As animal welfare activists protest against the arrival of another live cattle export ship in New Zealand, a voice for the controversial trade is suggesting Kiwis only need to look at Auckland's urbanisation to see why demand is rising.
Jim Edwards, independent chairman of the Animal Trade Advisory Council, said the trade is responding to "huge urbanisation" in parts of the world, where communities want to establish their own herds to provide milk and food for their people.
The Palmerston North retired vet and past president of the World Veterinary Association also disputes activist claims that animals suffer on the sea voyages, citing "stringent" controls on food and water and numbers.
An international food security and safety adviser, Edwards said it's also "incorrect" that cattle are exposed to poor conditions and lax slaughter standards compared to New Zealand.
"Generally the animals are going into well-structured farms. Big investments have been made into them. I've visited farms in a number of countries, they're well-established and often have their own milk processing plant to provide milk to consumers."
"They're farmed under good conditions and in my experience the animal welfare is quite acceptable."
Edwards had been asked by the Herald why live cattle export numbers jumped last year.
He said milk was about 85 per cent water. It wasn't economic for New Zealand to export water, so our dairy products were mostly exported as powders and reconstituted by buyers in overseas markets. But rapidly urbanising markets wanted control of the fresh milk chain for their populations from farmgate to retailer, so there is growing demand for dairy farms.
"Think of Auckland in the last two or three generations and that (urbanisation) has been quite slow compared to some other countries. It's important to ensure food security for people living in cities who no longer have gardens or a house cow."
Covid-19 and its impact on the food harvesting labour force had only underlined the importance of food security for urban markets, Edwards said.
His response comes as the primary sector waits for the results of a Government review of the trade, and as the second animal carrier to arrive in New Zealand this year heads for Napier port to load cattle. The Ocean Ute had been scheduled to load at Port Taranaki this week and depart for China on Friday but sea conditions on the west coast forced the port change.
Two demonstrations against the ship were held in New Plymouth this week, said animal rights group Safe NZ.
In response to Herald questions about progress of the review, MPI said it had received and analysed more than 3500 public submissions, which closed in January last year.
It said advice for the Minister of Agriculture was being finalised after Covid-19 delays and would be forwarded to the Beehive "in due course".
The advice would also encompass the findings of an independent review of the trade following the loss at sea of the Gulf Livestock 1 in September. The vessel, chartered by an Australian company, sank in a typhoon in the East China Sea with the loss of 41 crew, including two New Zealanders, and nearly 6000 New Zealand dairy and beef female cattle.
Safe said more than 100,000 cows were exported last year, compared to 39,269 in 2019. MPI confirmed to the Herald that 104,147 cattle had been cleared for export last year.
MPI website figures show a total of 76,215 cattle were exported from ports at New Plymouth, Napier and Timaru, between February 1 and August 25 last year - 111 died en route. All the cattle went to China.
The total exported - but not the mortalities - includes the cattle lost in the Gulf Livestock 1 sinking.
When calling for submissions in 2019, MPI said the value of livestock exports - cattle, deer, goats and sheep - was about $54 million, most from cattle. MPI expected this to rise to $310m in the June 2020 year due to more cattle going to China.
SAFE said the jump in cattle export numbers between 2019 and 2020 was "staggering".
"Every single one of those cows now faces an uncertain future," it said in a statement.
"New Zealand has animal welfare laws and regulations that don't exist in the countries we export animals to. These cows could eventually be slaughtered while fully conscious."
Edwards said the advisory council was aware of other views of the trade.
"But remember there are international standards from the World Organisation for Animal Health ... that apply in other countries. They may be slightly different from ours but basically there are international standards. To say they don't have standards to work to would be incorrect."
Edwards believed photos of horror conditions posted by animal rights groups were old and information often unsourced.
Asked why exporters persisted in the publicly unpopular trade when the returns were small compared to other New Zealand primary exports, Edwards said it provided a specialist service to the farm establishment market and the returns had a multiplier effect in the New Zealand economy, especially for rural communities.