Barnyards on Boats: It's What's for Dinner

Barnyards on Boats: It's What's for Dinner

Zebus (Brahmin cattle) arrive at the Nosy Be dock.

Why you should care

Because the world’s livestock are doing a lot more transoceanic travel than you.

Do livestock get frequent traveler miles? As we speak, animals are crisscrossing the globe, like Noah’s Ark, but more grim. Cows and sheep and pigs are being shipped from Australia to Indonesia, from Brazil to Israel, from New Zealand to Mexico. Not for vacation, though — for your dinner. And apparently, you are hungry. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers:

In Australia, the world’s leader for the billion-dollar industry of live exports, the shipment of live animals increased

79%

between 2012–13 and 2013–14.

That’s a lot of floating barnyards. The same report found that Indonesia doubled its demand during that time period, and that Vietnam also increased its trade with Australia, thanks to demand coming from China. In fact, in a variety of countries, the latest numbers are record-breaking. This summer, a boat packed with 53,000 live animals — both cows and sheep — set off on a 16-day journey from New Zealand headed to Mexico, the largest live shipment ever executed by New Zealand.

Why? A variety of reasons ­— breeding included — but ultimately, it’s the law of supply and demand. Global demand for protein is skyrocketing. Meat consumption is down in the U.S., but our cattle is being eaten elsewhere. This spring, the USDA announced it would be shipping as much as $15 million worth of live cattle per year to Mexico. Not every cow on a boat is bound for death: Ireland ships cattle over to the EU for dairy production. In fact, the president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association has said he hopes that an “ocean superhighway” can be created to facilitate the increase of live export. Moo?

To be sure, there are plenty of arguments against live cattle shipment. One is economic: Professor Sergio de Zen, the leader of cattle research at the Center for Advanced Studies on Applied Economics at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, says the practice can have a negative impact on the local economy that loses the animal. “When you take a live animal, you take away the business within the region of the animal,” he says, citing slaughterhouses as an example.

There are also issues of biosecurity and animal cruelty. In Australia, live exports are up 79 percent — but 79 percent of the Australian population also wants the practice banned. And here’s a shocker: Animal rights groups have condemned the practice, describing horrendous conditions on the animals’ death barges. Not all of them even survive the ride to getting killed. And the dead and dying animals that get dumped overboard sometimes wash ashore. So much for your afternoon swim. Back in New Zealand, the government says the animals it ships are for breeding, not slaughter. But once the mega-ark makes landfall in Mexico, all those tens of thousands of sheep and cows can be difficult to track — and upon delivery, New Zealand no longer controls them.

The Noah’s Arks of future dinners are unlikely to quit the high seas anytime soon. And please don’t ask us why cows can’t fly coach.

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