WHAT should we make of Coles’ flirtation with Animals Australia? Is the company simply ignorant and stupid, or does it share the aims of Animals Australia?
It could be either. Coles is managed by people from the UK, where romantic and unrealistic views about where food comes from are more common than here.
Thus the company has adopted a series of polices, many lifted from the UK supermarket Tesco, imposing various conditions on farmer suppliers. Those conditions are consistent with Animals Australia’s stance on what it calls factory farming.
Like the Fabian socialists, Animals Australia takes an incremental approach to achieving its aims. While the current focus is on factory farming and animal welfare, its ultimate goal is to end all use of animals by humans. That includes meat consumption, horse racing, leather and keeping animals as pets.
It is almost guaranteed that the people at Coles who thought it would be a good idea to help Animals Australia raise funds, share the group’s views on large scale agriculture. Thus they would disapprove of large piggeries, chicken farms and feedlots, and the use of drugs and other tools to increase productivity.
This can be seen from their bans on growth promotants and other productivity tools in cattle and pigs, prohibitions on sow stalls in piggeries, and the stocking limit for free range egg production. Each of these would meet with the approval of Animals Australia.
Similar attitudes are evident in the recent agreement with Ausveg for vegetable growers to “reward environmentally sustainable practices and enhance consumer confidence in the quality of Coles fresh produce”. In case you don’t get it, this means “replacing unnecessary pesticides, recycling water and improved soil management”.
Coles is undoubtedly ignorant. What it knows about is retailing, not farming, yet the decision makers in the company have clearly subscribed to the myth that current agriculture practices are unsustainable.
But none of this answers the question of whether they are also promoting the agenda of Animals Australia and other fringe groups.
Based on commercial grounds, ignorance seems more likely. Coles claims that it seeks to reduce the cost of food to consumers, yet its actions belie its words. Preventing farmer suppliers from using technology to lower their costs of production is the direct opposite of what it ought to be doing.
In fact, the effect of the various prohibitions is to increase the cost of production. Growth promotants in cattle, for example, boost growth rates and increase feed conversion efficiency. Cattle producers who stopped using them in order to satisfy Coles are now less productive. There is no credible evidence of any risk to consumers, and they are used by all major beef producing countries with the exception of the EU.
The situation is comparable to an electricity supplier banning Coles from using LED lights while declaring its aim is to reduce electricity bills, or a union preventing Coles from adopting the latest checkout technology while insisting it wants the company to remain competitive. Dumb barely describes it.
But just as it is not in the commercial interests of Coles to force up the production costs of farmers, it is similarly not in the company’s interests to give support to opponents of so-called factory farming.
As China’s food industry regularly demonstrates, small-scale family units are not only high cost, but have greater environmental impact and introduce far more hazards to consumers than large-scale mass production. Indeed, China’s biggest meat processor is about to take over Smithfield Foods, a huge American food production company, specifically to benefit from its expertise in modern, large-scale production and processing.
It is a simple fact that large scale production not only lowers the cost of production and benefits the environment, but also increases consumer safety. Yet this is precisely what Animals Australia is seeking to eliminate.
If Woolworths, IGA and Aldi share the aim of offering cheaper food to consumers, they will have a cost advantage over Coles assuming they embrace modern technology. Only if sufficient consumers accept the myths promoted by Animals Australia will Coles achieve any advantage from its approach.
Which brings us back to the question of whether Coles is more than just ignorant and dumb. Might Coles be seeking to gain a commercial advantage by perpetuating lies about agriculture, such as those emanating from Animals Australia?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the company’s support for the fundraising promotion was dropped at the request of Animals Australia.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com