The Labour Government received plaudits this week for its historic announcement it will ban the live export of animals by sea. It's said to be a world first.
The decision comes after years of pressure, which increased after last year's tragedy when the ship Gulf Livestock 1 left New Zealand and sunk in a storm, killing nearly 6000 cows and 41 sea crew. Of course, there has also been opposition to the ban, and important questions raised over some of the details.
The ban was announced on Wednesday by Damien O'Connor, Minister of Agriculture and Minister for Trade and Export Growth. It will mean no animals can be shipped from New Zealand by sea from 2023 (at the latest) – see Jason Walls' Live animal exports: NZ Government confirms ban from 2023. O'Connor explained: "At the heart of our decision is upholding New Zealand's reputation for high standards of animal welfare."
In this article, the move was celebrated by animal welfare advocates. For example, World Animal Protection NZ labelled it "a significant moment in our history for animals". And former head of animal welfare for the Ministry of Primary Industries, Dr John Hellstrom, is quoted saying: "It's a trade whose time has come, it's a trade we should have got out of years ago."
The issue has been covered well by TVNZ, and the 1News report, Citing animal welfare concerns, Government confirms it will end live exports, covers some of the events leading up to the ban.
This article explains there was already a Government review taking place, but a major influence on the ban decision was the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1: "Following that, the Government temporarily banned exports of live cattle, but allowed them to resume late last year with promises of improvements to the process.
"Now they've changed their minds again, with plans to scrap the trade completely. O'Connor said today many of the recommendations from a 2019 review of the trade had been introduced. But there were still growing calls for the ban."
Praise for the ban
The must-read piece on the exporting ban is a Stuff newspaper editorial in favour of the decision – see: The tide goes out on animal exports.
The newspaper argues this issue is an ethical one for the country, pointing out former Minister of Agriculture Jim Anderton had rightly invoked philosopher Immanuel Kant's words on the subject: "He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."
Furthermore, the editorial points to the related pragmatic angle: "As well as being a moral issue in a world more concerned than ever with ethics, animal welfare is now a reputational issue. New Zealand does not want to be associated in international markets with the mass death of animals at sea or under poor conditions overseas, no matter how statistically rare such deaths may be."
The editorial also argues the decision closes a "loophole" in the current law, because a ban was brought in on shipping sheep for the purposes of slaughter in another country in 2003, and was extended to cattle in 2007, and "yet a loophole remained in which animals continued to be exported for breeding".
Science reporter Mirjam Guesgen points out in her explainer article on the ban New Zealand will be "the first country in the world to introduce a comprehensive ban on live animal exports by sea" – see: Live animal exports have always been a problem.
She writes that "there are good reasons behind the decision", drawing attention to the fact deaths and mistreatment of animals on the voyages have been poorly reported, despite being required by existing government rules.
What's more, she points out the animals suffer all sorts of atrocities on the sea voyages, not just extreme physical degradations, but emotional/mental ones too. Guesgen argues the better way forward for agricultural industries is the export of semen and embryos.
Growing pressure for a ban
Pressure on the Labour Government to ban live exports has been building for years, with a number of articles making a very strong case.
One of the best pieces was an RNZ investigation that was broadcast in September last year, which asked: Why do we still ship livestock overseas?.
Former MAF chief veterinary officer John Hellstrom called the trade "scurrilous", and explained there are two big areas of concern with the practice: he says the issue with live exports is as much about what happens to the animals when they get to their destination, as about conditions on board ships.
So, while many opinion pieces focus on the atrocious conditions animals have to endure en route, an area of growing concern and awareness is the unacceptable suffering and conditions in the destination countries.
The above article reports: "New Zealand stopped sending sheep and goats overseas, partly because of the appalling conditions in some abattoirs and backyard slaughterhouses. But Hellstrom says conditions in many factory dairy farms in China and elsewhere are also harming our cows."
Hellstrom is quoted: "The illusion is maintained that it is ethically, and from a welfare point of view okay, to send animals for breeding because they were going to a destination where they would live a long and happy life being a dairy cow and producing calves and milk… The reality is they are mainly going to large feedlot operations, where there is high mortality and poor fertility."
New Plymouth district councillor Anneka Carlson wrote an opinion piece in March headlined Why live exports need to be banned. She challenged the industry to refute accounts of extreme conditions faced by the exported animals: "If the above is not correct, then the industry should show the New Zealand public what it is like; have it verified by an independent party, and let's see footage of the conditions on these ships, the farms overseas and how these animals are handled."
In April, the SPCA came out with a call for a ban, raising many question about how the industry functions – see 1News' 'We have blood on our hands' — SPCA calls for total ban on exports of live farmed animals.
The organisation's chief scientific officer, Arnja Dale, is quoted as saying: "Quite simply, we have blood on our hands. Cabinet has a responsibility to show that animal welfare is indeed important to our country."
