Time For Genetic Mulesing Solution
For the sake of wool prices, Australian Wool Innovation has to lift its commitments, both verbally and financially, to the mulesing issue.
Whether or not we agree with the need to end surgical mulesing doesn't matter; the real issue is the wool price.
Mulesing has divided Australia growers into three camps.
There are those who have stopped mulesing, because some major apparel retailers say they don't want to buy Merino wool from mulesed sheep.
There are those who are still mulesing their lambs, but are waiting to see what happens in the market.
And there are those who continue to mules because they don't want to be told by any retailer, animal activist or government officer what's good, or not good, for the wellbeing of their flock.
Just how many growers are in each group is hard to say, but there is no doubt that most of the Australian Wool Innovation board members owe their election to the latter group.
Chairman Wal Merriman makes no attempt to hide his allegiance to the pro-mulesing group.
On several occasions Mr Merriman has indicated to The Weekly Times that it's a matter for individuals, not the industry, to decide whether they continue to mules their lambs or not.
Mr Merriman, along with a majority of his fellow board members, saw no value in the industry pursuing the upcoming December 2010 deadline to end mulesing.
"If they want to stop mulesing or use a declaration that's fine by me," he told The Weekly Times.
That might be a fine liberal stance to take, but the end result for producers is not the mulesing issue, but the prices they receive for their greasy wool.
Marketing is all about perceptions and Australia is struggling to shrug off the perception among major European and North American retailers that it is not fair dinkum in its efforts to wind back the practice.
Two or three years ago, prior to the global financial crisis, these retailers would have accounted for up to 60 per cent of sales of wool apparel.
China, Japan and other Asian markets, who incidentally are less concerned about the mulesing issue, would have had the other 40 per cent.
Latest anecdotal reports suggest European, North American and Japanese sales have halved, while Chinese demand has risen.
Former Woolmark analyst Chris Wilcox said it was likely most of the greasy wool bought for processing in China ended up in garments bought by Chinese consumers.
European and North American demand will recover says Peter Vandeleur, whose company, NewMerino, has been trying to build direct supply lines with key Western retailers.
Back in the auction rooms, there is a consensus that for prices to lift the AWEX Eastern Market Indicator to over 1000c/kg clean, the market is going to to need all the help it can muster.
The pro-mulesing lobby says that if the trade was fair dinkum about mulesing, it should begin paying a premium in the auction.
That's a nonsense. The auction never pays premiums, but rather, discounts for wool in lesser demand.
Last week PETA demanded Australia develop a timeline for using genetics to solve the mulesing issue. AWI scrambled immediately to report its investment in genetics was on the way to meeting the PETA demand. That is not exactly correct.
The current AWI board has been very negative to the mulesing issue during the past 18 months.
It attempted to curtail AWI's $10 million seven-year contract for genetic research with the Sheep Co-operative Research Centre and reduced a $300,000 three-year commitment to the Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association to $100,000.
Last week the Australian Wool Exchange won a one-year grant of $164,750 from the Federal Government to establish a program to audit declarations regarding the mulesing status of clips. AWEX went to the Government because AWI - for reasons best known to itself - would not provide any funding.
That seems strange, when the board seems to be hell-bent on funding research in analgesia or painkillers for livestock.
Such research is a matter for the whole livestock sector, not just for the wool industry, which is already strapped for funds.
PETA and overseas retailers are demanding genetic answers and traceability of non-mulesed wool.
For the sake of the wool market, it is time AWI showed the world it is listening, acting and making ongoing funding commitments to genetic efforts.