No other rural industry impacts more of Australia than our beef industry. More than 63,000 farming businesses are producing beef from 43% of the country's landmass. We are also the world's second largest beef exporter, which injects an estimated $8.4 billion into the Australian economy. More than any other livestock industry, the beef industry relies on healthy natural ecosystems. Fodder and clean water are essential. But cattle production is costly to the environment. Clearing native vegetation for pasture has sacrificed wildlife habitat, and poor grazing practices have seen excess sediments enter waterways and damage places like the Great Barrier Reef. Cattle are also significant greenhouse gas producers, which contributes to climate change. Environmental degradation and a changing climate loom as threats to the future of Australian beef production. However, there are opportunities for our largest rural industry to become a true environmental champion. Australia, and indeed our economy, may depend on it.
What we're doing
In 2014, we began working with our partners to test, validate and communicate beef production methods that are good for farmers and the environment. Project Pioneer encourages the scaling up of innovative techniques, especially those that improve the quality of water leaving farms and entering the Great Barrier Reef. WWF-Australia gratefully acknowledges funding from the John T Reid Charitable Trusts and the Australian Government Reef Trust program.
Sustainable agriculture in Great Barrier Reef catchments
For over 10 years, WWF-Australia has sought substantial government and industry investment to improve farming practices in Great Barrier Reef catchments. If we are to meet government targets to reduce up to 80% of the nutrients entering the Reef by 2025 significant long-term investment is required to make grazing and sugar cane production more sustainable. As a global voice for the Reef, WWF-Australia has helped to secure over $200 million to improve water quality, including funding for programs to help graziers adopt best practice.
The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB)
Globally, we’re a driving force for the development of sustainability standards for beef production. WWF is a founding member of the GRSB, launched in February 2012, and we’re actively developing pilot projects that contain key sustainability indicators and methods for verifying sustainable beef production around the world.
Why it matters
Australia's beef industry is a large economic contributor and land user. It’s crucial that we work with the industry to encourage the uptake of sustainable practices that reduce its negative impacts and support the environment. These improvements are urgently needed. Half the Great Barrier Reef's coral has disappeared in the last generation and sediment from grazing lands is playing a significant role in its demise. Sediment loads from the waterways entering the Reef are more than five times natural levels. This silt and mud not only smothers seagrasses and coral; it also transports other pollutants.
Native vegetation is still being cleared for agriculture in Australia and roughly 90% of that is to open up new areas for grazing. In 2014, about 300,000 hectares of native vegetation was cleared in Queensland alone, destroying the habitats of millions of native animals and plants.
Poor grazing practices that reduce the amount of grass in a paddock can lead to erosion. Erosion sees soil leave the landscape and enter waterways. We know that sediment moving onto the Great Barrier Reef is having a major impact on the health of coral and seagrasses. This has contributed to over half the Reef's coral dying in the past 30 years.
Beef production has a considerable effect on climate change. Enteric emissions from cattle digestion and the release of carbon from forest destruction and land degradation are the major sources of greenhouse gases. Ironically, the beef industry, more than any other, relies on a healthy and stable climate for production.