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Indonesia Suspends Australian Livestock Again: What Does this Mean for Bilateral Tensions?

Isha Desai | Indo Pacific Fellow

Australian beef porterhouse steak. Image credit: Maksym Kozleko via Wikimedia Commons.


New tensions rise between Indonesia and Australia’s livestock industry as Indonesia has suspended cattle imports from an export yard in Darwin after over 150 livestock died onboard a transport ship. Australia has posited that the deaths were caused by botulism, a disease that paralyses animals after eating food which contains the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium is rumoured to have been in the cattle’s feed, water or from chewing on bones. Despite the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) clarifying that the disease is non-contagious, Indonesia was quick to suspend live exports from this cattle yard in the Northern Territory, highlighting the ‘uneasy biosecurity relationship’ between the two countries.

 

Bilateral trade between Australia and Indonesia was worth AUD $18.35billion in 2021-22 according to the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), and Indonesia is Australia’s largest live cattle market, totalling over $600million before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an important trading relationship for Australia, and an important market for the Northern Territory’s cattle industry.

 

But bilateral live cattle trade has decreased since the pandemic, totalling AUD $350 million in 2023 as Indonesia continues to supplement their beef imports with cheaper buffalo meat (‘carabeef') from India. Nevertheless, since 2019, over half of the 2.5 million live cattle exported to Indonesia were transported from Darwin. The current ban only applies to one export yard, with other export yards in the Top End still able to export to Indonesia. The Darwin – Indonesia bilateral cattle trade will remain a key economic linkage, but it will have to be more carefully navigated.

 

History

 

Indonesia and Australia’s live export relationship has historically faced significant challenges. Reports show that the Australian agricultural industry has been aware of inhuman cattle exporting practices in Indonesia since 2000. The abuses include a cow being stabbed 18 times in 2010, cattle being felled for slaughter, cattle smashing their heads on concrete and restraint boxes for slaughter. A 2005 report noted that ‘unnecessary painful action’ was observed to debilitate cattle. In 2011, Australia suspended live cattle exports to Indonesia after an investigative report from ABC Four Corners revealed the inhumane practices in Indonesian abattoirs. Although exports resumed in 2012, Indonesia only imported 20 per cent of its overall requirement.

 

As recently as July 2023, Indonesia suspended live cattle exports from four Australian yards after allegedly finding lumpy skin disease (LSD), despite the disease never having been detected in Australia. The ban was lifted in September. Australian chief vet Dr Mark Schipp insists that there is ‘no cause for concern for Australian cattle producers as Australia remains LSD free’.

 

Impact on Indonesia

 

In 2021, Indonesia’s top trading partners were China and the United States, representing 28.7% and 5.8% of imports respectively. Australia supplies 30% of Indonesia’s total beef consumption and the suspension is likely to affect food availability and accessibility. Indonesia leans more heavily on trade with other partners and if Australian livestock became a permanent problem for Indonesia, they could source livestock from alternative partners – but there would be a decline in quality.

 

In 2016, it was reported that cheap carabeef from India has been undercutting Australian beef with a price of USD $3.10 per kilogram (kg) compared to USD $4.40 per kilogram. Further, some consumers were either unaware or found minimal difference between the two.

 

This led Indonesia to import 80,000 tonnes of carabeef in 2016, equating to double the amount of Australian beef they imported in 2015. This growing relationship with India, coupled with the incidents of disease found in Australian cattle, could see Indonesia continue to move away from Australia as a cattle partner.

 

Impact on Australia

 

For Australia, its four major export destinations include China, Japan, the United States and South Korea which have constituted over three-quarters of beef exports in the last few years. Still, Indonesia remains Australia’s main live cattle export market – the most lucrative section of the market.

 

In 2024, there is an expected rise in Australian beef exports. During this time, more females are being slaughtered to reduce breeding rates as the national herd rebuild has nearly hit its targets. This meat is being sent to the United States as ‘lean grinding beef’.   Whilst Australia is impacted by past, present and potential future Indonesian suspensions, it does not rely solely on the Indonesian market and can maintain their livestock industry through other partners.

 

However, it must be noted that whilst national trade will have decreased impacts, the impacts in Northern Australia, particularly the Northern Territory may be more severe. The Industry Skills Advisory Council of NT discusses how agriculture accounts for 58% of land use in territories and states around Australia where 76% of beef grown between 2013-2017 was exported. In addition, the livestock industry accounts for 48% of the wider agricultural industry where a decrease in employment and exports would have a disproportionate impact on the financial and emotional wellbeing of rural populations working in a regional economy.

 

Bilateral Implications

 

Despite the setback between Indonesian and Australian trade, bilateral diplomacy remains strong. According to IA-CEPA, Australia supplies up to 67% of technical and vocational training for Indonesian citizens, has set up Australian university campuses in Indonesia and has an ownership of up to 67% for contract mining services, large hospitals and telecommunications services.

 

The nations continue to have high-level meetings, where the last Joint Communique made plans to increase two-way investment and expand access for Indonesian business travellers. After the recent Indonesian election, Australia also held defence talks with Indonesia signalling an improved security agreement and allyship between the countries. Ultimately, I believe that Indonesia’s suspension of livestock from Darwin’s export yard is motivated by a food security and policy lens as opposed to domestic or international politics. Whilst their political relationship with us continues to strengthen and grow, Indonesia will not hesitate to sanction Australian business deals if they perceive a threat to their health security.




Isha Desai is the Indo Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is a graduate from the University of Sydney in Politics, International Relations, and Political Economy.


Isha is an emerging researcher and policy analyst with a keen interest in Australia’s future in the Indo Pacific, climate security and foreign policy. She has worked as a policy researcher for the Australian Humans Rights Commission, the United States Studies Centre and most recently Legal Aid NSW where she co-authored a literature review that was awarded the 2023 Sydney Policy Reform Project Prize.



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