Future challenges for animal agriculture


Professor Sergio Garcia

University of Sydney

Katherine Teh


About the authors

Sergio Garcia (Yani) is Professor of Dairy Science at the University of Sydney, Director of the University’s Dairy Research Foundation and Theme Leader for Animal Agriculture, Sydney Institute of Agriculture. His research focuses on dairy feedbase and the application of data, technology and automation to improve profitability of dairy systems.

Katherine Teh former finance journalist and public policy specialist, is the founder and managing director of Futureye. Futureye advises companies and governments on understanding societal expectations, transformation of leadership, internal culture, risk systems and building capacity to handle the challenges of reputation in a fast-changing world where community expectations, rather than technical risks, play an ever more potent role in political and regulatory risk.

Question 1: What is the livestock sector’s biggest community trust challenge in the next decade?

Yani Garcia

The livestock sector’s biggest trust challenge comes from the combined effects of animal welfare and climate change, both of which are pulling together towards the unfounded perception that the solution would be to reduce consumption of animal-derived food. This appears to be more evident among Millennials and Generation Z, fuelled by the rapidly changing way in which younger people are sourcing information (e.g. social media).

Information-wise, the livestock sector has all the right tools to tackle this challenge. Food is our primary need as humans, and livestock provides about a third of the protein we consume (more than half in some developed countries). Non-ruminants are highly efficient in producing quality protein and ruminants in particular are highly efficient in converting non-edible food into high quality, edible protein. There is simply not enough arable land for sustainable food production if all our food had to come from non-animal sources. And in fact, the protein density of plant protein sources ranges between ~20 to ~60% of other sources (red meat for instance) on a weight basis.

So the challenge in the next decade is not just to ‘provide’ facts and information; the real challenge is how to reach the overwhelming majority of the non-rural population, particularly when the goal posts are changing more rapidly than what the sector can adjust to.

Katherine Teh

The lack of community trust in the agriculture sector has been well covered in the media and unfortunately those negative media reports have led to a reluctance by farmers to allow access to their properties. It has also led to a surge of interest in enacting legislation banning access to farms and monitoring of animal activists. This has increased the sense that the industry is being secretive.

By not being transparent about agricultural activities, the industry has created an information gap that enables inflammatory activist claims and exposés such as those covering live exports and other animal welfare issues. The negative reporting cycle continues.

Rather than opening up to the media and the broader public, farmers seem to have become entrenched with a “siege mentality” that further exacerbates the intellectual, emotional and physical distance between the industry and the general public. What might be standard practice on a farm can seem horrific to a public that is unfamiliar with farming practices.

As challenging as it might seem, farmers need to bring the public into their world – to provide information about what they do. Farmers care about their animals; they need to demonstrate this to the public.

Question 2: How should animal agriculture engage with people whose value systems are focused on the impact of climate change?

Yani Garcia

First, we need a change of approach. The ‘we are right/they are wrong’ response has been shown to be ineffective to achieve true engagement. To build trust we need to engage with people who may have opposite views, and we cannot expect to engage if we don’t even try to understand where they are coming from.

Yes, science has a central role to play and we need to keep generating scientific-based knowledge on the impact of animal agriculture. But using scientific knowledge simply to ‘inform’ others is a one-way approach, well proven to be ineffective for achieving engagement.

True engagement occurs via two-way approaches, where both sides are prepared and willing to listen and understand the other’s views. We need to find more and better ways to achieve this; for example, working with all levels of government to increase aspects of animal agriculture in school curricula, getting people more directly involved with our research, among many other actions. This is not an easy task, and it is one that requires a cohesive approach both within and across animal agriculture industries.

Katherine Teh

The livestock industry must engage with the general public in a way that demonstrates that their concerns about climate change are valid; this means acknowledging that the industry contributes to climate change. The industry needs to recognise that in the past many farmers might not have managed climate change issues well. At the same time, industry itself is being adversely impacted by climate change and often adopting sustainable practices is what makes good business sense in the long term.

The industry is perfectly positioned to play a significant role in reducing emissions and driving positive biodiversity outcomes.

By engaging with these stakeholders and listening to their concerns, producers can demonstrate that they are working on ways to progress their systems and practices. This can bring the public along on the journey of improvement.

This is not only good for the industry’s image; it will also help to build a sustainable future with demonstrably sustainable land practices, water management and farming techniques, all of which will help mitigate climate change and have a positive impact on Australia’s biodiversity.

Question 3: What is the role for intensive animal agriculture systems in modern food production?

Yani Garcia

The role for these systems in food production is a very big one: to promote and support independent research, to facilitate and encourage true engagement; and to show leadership in promoting changes in farm practices to better accommodate to current and future consumer demands. 

This requires industry leadership that can be open to embrace true innovation and accept ways of thinking that may not align best with current practices. We can have all the science-based evidence in the world to show that a particular practice or system is not bad for the animals, yet the general public may be of a different opinion. Think of housed versus free-range egg production, or calf-cow separation in the dairy industry.  We need more research to develop new and innovative practices and systems that can be both cost-effective and accepted by the consumers while helping to counteract negative perceptions.

Katherine Teh

With increased population growth and the fact that 80% of Australia’s food is provided by our local farmers and producers, food security could be at real risk. Intensive animal agriculture is currently helping to meet the demand for food, but the public is becoming more critical about intensive farming practices, particularly the welfare of animals. If farmers continue to ignore this view, they will be forced into change. Consumers are making different choices; they are increasingly more likely to opt for ethical animal products, eat less meat or stop eating meat all together.

There is a real opportunity here for industry to proactively respond to these changing consumer needs and look to new options, new ideas, and new future-proof farming methods. An example of this is TasFoods’ Nichols ethical chicken. Of course, technology can play an important role in facilitating better animal welfare, but to really drive this change a cultural shift within the industry is required.

John Ralph Essay Competition 2019: What is the future for animal agriculture?