New Zealand sends its last live cattle shipments to China before a ban is enforced

In New Zealand, farmers make their last live cattle exports by sea before the end of April as the government banned them for animal welfare.

New Zealand farm
Cattle in a farm in New Zealand | © Christina Maiia

New Zealand farmers send their last shipments of live cattle before a ban takes effect at the end of the month. The country has banned live cattle exports by sea, considering animal welfare.

So far in 2023, the ministry of Primary Industries has reported three shipments that took place in January and February with a total of 15,000 live cattle. A couple of others were scheduled, with the last ship set to depart on April 19.

All ships send cows to China for breeding. During these journeys, a few animals die each time. Nine have been reported dead when arriving in China in 2023 so far, accounting for 0.09 percent of the total.

While farmers have been enjoying a recent uptick in prices because Chinese importers wanted to secure stock before the ban takes effect, it also marks the end of a very dynamic trade in the past years.

In 2021 and 2022, New Zealand exported 135,000 live cattle by sea each year, all to China, for mortality rates of 0.07 and 0.05 percent.

Yet, in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand exported less than 50,000 live cattle a year. In 2020, the numbers skyrocketed, with more than 100,000 animals sent to China.

But in September of that year, the Gulf Livestock 1, with 43 crew members and nearly 6,000 cows on board, capsized due to rough seas caused by Typhoon Maysak off the Japanese coast. Departing from New Zealand to China, two Australians, two New Zealanders, and 39 Filipinos made up the crew. Only two Filipinos survived; one died a few days after being rescued and the other crew members have not been found. The livestock perished.

The tragedy led the ministry of Primary Industries to halt export for some months for an independent review to be carried out and resumed under tightened rules for better animal conditions.

Gulf Livestock 1
The Gulf Livestock 1, a livestock carrier that sank in the East China Sea with 43 crew members and 6,000 animals on board | © Frans Truyens, Vessel finder

Then in April 2021, the government drafted a bill to amend the Animal Welfare Act and ban livestock (cattle, deer, goat, or sheep) exports by sea. It banned commercial exports as well as export for aid. The law does not affect the export of live animals by air, for which the travel times are much shorter.

While a review of animal welfare in livestock exports was under review since 2019, the tragedy highlighted the risks of exporting live animals by ship, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said when he announced the plan. “At the heart of our decision is upholding New Zealand’s reputation for high standards of animal welfare,” Mr. O’Connor justified, considering the trade posed an unacceptable risk to New Zealand’s reputation in a world where animal welfare was under increasing scrutiny.

Only cattle for breeding, and not meant directly for slaughterhouses, has been exported from New Zealand since 2008 and only one consignment of sheep, to Mexico, had been exported by sea in 2015. In 2020, the industry proposed a set of actions to the improve standards of animals’ wellbeings.

While public opinion favored an immediate ban, the government applied a transition period of two years to unwind contracts and allow for the calves from animals that have already been mated to be exported. The government eventually passed the bill in September 2022. The transition period ends on April 30, 2023.

And for the about 4,000 farmers who sold cows to the export market, the ban means lost revenue opportunities. Exporting cows to China was more profitable than dealing in the domestic market. A cow was sold about 1,600-1,900 New Zealand dollars (US$1,000-1,200) to China, and even above NZ$2,000 at the end of 2022, while the same animal is worth NZ$500-600 (US$315-378) in New Zealand. Dairy farmers also say male calves are killed instead of being exported because they have little value in the domestic market.

According to Livestock Export New Zealand (LENZ), a group dedicated to supporting livestock export trade from the Animal Genetic Trade Association, the ban would cost 474 million New Zealand dollars (US$300 million) to the country’s economy per year in the short term. Farmers forced to stop exporting livestock would loose between 49,000 and 116,000 New Zealand dollars annually.

Live exports have made up roughly 0.2 percent of all agriculture revenue since 2015, according to the trade organization.

In a sponsored article published on The New Zealand Herald’s website, the leading NZ newspaper, the Chairman of LENZ Mark Willis argued the gap left in the Chinese market by Kiwi farmers would be filled with exporters from other countries with “animal welfare standards that are far less rigorous than New Zealand’s.”

China is the first client of many countries for beef, and in Argentina, beef exported to China is restricted to limit inflation in the domestic market. According to a study from McKinsey, China ate almost 100 million tons of meat in 2021, 27 percent of the world’s total. It was twice the total consumption in the United States, but half the U.S.’s per capita consumption. And the consulting company forecasts the meat market in China will grow by 1 percent per year between 2022 and 2026, with a trend to shift from pork – the first meat consumed in China – to beef consumption.

Last month, Mark Cameron, Primary Industries spokesperson of the ACT, the liberal-conservative political party with ten in 120 seats in the Labor-party-dominated House of Representatives, issued a bill attempting to repeal the upcoming ban. In early April, he also asked the government “to back off farmers and consider the impact and additional costs its reforms are having on New Zealand’s economic powerhouse,” arguing they already need to deal with the rise of production costs and climate policies.

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