Australian beef producers aren’t responsible for deforestation, according to advice from the federal Agriculture Department to minister Murray Watt that contradicts Queensland government data, further complicating trade negotiations with the European Union.
The department’s claim, released under freedom of information laws, surfaced as Watt and Trade Minister Don Farrell’s push to seal a trade deal with the EU stalled this week over access for farm exports.
Watt had sought the information from the Agriculture Department before travelling to Europe in January to promote the sector as part of the government’s pursuit of the trade deal.
The department’s official briefing note told Watt “there is no risk Australian beef and leather products are connected to deforestation”.
But according to the latest Queensland government data, 418,656 hectares of woody vegetation was cleared in the state in 2019-20. Of that, 85 per cent was for grazing and general land management, such as clearing for fence lines, property tracks and fire breaks.
An analysis of that data by the Wilderness Society found that beef production was linked to 66 per cent of land clearing in Queensland in 2019-20 in areas where 342 federally listed threatened species were known or likely to live.
The department’s briefing note said the minister had asked for key facts and figures to “help him craft his message” about Australia’s sustainable agriculture during the trade talks.
“Got the impression he didn’t think our current lines and evidence were convincing enough. Wants more data, monitoring and evidence to point to,” the note said.
Farrell, who returned from trade talks in Europe this week, conceded there was still “a long way to go” in gaining increased access for Australian farm exports.
The European farm lobby is notoriously resistant to conceding market access, and the European Parliament has imposed tough environmental rules on imports that focus on stopping land clearing and forest loss in the countries that supply it with agricultural goods.
The department’s briefing note said recent EU reforms were “targeting densely forested areas (such as rainforests) in countries like Brazil and Indonesia”. But it acknowledged the focus could be extended to other forest types such as savannah.
“This could have more significant implications for Australian agriculture,” the note said.
It said while Australia undertook some land clearing, primarily of sparse, scrubby remnant vegetation on large grazing properties, it was not classified as deforestation. The briefing note advised Watt to raise this point only if required.
Watt told this masthead that during the trade talks he explained the “vastly different” climate and farming practices in Australia, and detailed its “very strong sustainability standards”.
The federal government uses two definitions for deforestation.
When assessing carbon generated by tree growth under a scheme known as “avoided deforestation”, it uses a broad definition – similar to that of the Queensland government – that captures a large range of vegetation types including savannah.
But it uses a narrower definition that excludes savannah in other circumstances, including when it advised Watt that Australian farmers do not engage in deforestation.
Savannah is a term that captures Australia’s more open forests and woodlands, especially in northern Australia. These habitats are crucial to the survival of many threatened species including koalas, quolls and black-throated finches.
Australian farmers argue that “thinning” of vegetation in certain areas, such as mulga country in Queensland, to expand livestock grazing, should not be deemed deforestation.
Australia is a signatory to the Glasgow leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and is committed to halting forest loss by 2030.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said in July last year that Australia cleared more than 7.7 million hectares of threatened species’ habitat across the country between 2000 and 2017, and 90 per cent was not assessed under national environment laws.
“Australia is one of the world’s deforestation hot spots,” she said.
Wilderness Society’s manager of policy and strategy, Tim Beshara, said Australia’s record on wildlife losses would increasingly harm Australian governments and businesses seeking market access.
“The only way to fix it is to fix it. That is to turn around the decline in nature. Not to try it on with definitional games and spin,” he said.
“Anyone who has engaged in the discussion on deforestation and biodiversity risk in Europe would know that those denialist lines would simply attract suspicion and undermine trust. All of the EU officials, negotiators and investors we have met with haven’t been interested in word games.”
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