Exporting livestock

Posted on Jun 22, 2015 in Animals & Plants & Stuff, Everyday Life

I recently wrote an Op Ed piece on government and industry failure to adequately communicate with New Zealanders about live export.

It was published in the Dominion Post, and I think the comments may be more interesting than the piece I wrote. I also got a few positive comments via Twitter:


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Public engagement is hard. Public engagement online is even harder.

The entire piece can be found below.

Time to come clean on live animal shipments

OPINION: MV Nada, the livestock carrier carrying almost 50,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle from Timaru to Mexico is a marvel of shipbuilding. This impressive vessel is the size of two rugby pitches, equipped with 35 feed conveyers and three fresh water generators, capable of producing 1800 tonnes of fresh water daily. There are over 10,000 test points for airflow in the pen area, and fans keep the air moving at not less than 0.5 metres/second.

Despite the fact that it floats, the Nada could be described as a temporary farm. New Zealanders, however, haven’t been given the chance to decide if it ought to be one. Nor have we been given the opportunity to debate whether live export should only be prohibited when animals are going to slaughter, as is current law. Overall, the New Zealand government and our agriculture industry are doing a terrible job of publicly explaining how live exports work.

In fact, I worry that we can’t even have a productive national conversation about live export because the vast majority of New Zealanders (including me) don’t have enough good information to come to any sort of reasonable conclusion on such a complicated thing.

There are a number of ways in which government and industry could have informed the public more effectively.

First, and foremost, there shouldn’t have been any mystery around the Nada‘s sailing. It wasn’t listed on PrimePort’s online shipping list, and the Timaru Herald reported that the shipping agent, Matt Mayo, “initially claimed it was a passenger ship before refusing further comment”. It was only when the Timaru Herald contacted the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) for comment that it became public knowledge that a shipment of New Zealand livestock was bound for Mexico.

This error was compounded by a lack of clear information about animal welfare. Yes, MPI has repeatedly assured journalists that strict animal welfare laws would be upheld, but they could have reminded us what those laws are, and explained how, and for how long, they would be upheld.

Instead, New Zealanders were fed absurd comments such as one from the ship’s broker, Peter Walsh, who said on board conditions “were better than [his] lounge”. How on earth does this help inform anyone? Animals aren’t people, and they don’t need a comfy sofa, a cold beer, and rugby on the television. It is the responsibility of government and industry to clearly explain what livestock animals do need, and how we can ensure they get it.

Instead, the first people to provide clear evidence about livestock welfare were animal rights activists who—whether or not you agree with them—accurately pointed out that, in the past, hundreds of animals have died on each voyage.

But death is inevitable, so where were Federated Farmers or NZ Beef & Lamb, for example, to explain how many animals are lost on farms each year despite our best efforts? How can we know what the causes of death are, or if and how we could prevent more? How do we know what will actually be done now that the Nada has left New Zealand? How many vets and stock people are sufficient to care for more than 50,000 animals at sea? Who will tell us what health treatments are given, what happens to all the livestock waste, or how carcasses are disposed of en route?

There is also more than animal welfare at stake. It would have contributed to public understanding if the Government or industry had explained in advance of the shipment that an attractive option for farmers hit hard hit by drought is to sell their breeding stock for a higher price than they could get at the works.

If live export is an emotive issue, it’s because New Zealanders care. And it’s the duty of our Government and the responsibility of our primary industries to find out what we care about and make sure our questions are answered, not dismissed.

If government and industry want to be trusted, they need to do better than tell us that they also care or that our concerns are misplaced.

They need to provide New Zealanders with enough information that we can judge their trustworthiness on our own terms.