Opinion: ‘The Irish beef industry will never be the same again’ – Dr. Paddy Wall

By Dr. Patrick (Paddy) Wall, professor of public health at University College Dublin.

One thing is clear from this current crisis; the Irish beef industry will never be the same again.

However, if we don’t find a resolution quickly we will all be losers and we will have no industry.

The factories and farmers will never love each other; but a compromise must rapidly be found if the sector is to survive.

We thought Brexit might wreck our beef industry, but it looks like collectively we are doing it ourselves.

The markets for beef are changing and Ireland has to respond if it’s going to remain a significant player on the global stage. There are plenty of global competitors seeking to do business with our international customers.

The 30-month cut-off was introduced at the height of the BSE crisis to restore consumer confidence and BSE is now over.

However, the 30-months [criterion] has become entrenched in the ‘customer specification’ of many retailers; the recent Chinese visitors stipulated that they only want under-30-month beef.

Over-30-month cattle have to be boned out and these regulations will have to be changed if it’s to become equivalent and as valuable as under-30-month beef.

Getting final customers to include it [over-30-month] in their specifications is a further challenge.

Consumption patterns

Beef as a product is under challenge in the media, with a perception getting traction that eating too much beef is bad for you. As a result, the demand is now for smaller portions. So monster steaks and roasts may become a thing of the past.

Consumption patterns are further changing with people seeking more convenience, which mitigates against the more expensive primal cuts.

Burgers, mince and diced products sit under the convenience umbrella and, alas, this manufacturing beef doesn’t command the highest price in the market place

Some argue that for efficiency, the focus should be on improved genetics, early maturing breeds and smaller carcasses – which is a different model of farming than producing monster older continental cattle.

It is possible to finish cattle at a very young age if you drive them with meal, but the cost of inputs are high.

However, some beef farmers are managing grass, like their dairy farming neighbours, and finishing cattle earlier without savage meal bills. As the cheapest form of nutrition, this approach would benefit those farmers with suitable land blocks.

The situation is becoming more complicated as dairy herds are all getting scanned in the next few weeks and all the empty ones will be factory bound – so there will be a glut of cows filling boning halls when the factories open.

Finally, we need to sort out the immediate problem and focus all minds on a post-Brexit support package for rural Ireland, and also position farmers as a solution to climate change rather than a cause of the problem.

Farming practice can be optimised to sequester carbon and farmers could be financially incentivised to do so. For example, hedgerows sequester 50% more carbon than trees.

Ireland is not going to meet its 2020 climate change targets and we are likely to spend €500 million buying carbon credits, which is madness when the livestock farmers of Ireland could provide an ongoing solution.

There is €2 billion of EU funds available for activities in the areas of: soil health and food; and climate change – Ireland should be devising strategies to draw down a proportion of these funds.

So we need to resolve the current impasse and devote our time and energy to debating creative solutions to keep rural Ireland vibrant.

Dr. Wall was the first CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) which was established in 1999 in response to the BSE crisis. Dr. Wall also chaired the UK Food Standard Agency’s Steering Group which oversaw the modification of BSE controls in the UK in response to the changing disease threat.

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