The last year has seen major changes made to the political, economic and legislative landscape within which beef and lamb in Northern Ireland operate, as both farming and food sectors.
Brexit is now a reality and with it has come the additional complexity of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The challenges associated with climate change are now front and centre in terms of the political processes currently unfolding at Stormont. At the very heart of this unfolding dialogue is the need to deliver acceptable climate change legislation.
Consequences for beef and lamb in NI
Recent weeks have seen the completion of the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow. While farming was not a ‘bespoke‘ item on the COP26 agenda, the downstream impact of the decisions taken at the event for livestock farming are pretty obvious.
Chief among these was the decision to reduce net globaL methane emissions over the next decade. And, of course, COP27 is only 11 months away.
The discussion to develop new, post-Brexit support measures for the beef and lamb sectors is now in full flow, with policy instruments and schemes being devised that will shape livestock farming in Northern Ireland for the next generation.
The week leading up to Christmas saw Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, launching a public consultation that will kick start a debate on how best agriculture in Northern Ireland can be supported in the post Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) era.
And, no doubt, the detailed schemes required to make this happen will be thrashed out over the coming weeks. But this is all about money.
Funding for agriculture
An annual funding budget of around £300 million will be available to make this happen up to 2025.
Farmers throughout Northern Ireland will be very aware of the more than positive developments in market prices that have characterised the year that was 2021.
But as the year ends, the spectre of increased feed, fertiliser, energy and so many other input costs, has reared its head to dampen the margins that can be achieved from the various beef and lamb production enterprises.
And no doubt, this is a story that will continue to play out in 2022.
Throughout all of this, the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) has had a central role in framing the debates that have played out while also taking action on behalf of Northern Ireland beef and sheep producers and processors, when required.
As we come to the end of 2021 the commission’s chief executive, Ian Stevenson, has taken some time out to reflect on the year that was for beef and lamb in Northern Ireland.
He specifically focused on the impact these developments had made at farm and wider supply chain level, while also giving his perspectives on how affairs may well further develop during the year ahead.
As you will see, a selection of ‘V’ words has featured prominently in his thoughts.
Stevenson pointed out that 2021 has been a busy year for veterinary issues.
He explained: “The new Trade and Cooperation Agreement reached by the EU and UK dominated much of the news agenda for the year, with the practical implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol taking centre stage.
“Throughout the period, the challenges posed by new export certification, customs and SPS [Sanitary and Phytosanitary] requirements plus the sterling efforts of vets operating at Northern Ireland’s ports to keep goods flowing in and out of Northern Ireland, were issues that continually rose to the top of the news agenda.
“TB was a major talking point during 2021, with Minister Poots consulting on a new TB strategy. If implemented, it will see badgers being actively controlled in hot spot areas and new measures being taken to improve biosecurity and make greater use of blood testing.”
Viruses and variants
The year started off with many businesses closed or operating at very limited levels due to high numbers of Covid-19 cases in the population, forcing government to implement strict lockdowns on society after the 2020 Christmas period.
Stevenson further explained: “This was a particularly challenging time for the hotel, hospitality and catering sectors, which only really started to open up again in the spring time. A big challenge that has been faced by the sector since reopening is the shortage of available labour, which is being felt in many sectors including agri-food.
“The year has ended with a new variant of Covid-19 called Omicron dominating the news agenda and many unknowns about its severity and implications.”
According to the LMC representative, Covid-19 wasn’t the only virus that created issues for the global meat industry.
“African Swine Fever, or ASF, has posed major challenges not just in Asia but in several European countries,” Stevenson continued.
“ASF has been one of the main driving forces of global meat trade with China, in particular importing huge volumes of all meats to make up protein shortfalls as a consequence of massive culls in their domestic pig herds.
“Avian flu is another challenging virus impacting the Northern Ireland poultry sector as we approach the end of 2021.”
Volatility for beef and lamb markets
Ian also confirmed that, while beef and lamb prices have been very strong for most of 2021, the volatility in global commodity markets has been driving up production costs at farm and factory level.
Enhanced labour, transport, fuel, fertiliser and feed costs are all eating into supply chain margins at the present time.
Value of face-to face engagement:
Balmoral Show 2021 kick-started a resumption of face-to-face engagements with many meetings, conferences and dinners being held through the autumn and early winter of 2021.
Stevenson said: “It is very important to engage with people in a physical environment as so much more can be learned from each other than through a virtual call on the internet.
“The City Meat Lecture in London was the only event I attended off the island of Ireland since February 2020, and it was great to re-engage with so many colleagues from the UK meat industry and catch up on so many issues that we are all collectively working on.”
Recent years have seen January being characterised as the ‘so called’ month of ‘veganuary’. In essence, this is a manifestation of the vegan lobby trying to up the ante to try and encourage consumers to switch away from livestock-based foods and products.
Ian Stevenson pointed out that 2021 was marked by a significant reduction in the traction gained by the vegan movement throughout the year.
He explained: “Meat was in good demand throughout the whole of 2021 as consumers cooked more at home and reignited their love affair with local quality assured beef and lamb.”
Verification and validation
A large part of 2021 was dominated by climate change with the UN COP26 event being held in Glasgow during November. While agri-food didn’t feature heavily on the agenda at COP26, it is now clear that the agriculture and food industries have a huge part to play in the road to ‘net zero’.
The LMC chief executive commented:
“What this means in practical terms is that our farming and food sectors must get much better at measuring, monitoring and improving on everything that we do from soil to plate to drive efficiency and productivity.
“Verification and validation of our sustainability credentials is an absolute necessity in the months and years to come.
“Locally our politicians must focus on the science and evidence that they are being presented with to agree climate change legislation that enables our industry to meet the challenge and opportunity of climate change, not a bill that simply takes the rug from under our feet.”
Volume of beef and lamb
It probably came as a great surprise to many people just how important the Northern Ireland agri-food industry is to the domestic food security of the UK and other neighbouring nations.
“We produce enough food calories in Northern Ireland to feed 10 million people,” said Ian Stevenson.
“This must be protected as we move forward with new agriculture and environmental policies in Northern Ireland and as the Westminster government bends over backwards to secure international trade deals that so far have had little to offer the UK agriculture and food industry.”