now follow.”
Agreed Royal SPCA of Australia senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow, “The export of live animals has arguably damaged Australian farming’s reputation more than any other practice. It is inherently high-risk, with decades of repeated evidence of suffering and cruelty,” leading to “tragedy after tragedy involving Australian animals on live export ships.
“Many thousands of animals have died while countless more have suffered terribly,” recited Goodfellow, “but survived to face an uncertain fate overseas.”
Saltwater crocodile tears
While most Australian livestock exports are sheep and cattle destined for slaughter, Australia in 2020 exported 170,657 breeding cattle to China and Pakistan, more than half again as many as New Zealand.
Altogether, Australian exports upward of 2.5 million sheep and 600,000 cattle per year, to nations including Indonesia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and China.
Said the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chief executive officer Mark Harvey-Sutton, shedding saltwater crocodile tears for New Zealand competitors, “This is understandably disappointing news, particularly for New Zealand producers.
“It is important to note that the Australian and New Zealand industries are very different in terms of their scale, market dynamics and regulatory processes,” Harvey-Sutton added.
“The Australian industry will continue to be a world leader in livestock exports,” Harvey-Sutton pledged.