Harmony Agriculture and Food Company’s social media inundates you with the usual cute farm animals and rustic farmland that can be expected from Australian agribusiness. With a name like Harmony, the company’s imaging is predictably manicured towards a Chinese market – indeed, the company is even partially owned by Chinese investors.
While the company attracted much public controversy after details emerged of a prospective deal to ship 60,000 sheep to a sweltering Kuwaiti summer for slaughter, Harmony is also currently under investigation for the death of 46 cattle on a live export ship bound for China last month. Commencing shipping in November 2017, Harmony has already exported 8,000 cattle and expect to have sent another 12,000 by the end of this month, showing a strong initial return on a $50m investment to create a livestock supply chain from Australia to China. Responding to reporting on the recent deaths, the director of Harmony said that when the cattle arrived in China the Chinese were satisfied with their health and wellbeing status. For a country that only began to consider animal welfare generally less than ten years ago, ‘satisfied’ is likely not a very high standard to meet at all. Griffith University Professor, published author and animal law expert, Deborah Cao, says that, “livestock in China have no legal status except as food and property. There is still little feeling about farm animal welfare as a concept.”
While live export is widely considered inhumane and was stopped by New Zealand in 2003, in Australia the industry was estimated to be worth $1.2billion in 2017, with Gina Rinehart and others hoping to cash in on demand from a growing Chinese middle class. Even Rogers Pay, senior agricultural analyst at China Policy, says that, “China’s own agricultural outlook report projects beef imports will grow by nearly 75 percent over the next decade. That’s the fastest import growth in any animal protein category.” She says that while competition in the beef imports market will also come from the US, UK and France, “the fact that Australia has market access for live cattle exports gives them a strategic advantage in China's market which prizes extreme freshness.”
However, not everyone in China would like to sit down to a hearty steak: China’s fledgling animal rights movement grows larger each year and the domestic livestock industry is moving into their crosshairs. A country whose revolution and development has often been built on the hard work of rural farmers, one of China’s current revolutions is taking place in agriculture. An ongoing priority of the government in its national planning, the transformation of farming and slaughter practices in China will have profound repercussions for its gargantuan livestock population (pigs alone number 700 million in China). Reform may result in cleaner and more humane slaughter practices, but will also transform the rearing of livestock from an activity previously central to the livelihood of peasant farmers to a business model that sees animals as protein and production units. Domestic coverage of the conditions of the livestock industry largely stem not from welfare concerns but from an obsession with food safety.
A country with a fifth of the world population and only 7% of the globe’s arable land, China is plagued not only by food insecurity issues but, more commonly seen in headlines, a deep insecurity about food safety itself. From the infamous melanine milk scandal that sent Australian dairy stock prices rocketing to various Onion-esque stories of gutter oil, Chinese consumers are understandably anxious about the quality of their foodstuffs and are willing to pay top dollar to assuage the feeling. While live export may present an opportunity for meat unrivalled in ‘freshness’, Professor Cao says that, “Chinese consumers would prefer Australian meat products raised and then processed in Australia.”
The live export trade between China and Australia may be in its infancy and set to grow but what problems will it encounter on the way to the slaughterhouse?
Chloe Dempsey is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.