Australian cattle aboard the Gulf Livestock 1 ship in 2019. Photos: SAFE

The sinking of a live export cattle ship has thrust the debate about live exports into the limelight and transformed one farmer from exporter to critic

A first-time exporter of live animals said he’s never selling his animals offshore again after the sinking of the Livestock Gulf 1.

Taranaki farmer Brett Sanger said he doesn’t know if his animals were some of the almost 6000 on the ship, or if they are still in holding facilities in New Zealand. 

“Once they leave the farm records they’re not yours anymore … you don’t know anything about them from that point onwards.”

Sanger normally has a few surplus stock each year and this year his stock agent suggested export as an option

“I had always found New Zealand buyers up until that point. I never felt 100 percent comfortable about it [live export]. But it was what it was, the money was absolutely excellent, I can’t deny that.”

He said the difference in what he got per cow is probably double. He only exported a few cattle, but as a whole, the live export industry brings in more than $250 million per year, with racehorses responsible for the lion’s share.

Since 2015, close to 200,000 cattle have been shipped to countries including Mexico, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The majority – 94 percent – go to China. In 2020, 39,725 cattle have been exported so far, all to China. These are all for dairy or breeding. Cattle export for slaughter is not permitted.

When he heard the news the ship had likely sunk he felt terrible. 

“I do have feelings for my stock and all animals. I wouldn’t be farming otherwise. Absolutely terrible, of all the things to go down, a livestock ship.”

The news led him to look at live exports in general.

“You start seeing some fairly appalling images of what’s happened on other ships and on reflection you think, do I really want to be doing this?”

There are rules about conditions onboard live export ships. These include space per animal, water, and medicine if required. Vets travel with cattle and voyage reports of the number of cattle which die on each trip are published by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). Not counting the Livestock Gulf 1, 70 cattle have died onboard ships in 2019 and 2020.

Since April 2019, a post-arrival report has also been required 30 days after arrival, and 39 deaths have been recorded. 

Sanger has two main concerns.

“We have welfare standards in New Zealand which are probably the highest in the world, or probably up there with the highest in the world and we’re sending them to another country which has virtually none.”

Once an animal has reached its destination, New Zealand no longer has jurisdiction over it. 

China has lower animal welfare standards than New Zealand. There’s no nation-wide laws prohibiting mistreatment. Once the cows are no longer used for breeding, Chinese law encourages but doesn’t require stunning before slaughter.  

His other concern is commercial.

“China isn’t buying these animals to make us rich. They’re doing it to become more self-sufficient … it could be short-term gain for long-term pain.”

He’s shocked by the number of cattle exported, which is higher than he realised. 

“I think something like 40 odd thousand have gone already and there’s another 26,000 in the system to go. You just sort of think, bloody hell, where are they all coming from?”

The value of New Zealand’s cattle exports in 2018 was $49.9 million. In the same time period, dairy exports were $16.7 billion. New Zealand’s cattle can only be purchased for dairy and breeding, not slaughter. 

Aside from New Zealand there are a number of other countries that export cattle. The European Union and Brazil export cattle to the Middle East, and Canada and Mexico export to the United States. Australia is the main supplier to China and also exports to Indonesia and Vietnam, with an export revenue of around $1.6 billion. 

The industry has told MPI around 5000 farmers have sold cattle for export in the past 10 years, with those farms averaging more than 40 animals each, representing a “small but useful income generator for rural communities”.

The reviews

Live export of cattle has been temporarily suspended until an independent review is completed. It’s been estimated around 26,000 cattle are in quarantine, pending shipment at present. 

“At the heart of our decision to temporarily suspend cattle livestock exports is a commitment to helping ensure people and animals on livestock export boats are safe,” said MPI director-general Ray Smith. 

The review, headed by Mike Heron, is expected to take around a month to complete. It will look at assurances MPI receives when it considers whether to approve or decline export certificates. Its focus appears to be a check of MPI’s processes. 

SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald says this review won’t make a difference for the animals going to countries with lower animal welfare standards. The animal welfare advocacy group wants live exports banned.

“This seems to be MPI’s response to everything,” said Macdonald. “We’re still waiting for the review that was announced last year.”

The review of livestock exports Macdonald is referring to was launched in June 2019 and is not finished. SAFE is calling for it to be released before the election.

It looks at a number of different options around live export, including a conditional ban according to Agricultural Minister Damien O’Connor, who talked about New Zealand’s international reputation when he announced it. 

“The continued export of cattle may be a risk to New Zealand’s brand. The time has come to rethink this area and consider whether it’s something that fits within our values as a country.

“When animals leave New Zealand we set conditions that are considered world-class by veterinarians. But there have been incidents over the last few years that highlight the fact that once animals leave New Zealand we have very limited ability to ensure their wellbeing when they reach their destination.

“That’s something that’s not acceptable to me and I know it’s not acceptable to a large number of New Zealanders.”

The options mooted included:

  • A total ban on live exports

  • A conditional ban where approval from the Director-General would be required 

  • New regulations which may include independent monitoring or an exporter registration scheme

  • Continuous improvements to current rules

More than 3500 submissions were received. 

The delay in next steps has been put down to the timing of decisions in the recovery from Covid-19, according to MPI’s website:

“Final decisions will consider the impact of Covid-19 on primary industries and their potential to help lead New Zealand’s economic recovery, along with the objective of the review.”

Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard hopes the review by Mike Heron is done swiftly.

“We have said if there are lessons to be learned from a maritime safety point of view from this latest tragedy  for all ships at sea – for example in regard to  ship engine maintenance or sailing into typhoon if indeed this is what underpins the Gulf Livestock 1 going down – then let’s take heed of them. ”

He said farmers who engaged in live export needed certainty about when the suspension of live exports was likely to be lifted.

The organisation sees live export as a useful and viable trade option which he said has been worth over $69 million to New Zealand so far this year.

“New Zealand can respond to assist countries to restock after an adverse event and Federated Farmers supports the continued ability of our agricultural sector to help with the provision of breeding stock in a global context. Any ban on livestock export would not address or contribute to any improvement in the welfare of exported animals globally. It is likely that this trade would simply be replaced by exports from other countries, where we would have no future control or interest.”

He said members had been in touch.

“We’ve had a full range of feedback from our members but the majority of them feel the trade is worth keeping as an option.”

One farmer’s stance

Sanger doesn’t describe himself as an activist and said it’s out of character for him to speak to media. He’s planning on letting his stock agent know he won’t be selling for live export again and has raised his concerns with Federated Farmers. 

He thinks some of his, and possibly other farmers’, acceptance of live export may have stemmed from when Fonterra had dairy operations in China. 

“I guess a lot of people thought if Fonterra are involved they’ll be doing things properly and they won’t want to have a bad image.”

He’s been busy working on ideas of how to cope with surplus stock in future. 

“It could possibly cost me a bit but there are other options; you can graze them on yourself longer and different markets open up at different times.

“I saw somebody the other day, saying: ‘We’re sending our cows, but would you send your companion animals? Would you send your horse? Your dog? What’s the difference?’.”

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