It wasn't only animal rights activists and liberals arguing for a ban. For instance, columnist Mike Yardley wrote late last year that, although he's hardly "a rabid animal rights campaigner", he found the live animal trade "odious" and "beyond indecent" – see: We need to move now on live exports. He argued the whole industry was ultimately bad for the agricultural sector.
A farmer who has previously sent his stock overseas also spoke out last year after having a change of heart about the practice. Taranaki farmer Brett Sanger was interviewed by Farah Hancock, and said: "You start seeing some fairly appalling images of what's happened on other ships and on reflection you think, do I really want to be doing this?" – see: A case against exporting live animals.
Is the ban about the voyage or the destination?
In explaining its decision, the Government has strongly played down concerns over what happens to New Zealand's animals when they have arrived in their new countries.
For example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is reported as saying the reason for the ban "is not about the destination at all, and is completely neutral of that" – see Newstalk ZB's Jacinda Ardern defends ban on live animal exports by sea.
Ardern stated: "For us, it's about whether the act itself – and it is very much the act itself rather than the destination or what happens to the livestock upon arrival."
Similarly, the Minister of Agriculture went out of his way to specify the ban being about the voyage and not anything to do with conditions in the destination countries. 1News reported him saying "There remains an ongoing level of concern with the welfare of these animals while being at sea for up to three weeks… The fact is that once animals leave New Zealand by sea, we have very limited ability to ensure their wellbeing before they reach their destination."
The Government has clearly been at pains to avoid offending the Chinese Government, as China is the recipient of about 94 per cent of the live exports, and that volume has recently tripled. The same article reports: "O'Connor said the decision was 'not about China', and Beijing would understand New Zealand's position."
Others have written about their concerns for the extreme conditions experienced by the animals arriving in China. According to journalist Mirjam Guesgen, China has an Animal Protection Index rating of only E (in a range of A to G).
Former MAF chief veterinary officer John Hellstrom has spoken out about conditions in China, saying in the RNZ documentary: "The way they treat bobby calves shouldn't be mentioned in public, and they don't have any significant welfare protocols for transport or slaughter."
Also in Farah Hancock's article, above, she says "China has lower animal welfare standards than New Zealand. There's no nation-wide laws prohibiting mistreatment. Once the cows are no longer used for breeding, Chinese law encourages but doesn't require stunning before slaughter."
It's not surprising, then, the New Zealand Government has been careful in handling the China element of the decision to introduce the ban. 1News reported the Government gave China an early warning of the ban in an approach to the Chinese Embassy last month.
Why is the Govt taking so long to implement the ban?
One of the contentious elements of the ban is the long lead-in time – up to two years. The Government has not yet said exactly when the ban will start. The 1News item above reported O'Connor saying that: "The ban would be in place after a transition period of up to two years, with a final timeframe to be announced after further advice from the Ministry of Primary Industries."
1News challenged the minister about the delay, receiving an explanation that "the process to wind down the practice was 'complex' and the Government had to be 'fair' to traders and allow a transition period". O'Connor is reported saying: "We do accept that there's risks on every shipment that goes out. We've done our best to minimise those."
But the Save Animals From Exploitation group has said that this delay is problematic, pointing out that "hundreds of thousands of cows could be exported during that time".
Blogger No Right Turn has added further complaint, saying it gives "farmers two full years to continue to profit from extreme animal cruelty" – see: Why wait?.
He says this is unnecessary as the ban can be done by changes to the current regulations rather than parliamentary legislation: "There is a consultation requirement, but that doesn't take two years, and neither does drafting and passing a regulation. So again, why wait? It's hard to see this as anything other than deliberate foot-dragging by a government that still wants to pander to a particularly cruel and vicious industry."
Opposition to the ban
Not everyone is happy with the ban. The Act Party has spoken out, saying it's a "kick in the guts" for the rural sector. Spokesperson Mark Cameron also argues "This ban won't improve animal welfare because live exports from New Zealand will be replaced by exports from other countries with lower animal welfare standards."
Farmers, too, have expressed their dissatisfaction. The Animal Genetics Trade Association complained about a loss of income for those in the sector – see Esther Taunton's Opponents label live export ban 'immoral, ill-informed'.
Spokesperson Dave Hayman has added: "The loss of foreign income will deeply hurt New Zealand's economy, particularly if China takes offence and threatens our Free Trade Agreement."
This idea of a backlash is also covered by Louisa Steyl in her article Live export ban may cause backlash from trading partners, Southland Fed Farmers boss says.
Broadcaster Mike Hosking has also picked up on the possibility of the ban causing offence to the Chinese, saying: "Let's hope in the ensuing period that the Chinese, who we are now hopelessly beholden to, don't take umbrage and don't see us like Australia" – see: Live export ban wrecks a growing industry. Hosking paints the ban as a general continuation of the Labour Government's anti-business stance.
Finally, with one victory for animal welfare advocates, the focus now shifts to another area of great concern, in which the Government has signalled its willingness to make progress – see: Government announces review into greyhound racing following welfare pleas and 'recent incidents'.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.