The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) invited Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) to attend the COP24 climate negotiations in Poland during December 2018. Pip Band, Manager – Sustainability Strategy & Stakeholders, attended on behalf of MLA. Here are her observations.

1) After attending the COP24 conference, how do you feel the Australian red meat and livestock industry is positioned to navigate global sustainability politics?

Although the red meat industry has a sophisticated approach to global trade and market access, I think it is fair to say that we are still feeling our way with global sustainability discussions. They are critical though, as they ultimately affect domestic policy as well as public opinion over time. We have good connections in some areas, such as animal welfare and antimicrobial resistance and nutrition, but global environmental politics is a relatively new area for agricultural industries. The approach is similar to trade, with the federal government leading discussions, but working with industry partners for background.

I attended the COP24 to gain an understanding of the global climate policy landscape and to investigate how to positively position the Australian red meat industry (as well as red meat generally) at future negotiations, when agriculture will be on the agenda in a more formal sense.

2) In a nutshell, what were your key takeaways from the COP24 conference?
A key take-out for me is the need for collaboration with other major beef producing countries at future events in order to better tell the story of the importance of ruminant animals in managing the landscape and storing carbon, and the commitment that exists at every stage of the red meat value chain – from farm to feedlot to processor – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a huge opportunity for the red meat industry to be part of the solution to meet global climate targets. Attending the COP negotiations in Poland was an opportunity to understand how the Australian industry can more effectively position ourselves in coming negotiations. It really required being on the ground, meeting key people and understanding how the process works.

COP24 event itself was huge with more than 30,000 global delegates from 200 countries. Attendees included government negotiators, observer organisations (such as scientists, business groups, NGOs) and journalists.

Clearly, the negotiations are the main game, but equally important are the side-events that coincide with COP. I was lucky enough to speak on a number of panels, talking about our industry’s proactive Carbon Neutral 2030 target, as well as the role of the grazing industry in sequestering (storing) carbon in the natural landscape. One panel I spoke on was about the value of savannahs in carbon mitigation. There exists a huge opportunity to both reward producers for storing carbon in the landscape and to dramatically change the perceptions of the climatic impact of cattle and sheep in a production system like Australia. An Australian study has shown that at face value, a mere 0.8 % per annum increase in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks would effectively mitigate Australia’s national annual GHG emissions. The great news is that carbon in the soil is also great for production.

3) There was speculation the much-anticipated EAT-Lancet report on healthy and sustainable diets could be interpreted as a ‘war on meat’.  After attending the Food Systems panel co-hosted by EAT and the UN Climate Change secretariat, what do you foresee in this report as having the greatest impact on our industry?

Although the EAT panel at COP was held before the EAT-Lancet report was released, the report’s topic and the panel’s title “The mitigation potential of plant-based diets: from science to policy”, were closely related.

The most interesting point out of these discussions were that away from the headlines, industry agrees with probably 90% of what the panellists were suggesting – that is the need for a healthy, balanced diet and the need to use available resources in a sustainable way to produce food. The industry clearly does not support the dramatic reduction in animal protein the EAT-Lancet diet report recommended, but we have to remember this is a report with global averages – both for consumption habits of consumers and production practices. We plan to enter into discussions with EAT on how we could look to regionalise the report for Australian consumption habits and production practices.

I think the industry will be better positioned to collaborate with groups, including EAT, on what a sustainable food system is now and into the future. But importantly, to do this looking at regional dietary consumption habits and production methods, not using global averages.

4) Initiatives such as the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework aim to give our industry a strong footing for future generations.  Was there any talk of similar initiatives at COP24?

In other industries, such as finance and energy, most definitely there are similar initiatives. In the red meat industries, a delegation from Brazil was talking about the Brazilian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Many other beef producing countries have established roundtables too.
The benefit of the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework at these events is that it is a process that we can demonstrate that the industry is listening to the community, our customers, investors and special interest groups and providing clear evidence of how we perform and importantly how we are striving to continually improve. Our attendance at these events demonstrates our commitment to being part of the solution to many of the world’s environmental and social challenges. 

5) The red meat industry has been under pressure from the media linking our industry to climate change.  How do you see the broader sustainability agenda set by the ABSF in demonstrating to the community we are committed to mitigating climate impact?

No other red meat industry has set a national target to be carbon neutral. While this has not been promoted externally yet, key stakeholders are aware and are supportive of the industry taking this forward-looking approach. That is the value of the framework, we are working with key stakeholders – many of whom ultimately influence consumers – on the issues that they have identified as potential risks and opportunities for the industry.

There is no getting around the fact that with current global accounting systems, the red meat industry is a large contributor to carbon. Global averages are necessary, but also do not reflect that countries like Australia have lower emissions, largely due to productivity.

Although there is still a large job to do with media and accurate reporting, the industry has a good story to tell. Since the Paris baseline year of 2005 we have already reduced our emissions by 45%. And now, with a focus through Carbon Neutral 2030 we are well positioned to be part of the solution and importantly for producers to be rewarded for doing so.

6) With the recent EAT Lancet report there were calls for a dramatic reduction in meat consumption for health benefits. How does this fit with the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework?

The framework covers environmental, welfare, economic and social impacts of beef production. The interconnectedness of these areas is important. Nutrition sits in the framework’s social pillar and we align with the recommendations from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which recommend 130g of lean and cooked red meat every second day because it is an important protein source of iron and zinc in the Australian diet. Although the EAT Lancet report recommended much lower quantities of red meat, it did acknowledge that red meat was included due to its nutritional importance.

7) Where do you see the Aussie red meat industry in 10 years?

I see an industry committed to meeting consumer and market expectations and being recognised for doing so. It’s an industry that continues to benefit from preferable trade deals and global consumer support for the greatest quality red meat in the world. There is recognition of Australia’s focus on producing red meat in a way that enhances the natural environment and provides the best animal welfare. Underpinning this reputation is a world leading integrity system that provides information from farm to fork, yet isn’t an impost at a farm level. It is this information that enables industry to demonstrate to customers and consumers everywhere our food safety, quality and sustainability credentials.