Beef industry under fire after controversial satellite data release

What the data means is hotly contested by the beef industry and environment groups.

Australia’s beef farmers are in the firing line this week after satellite analysis found a whopping 349,399 hectares of forest was cleared in one state over 12 months. The majority was bulldozed for livestock.

Released quietly at 7am on Sunday by the Queensland government, data from its 2020-2021 Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) report reveals the state is still clearly Australia’s deforestation leader.

What the data means is hotly contested by the beef industry and environment groups.

To the left is woody vegetation, to the right is land cleared in 2023 by a beef producer in Dingo, Queensland. The inset is a close up of a pile of logs.
These images show woody vegetation bulldozed and pushed into piles at a cattle property in Queensland in June. It will likely feature in an upcoming SLATS report. Source: Wilderness Society/Queensland Conservation Council

The timber industry accounted for just four per cent of the clearing, and mining even less. At 89 per cent, the majority was for pasture. Analysis of the previous SLATS indicates the beef industry has once again been a significant contributor.

Koalas impacted by Queensland land clearing

Conservationists have called on beef producers to “do better”, but the industry argues it’s unfairly maligned and has questioned the results of the SLATS data, saying assessing woody vegetation with satellites doesn't tell the full story.

While the majority of the land cleared in Queensland was regrowth, some areas are decades old and had likely provided habitat for endangered animals like koalas. Analysis of previous SLATS data revealed hundreds of thousands of threatened species habitat was bulldozed.

Peak industry body Meat and Livestock Australia argues the state has a “well-regulated” land clearing system, and environment minister Leanne Linard said the state's vegetation management laws are working. But this is contested by environment groups who argue loopholes are resulting in the loss of “high value” forests.

The Wilderness Society’s Hannah Schuch said “stronger laws and enforcement” is required and the beef industry must eliminate deforestation from supply chains.

Key data from the SLATS:

  • 47 per cent of clearing was in the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

  • 54,236 hectares was remnant vegetation.

  • 96 per cent of the area bulldozed for pasture was fully cleared.

  • This SLATS is a 17 per cent reduction on the 2019/2020 result (418,656 hectares)

Land clearing compared to deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil

Nat Pelle from non-profit Australian Conservation Foundation welcomes the reduction in land clearing, but said the result still isn't "good news".

“It’s still many times more clearing than is happening in any other state in Australia. It’s fallen from an extraordinary number, but the rate certainly hasn’t normalised,” he said.

Mr Pelle believes attention has largely been on Brazilian farmers clearing the Amazon, not on the conduct of Australian producers.

“Because we're a developed country people think we have robust compliance and regulation, but that’s just not the case,” he said.

Because of the beef industry's ongoing land clearing and its impact on threatened species, he believes it’s fair to compare it to the palm oil sector — in 2021 around 19,000 hectares of rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea was cleared for new farms.

“It’s fair to say that this is Australia’s palm oil... it’s a good analogy,” he said.

A koala hanging onto a tree on the Gold Coast. It's likely a juvenile.
Koalas are struggling to survive in Queensland where they are listed as endangered. Source: Getty

Beef industry disputes palm oil comparison

MLA is trying to enhance beef farming's sustainability credentials with a 2030 carbon-neutral target. Mark Davie is the chair of its sustainability steering committee and he doesn’t think the palm oil comparison is fair.

Speaking with Yahoo, he characterised the statement as “outlandish” because in Queensland, 82 per cent of land bulldozed had been cleared in the past, while in Indonesia it is virgin rainforest being destroyed for palm oil.

Mr Davie believes information derived from the SLATS data is limited because it can’t distinguish between native vegetation and introduced species. He draws on personal experience as a Queensland beef producer when explaining how this can impact the data.

“We cleared 4000 hectares… it had been a blue gum plantation, but a wood mite eroded it, we had Cyclone Marcia come through… it knocked it all down and it was rotted and filled with lantana and rubber vine,” he said.

“So we went through and cleared it up, keeping every tree that would stay upright because we need shade as well. Yet we got put on (SLATS) for performing what essentially was an environmental service.”

European Union pushes for beef industry reform

Overseas, lawmakers are watching and the European Union has warned it won’t accept food linked to deforestation.

Mr Davie questions their push for an end to deforestation, suggesting it could do more harm than good.

“How would we as an industry ensure that? We would need to plough our country every year. Is that a better environmental outcome?” he said.

He argues “well-managed” woodland settings on beef farms can benefit endangered koalas as it results in the removal of introduced plants and reduces fire risk. “It’s a hugely complex issue," he said.

Prediction global pressure will force beef industry change

Queensland Conservation Council director Dave Copeman argues clearing laws in Queensland are a product of the political climate and the “clout” of the beef industry.

He believes MLA and the big industry players want to be “deforestation-free” but there is pressure from some landholders to allow land clearing to continue.

“It's just the politics of rural communities where you know, anything that restrains people's use of pastoral leases is seen to be an attack on them,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the world is going to say we don’t want food from places that involve deforestation. People tend to frame this as tree versus beef, but it’s not. The best producers are reforesting not deforesting,” he said.

“It’s a small minority who are doing a huge amount of the clearing and they’re just stuck in an old-fashioned way of doing grazing.”

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