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Thursday, 17 December 1992
Page: 5290

Senator BELL (10.24 a.m.) —I, too, would like to endorse the comments that have been made about the level of work and the capacity of the staff of the secretariat of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs. In carrying out the huge workload that was given to this Committee, the staff have been thoroughly competent in delivering a professional result.

  As a member of the Committee I made some visits. I was not able to participate in all of the visits which took place, but in attending most of the visits which were conducted I was impressed by the professional attitude and the desire of the operators of some of the best feedlots to make their enterprise as effective and as efficient as possible. Regard was paid to the effect of the enterprise on the animals concerned, also to ensure that the effect on the surrounding countryside was as benign as possible. That applied to some operations, but we also observed some which could not be described in the preceding terms.

  With regard to the terms of reference of the Committee, animal welfare considerations are instinctively brought into it because the arrangement by which the animals are kept cannot be described as a natural state of affairs. Instinctively, we ask if this is a desirable state of affairs, and that is where the difficulties begin. It is very difficult to assess an animal's appreciation of its status. It is impossible to deliver a questionnaire to the animals concerned. Although mention has been made already of a psychological analysis, it is pretty formidable to conduct a psychological analysis of the state of welfare of an animal.

  It may appear that animals are not under stress if they are provided with feed and shade and reasonably comfortable conditions, but we know little of the opportunity of animals to follow their natural instincts when they are kept in conditions which are not natural. For example, the homogeneity of the age, and even the size, of the animals leads one to believe that the natural herding instincts of the cattle could not be pursued. The hierarchies of herds, the natural rhythm occurring in cattle herds, could not be applied there.

  Of course, the question is: is any of this relevant? In measuring the actual health status of animals the Australian Veterinary Association, as stated in our report, considers that there are no veterinary or ethical problems associated with cattle being in reasonably close proximity in feedlots. Whatever parameters are used to consider whether the animal is in good health, whether it is diseased, whether it is short of feed or being fed the wrong food, those measurements can readily be made. But other measurements which may be necessary in the consideration of the full welfare of an animal cannot be made. The question of whether it is good for the animal's welfare is a question which is almost impossible to address.

  It is not so with the question of the environmental impact of cattle feedlots. The intensive nature of such enterprises means that the effect is also intensive. That effect can be a huge and concentrated discharge of nutrients into our drainage systems. That effect can be direct pollution of the land or the water nearby. There can also be offensive smells generated, and all sorts of other offences. But it need not be so in a well planned and well administered feedlot. It is possible to arrange the drainage so that settling ponds and sedimentation are well catered for before there is any discharge into our drainage systems. It is possible to arrange drainage for the balance of water so that offensive smells are not generated. It is also possible regularly to clean and remove any surplus material from the site to a composting area where it is not generating offensive material. Whether that is done is another matter. The Committee found that in some instances the management of a site was such that there was little likelihood of pollutant material escaping. In other cases it was obvious that polluting material did escape the site and it had a huge effect on the surrounding countryside.

  As has rightly been said earlier, the adoption of the national guidelines, which have already been prepared, will reduce the number of offensive sites, but the lack of coordination between national, State and local government means that this may take a lot longer than is desirable. I think that one of the most important things the Committee discovered was that the huge growth of the industry has meant that the regulating bodies are behind in being able to regulate the industry.

  I am in a difficult situation. Instinctively, I feel that there is a lot wrong with herding cattle together in such a fashion. Most of my direct questions have been answered by the evidence we have collected, yet I still feel that it is not the right way to generate a profit. I agree that this is an industry that does generate considerable international monetary benefit for Australia, but there are lots of things that can be done to earn money and not all of them are right. Instinctively, I do not feel that this is right, even though the operators are doing their best to consider the welfare, as they determine it, of the animals involved.

  The operators are doing their best not to have an adverse effect on the surrounding countryside, but I still feel that there is something wrong about it. Even though I am particularly partial to a decent steak, I would like to feel that my steak came from a well-fed angus standing in natural countryside. The cattle that are used in these sorts of enterprises may be contentedly standing about with expressions on their faces that we could interpret as meaning that they are not under stress but, instinctively, I do not feel that is so. However, we have in front of us a report that has attempted to address those problems. We have a report that has comprehensively examined the range of feedlots in Australia, and we have to acknowledge that attempts have been made. I endorse the report as it is. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.

  Consideration resumed from 15 December.


  The Bill.