THE Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) has welcomed a new parliamentary report which makes a key recommendation aimed at facilitating the resumption of Australian sheep exports to Saudi Arabia.
The federal Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade released the report from its inquiry on Australia's trade and investment relationships with Middle Eastern countries last week.
The committee's report included consideration of on-going and potential livestock export opportunities and the impact that the implementation of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) has had on Middle Eastern markets.
This includes Saudi Arabia, which does not participate in ESCAS and, as such, has not imported Australian livestock since 2012.
ALEC chief executive officer Alison Penfold said the report outlined the committee's recommendation for the Australian government to explore, in conjunction with the Saudi government, the potential to appoint an independent auditor to monitor the implementation of ESCAS to meet Saudi's sovereignty concerns.
"Livestock exporters welcome the parliament's focus on re-establishing the export of Australian sheep to Saudi Arabia," Ms Penfold said.
"Historically, the Saudi market has played a very significant role in Australia's sheep export industry.
"Naturally, we are very keen to get that trade up and running again with the addition of commercial through-chain oversight and control of animal welfare."
An WA industry source told Farm Weekly this was a step in the right direction, but consultation with Saudi Arabia was key.
"This is an opportunity to engage and find a position that respects the Saudi's view about sovereignty, but also provides joint measures to support animal welfare initiatives," they said.
"We don't have a trade with them, so we need to renegotiate a position that both parties can seek agreement on."
If Saudi Arabia was re-opened, industry believes it could potentially be a 500 head to 1 million head sheep market with up to 50,000 cattle traded initially.
"In the face of a sliding live sheep market in the Middle East, a new player to the market would add strength to the trade," they said.
With supply difficulties in WA, the trade could boost confidence, add security and encourage producers to grow or maintain their flock.
According to the Department of Agriculture and Food WA 2016 Sheep Notes the WA sheep flock experienced a steep decline in numbers in the years leading up to 2010/11 when it reached 14m head.
Following the 2010 drought the flock increased by 10 per cent to 15.5m head in 2012/13.
Since then it has continued to contract, falling back to 14.0m head at the end of the 2014/15 financial year, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
While the trade was a positive step forward, the industry source said sheep prices had to be considered.
"It is supply and demand so prices could increase, however we have to be careful how high sheep prices go," they said.
"We can easily lose market shares in other markets through unsustainable live export prices for sheep."
Ms Penfold hoped the governments would consider alternative but equivalent welfare assurance solutions and that discussions could be reinvigorated soon in the context of the Memorandum of Understanding on the livestock export trade signed between Australia and Saudi Arabia.
She said it was worth noting that in the absence of any Australian livestock, Saudi Arabia is importing 8m head annually from markets such as the Sudan, but has indicated strong interest in a sizeable intake of Australian livestock annually.
"I'm confident a mutually acceptable solution can be found which not only respects Saudi sovereignty but is also consistent with welfare assurance requirements, international OIE animal welfare standards and Saudi Arabia's own animal welfare laws," Ms Penfold said.
"As the report points out, it is important that we don't overlook the importance of live exports to the Middle East.
"Not only is the trade a vital part of the overall success of Australia's sheep industry, but it also helps ensure the delivery of quality sheepmeat to the dinner tables of Middle Eastern families.
"The four pillars of animal welfare assurance - traceability, control, international welfare standards and independent auditing - remain as relevant and important as ever. It is because of that fact, rather than despite it, we are determined to re-enter the Saudi market."
p To view a copy of the committee's report, visit www.aph.gov.au/jfadt.