BUREAUCRATIC strangulation of land planning processes for pig farms and facilities is cruelling the pork industry’s growth potential and viability, says Australian Pork Limited CEO Andrew Spencer.
Mr Spencer spoke up after the Productivity Commission released its draft report into agricultural red and green tape last week citing a number of areas targeted for reforms.
Mr Spencer said his sector agreed with the Commission’s summary view that the farm industry faced a multitude of complex regulations throughout the supply chain and at varying levels of government, with many of them unjustified and needless.
“The number and complexity of regulations affecting farm businesses means that the cumulative burden of regulation on farmers is substantial,” the report said.
Mr Spencer pinpointed two draft recommendations where APL had strong views - land use management and potential conflicts with other uses like urban development and the need to harmonise animal welfare regulations nationally.
He said currently the pork industry was performing well, driven by high pig prices based on short supply and high demand.
Its post farm gate value has been on a steady trajectory going from $1.13 billion in 2014 to $1.19b the year after and $1.33b this year.
On the back of that positive outlook, industry is looking at ways to grow and expand but many new piggeries put forward for development applications and expansions are being hindered by excessive regulations in the planning phase, he said.
Mr Spencer cited the example of a delayed application process for a Victorian piggery that has cost the owner in excess of $1 million in lost revenue, so far.
He said an outdoor piggery that had operated for many years without any complaints had also made a council application “in good faith” to try and clarify shortcomings in some permits underpinning its farming operations.
But that particular council only imposed new conditions on the pig farmers which means they basically can’t farm at that location anymore which is “just absolutely ridiculous”, he said.
“We’ve got a problem with councils that don’t have the expertise to really assess new piggery applications,” he said.
“We’ve also got councils taking conservative positions and imposing totally unnecessary conditions and too often these issues end up in appeal courts and that costs a lot of money and a lot of time.
“The system isn’t working for the pork industry in terms of planning structures and it’s costing us a lot of money and ultimately it costs the consumer extra because it costs more to produce pork.”
The Commission’s report found regulation and policies aimed at preserving agricultural land “per se” can prevent that land from being put to its highest value use.
It also called for feedback from stakeholders about the advantages and disadvantages of ‘right to farm’ legislation that’s gaining traction throughout the nation.
“Planning, zoning and development assessment processes can be a significant source of unnecessary burdens for farmers - many of these regulations and processes are unnecessarily complex, time consuming and costly,” the report said.
“While there are many recent and ongoing reviews of these issues, adoption of leading practices has been patchy and slow.
“In addition, planning regulations, such as building codes and the classification of intensive agriculture, sometimes fail to meet their regulatory objectives because they are not readily adaptable or targeted for managing agricultural land uses.
“These problems could be addressed by ensuring that regulation is fit for purpose and implementing outcomes-based - rather than prescriptive - regulation.”
Mr Spencer said his industry faced issues with local councils not accepting advice during planning application processes from Environmental Protection Agencies, departments of agriculture and other environmental authorities.
He said after ignoring such experts, those authorities then made up their own minds about applications based on objections received from community members “that have no merit”.
Mr Spencer said an unhealthy imbalance existed between what the farmer can achieve in their farming practices, while operating according to best practice and using industry expertise, versus potentially illogical and “superficial objections” from their neighbours.
“This is where there must be much better balance around how these applications are assessed,” he said.
Mr Spencer said the need to reform land use planning applications to local governments overlapped with the ‘right to farm’ issue.
He said the Commission’s approach to planning process reforms in the draft report - that’s taking stakeholder feedback until mid-August - was “fairly sound” in suggesting land use should be directed towards its most valuable proposition.
“In many parts of Australia that is of course farming and in other parts it’s for town planning and for residences or commercial property,” he said.
“But where farming offers the highest value proposition let’s ensure the process supports farming and not just the superficial views of others that are illogical and can’t be justified.”
Mr Spencer said some community objections submitted to councils by animal rights groups had an ultimate agenda to end pork production and should not be given undue, elevated credibility during the assessment phase.
“Animal rights groups will try and block new piggeries or old piggeries or any piggeries any way they can and the planning processes have given them some scope to try that,” he said.
“But council planning processes should never take into consideration issues outside their jurisdiction and animal welfare regulation is a state regulated area but that hasn’t stopped animal rights groups.”
Mr Spencer said he hadn’t seen any council decisions that had taken animal welfare concerns into account at this point in time and hoped that approach would continue.
APL also backed the Commission’s call for scientific principles to guide the development of farm animal welfare standards nationally, via an independent body.
The draft report said that body should be responsible for determining if new standards are required and, if so, for managing the regulatory impact assessment process for the proposed standards.
It should include an animal science and community ethics advisory committee to provide independent evidence on animal welfare science and research on community values, it said.
The Commission requested information on the most effective governance structure for an independent body tasked with assessing and developing standards and guidelines for farm animal welfare, what its responsibilities should include and how to fund it.
Mr Spencer said the federal government needed to show leadership in coordinating the setting of national animal welfare standards by species, for states to then move forward and legislate.
“You need that harmonised process to ensure that all states are working off the same hymn sheet,” he said.
“If you don’t have that unity, the states tend to run off in their own directions and impose different standards and cause market distortions across borders but of course good animal welfare is good animal welfare no matter what state it happens in - and the vice versa is also true.
“There really is a very strong need for the coordination of animal welfare standards across the country that can then be regulated at a state level.”
Mr Spencer said animal welfare standards needed to be based on what good science says about good welfare.
He said the community had strong interests in animal welfare but wasn’t particularly well qualified to decide what constituted good welfare “but scientists are”.
“Never the less, we still need to keep the community informed of how these systems and processes work and tell them why good animal welfare is good welfare,” he said.
Mr Spencer said the independent body needed to be outcomes focussed to generate acceptable science based national animal welfare standards.
He said any committee or working group needed to comprise that can then decide what the most appropriate standards were which can change over time, depending on where the science says.
But the people on that forum must be “absolutely committed” to the industry that they are designing standards for he said - which precludes animal rights groups.
Such groups have been targeting the pork industry in recent times by trespassing on farm facilities to gather video footage for media campaigns aimed at influencing consumers and political decision-makers based on an extreme agenda, to end animal use for meat consumption.
“One of my concerns is about how these committees are sometimes set up,” Mr Spencer said in regards to the Commission’s recommendation.
“They have animal rights groups potentially wanting to be in that room and the animal rights groups technically don’t support the existence of the industries they’re designing standards for which is a contradiction you cannot manage in a committee like that.
“I do classify the RSPCA as a body that is, in relative terms, very responsible and has the right attitude towards what good welfare is.
“They’re not against the consumption of meat or eggs or the use of animals for fibre production so I have no objection to the RSPCA being in the room.”
The written deadline for feedback on the Commission’s report is August 18 while public hearings are due that same month, ahead of a final report being released mid-November.
Stakeholder feedback will be used to formulate a final report that will be delivered to the Australian Government, to be tabled within 25 sitting days of parliament.
The federal government is required to make a formal response to the Commission’s final recommendations and findings.