Thursday, 28 August 2014

Green farming of red meat is not black and white

Since last week’s blog about part one of the BBC’s ‘Should I Eat Meat’ Horizon programme, part two has been broadcast – and once again the beef and sheep  industry has been left frustrated by sensational suggestiveness and blasé comparisons. 

The show did highlight the complexities surrounding the environmental sustainability of livestock production.

In case you missed it, part two focused on the environmental impact of producing the animals we need to feed the global population, including factors such as greenhouse gases, water usage and the effect on soil/earth. The show advertised that it would assess the worldwide impact of such farming, but given that it was broadcast to a UK audience, many were perhaps surprised to see so little of our production system and recognition of the many positives it brings.

One important area that the programme didn’t explore was the economics of livestock production. The fact is that wherever you look in the world, beef farmers are not making significant profits, and many are barely breaking even.

The programme almost presumed that, as the world population grows and demand increases, farmers will simply produce more.

The majority of people in this industry know that unless prices rise, farmers will have no incentive to produce more, as it would just add to their outlay. If, however, prices were to rise then demand would drop, cancelling out the theory that demand and production will grow hand-in-hand as the population expands.

The programme acknowledged that the UK is one of the most sustainable places in the world to raise cattle and sheep due to its low-impact grazing system, and the role that ruminant animals play in converting grass and other indigestible materials into nutritious food. Yet focus was clearly squared on any negative aspects they could find. 

Natural emissions, such as methane from cow belches, are a by-product of rumination and although it’s still an emerging area of research, there is a general consensus that grassland can offset these omissions to some extent. This was acknowledged in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beef and Lamb enquiry, titled: The Carbon Footprint of the Beef Cattle and Sheep Sector, which was published in May 2013 - although it didn’t get a mention on the Horizon programme.

The TV show no-doubt did what the programme makers intended, grabbing the attention of viewers and making them think about how their eating habits impact on the environment. But, it’s essential that any debate on sustainability considers profitability along with environmental impact to ensure a balanced dialogue is maintained.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Red meat in moderation is fine

It seems as though the dinner table can be a dangerous place these days. In recent years there have been numerous headlines screaming at us that everything from chips to grapefruit can cause cancer. 

In fact, if you’re reading this over a nice hot cup of tea, you might want to look away now, as even the humble cuppa has been accused of causing oesophageal cancer.

This week, it was the turn of red meat to come under scrutiny in a BBC Horizon programme called Should I Eat Meat? The Big Health Dilemma. The show followed Dr Michael Mosley as he went on a high-meat diet, doubling his usual red-meat intake to 130g per day for a month, to examine the effects.

To put that into context, 130g of red meat is equivalent to either a large doner kebab, a 6oz beef steak or a large ‘full English’ cooked breakfast. Every day. Now, I don’t know if you know anyone who eats a large doner kebab every day, but it is fair to say that a constant diet like that prompts certain physical changes in the human body.

But what do the industry experts say? The Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), made up of healthcare professionals, scientists and researchers, says that meat has been at the centre of the human diet since the dawn of mankind, and that studies on hunter-gatherer societies suggest that animal foods provided two thirds of daily energy intakes. MAP also suggests that our meat-needs vary at differing stages of life. For example teenagers, particularly girls, are low in vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium – all of which beef and lamb offer a rich supply of.

Dr Carrie Ruxton, an independent dietician and member of the panel, said of the scare stories linking meat with chronic diseases, that, “in many cases studies do not account for differences in fibre intakes or physical activity levels. Indeed, some studies have found no associations between red meat and cancer.”

Following the Horizon programme, Dr Ruxton added, “Dr Michael Mosley’s high-meat diet included lots of high fat and high calorie foods and we saw him enjoying accompaniments such as deep-fried onion rings, fries, cheese and white bread – which would have influenced the post-diet tests. And of course, if we double our intake of any food without making adjustments elsewhere, we will be inclined to put on weight.

Dr Mosley is, by his own admission, a fan of red meat, and was not setting out with an agenda to look for bad news. He explored both sides of the argument before coming to the conclusion that, essentially, everything is fine in moderation. Processed meats, such as bacon, ham and salami were shown to have a negative impact on health if more than 40g per day was eaten, but researchers found that eating moderate amounts of unprocessed red meat had no effect on mortality.

The show, which aired on Monday, was the first of a two-part series. The second part is set to go out at 9pm tonight (Wednesday, 20th August), and will look at the environmental impact of producing the animals we need to feed the global population.

No doubt the sensationalist stories suggesting that various food types cause various illnesses and cancers will continue. Perhaps the headlines should be taken in moderation too.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Minimal impact expected from Russia’s trade sanctions

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, English meat has now been inadvertently dragged into the fray.

This follows Russia’s announcement last week that it was to ban imports of fruit, vegetable, meat, fish and dairy products from the 28 countries of the EU, plus the USA, Canada, Norway and Australia, for one year.

This headline will no doubt have caused concern for many producers, and it certainly kept our press office busy, but many of those who got in touch were surprised to hear that the trade sanction is expected to have little or no impact on the UK market.

The reason for this is straightforward enough: the UK exports little or no red meat to Russia.

Those of you who are thinking “hang on a moment…” can be forgiven. You may well remember that in September 2013 the British beef industry was celebrating when it gained market access to Russia, the world’s second largest importer of fresh and frozen beef.

However, that never really had a chance to take off, because as companies began working on the logistics of exporting their produce, the first stirrings of trouble in the region flared up. This happened when the then Ukrainian president announced the abandonment of a trade union with the EU in exchange for closer ties with Russia. The people of Ukraine disagreed with this decision and launched into protest, and nine months later, here we are.

So, essentially, early in the UK’s trading process with Russia, activity ground to a halt as companies waited to see what happened.

The questions remain then: who will be hit by the sanctions? Will there be no impact on the UK?

Food imports into Russia are dominated by South American countries, which are not affected by the ban.  This is demonstrated by the fact that Brazil and Paraguay together accounted for 85% of beef imports to Russia between January and March this year. Russia actually sources very little beef from Europe, the main suppliers being Poland and Germany, but even those two supply very low volumes (2,400 tonnes each between January and April 2014).

Of course, the Polish, German and other countries’ beef that was previously destined for Russia could impact the UK, as the produce will be sent to other markets. However, aside from the fact the volumes are so low, it must be taken into account that the gap left in Russia’s market will need to be filled ­most likely by South American countries and that meat could well be diverted from the EU market.  So as one gap closes, another one opens.

The EBLEX Market Intelligence team has been looking at all angles of the trade ban to anticipate any potential bearing on the industry, and the summary remains that there is no anticipation of any huge impact. At worst, the projection is that it could cause a delay to beef prices recovering from their recent falls. But away from Russia, there is other market activity which offers a more positive outlook.

The forecast of lower production, increased exports and lower imports suggests that supplies available on the UK market next year are estimated to be lower than in 2014, meaning that the possibility of firmer prices is improved.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Consumers chew over air miles as they consider lamb options

Late last week we were approached by a producer from Farming Today, the Radio 4 early-morning show, to see if we could help them to answer a question which had been put to them by a listener. 

The individual in question had been listening to coverage of the recent farmer protests against Tesco, and as a result decided to head out to his local supermarket to make a point and buy some British lamb.  However, he was surprised to see that New Zealand lamb, which had travelled almost 11,000 miles, was cheaper. 

Therefore his question to Farming Today, which was then put to EBLEX, was: “How can lamb that has travelled 11,000 miles cost less than that which has travelled 50 miles.”

A representative from the Market Intelligence team spoke with the presenter for 15 minutes, explaining about the factors that enable New Zealand to do this, such as difference in flock sizes (average UK size 200 compared to average of 2,000 in New Zealand), hugely lower production, overhead and machinery costs for New Zealand farmers, and lower labour costs per ewe (this very subject was the inspiration for a blog we did just over a year ago). 

Mention was also made of carcase utilisation and the fact that lamb legs, which tend to make up the majority of imported NZ lamb meat, are not generally seen as a high value part of the carcase down under. The question was put to the market intelligence analyst; “what can British farmers do to compete with low-cost imported meat?” and the answer was straightforward enough. Continue to try and cut costs in order to be more competitive.

All-in-all it was a balanced interview that was broadcast on Friday as the larks were rising.  Understandably there were some British farmers listening who, given the many factors involved – not all of which were covered – and the fact that a lengthy interview had to be edited down to just a few minutes, were frustrated with the issue.

But there could be some good news on the horizon in this area, according to the latest EBLEX Outlook for the UK Sheep Market Bulletin.  It is well documented that this year farmers have seen a larger breeding flock and better lambing rates, meaning there is set to be plenty of produce available for the domestic market.  What’s more, in 2013, import volumes were tracking below year-earlier levels by the end of the year, a trend which is expected to continue for much of 2014 as supplies in New Zealand, in particular, are forecast to be tighter due to a combination of factors.

Another element to consider is that, although UK farmgate prices are currently lower than they were last year, largely on the back of increased supplies, the better seasonal conditions should have resulted in lower costs for farmers, especially relating to bought-in feed and home grown forage.

Additionally, with many producers expected to have increased lamb crops compared with last year, it is expected that the current lower prices should be offset by increased numbers to a large extent. With that in mind, overall income from sheep enterprises should remain firm.

Although market conditions are expected to be largely favourable, the price volatility that has characterised the trade in recent years is likely to remain.  This highlights and reinforces the fact that little can be done to control the price received at farmgate and that producers must look to control what they can. This basically means looking at maximising physical performance and minimising costs in order to weather market volatility. More on the cost of production work undertaken by EBLEX can be found on the EBLEX website.