Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Update on Schmallenberg virus

Schmallenberg virus, which the latest DEFRA figures show has affected 83 holdings in 14 English counties (as of 27 February) as well as a number of our European neighbours, has gained significant coverage in the mainstream media in recent days.

It will take some time to see the true impact of the spread of this disease, but it is good to see the public take an interest in this virus which is clearly having an effect on livestock production business and profitability in affected areas.

It is, however, very important that consumers get the message loud and clear that Schmallenberg has no impact on human health as it is not transmissible to humans through either meat or dairy products. This was confirmed in a European Commission statement ratified by member states last month, and reiterated this week by the Food Standards Agency. Unfortunately this aspect is something which many news sources have failed to highlight.

Sheep farms are so far bearing the brunt of the virus, accounting for 78 of the confirmed cases (the remaining five are cattle). Anecdotal evidence suggests that in affected flocks mortality rates among new born lambs range from 5% to 20%.

It is too early in the lambing season to determine whether the virus will have a significant effect on supply, however we are obviously monitoring this emerging issue with concern. We cannot underestimate the impact of Schmallenberg on the farmers whose animals are affected, but all that can be done is being done and the industry is better prepared than ever to cope with the impact of a disease outbreak.

More information and guidance regarding the Schmallenberg virus can be found on the DEFRA website.

Over the next few days we will be producing a dedicated section on the EBLEX website where sheep and beef farmers will find links to all the latest information.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Farmers get social at NFU 2012

The NFU Conference came to town this week, with over 1,000 farmers and key industry stakeholders from around the country descending on the ICC in Birmingham for the first time.

Anyone who has attended the conference will know that it is a great advertisement for agriculture: a well-run and professional event with some heavyweight speakers which puts farming on a par with any other major UK industry.

Although the amount of tweed and corduroy on display may have done little to change people’s preconceptions about farmers, the way that organisers and delegates embraced new and social media certainly did.

Those who weren’t able to be at the event could watch all of the main conference sessions from the comfort of their armchair through the live streaming on the NFU website, accompanied by lively commentary on Twitter on all aspects of the conference from the finer points of European Commission Agriculture Commissioner Dacian CioloĊŸ’s presentation on the CAP to the pattern of Agriculture Minister Jim Paice’s socks (stripey apparently).

The fact that on the first day of the conference #NFU12 was trending at number two in the UK on Twitter, meaning it was the second most talked about subject on Twitter after Pancake Day, is testament to how the agricultural community has engaged with social media, and the buzz that the industry can create when everyone is focussed on the same thing.

Economist Sean Rickard caused some controversy in the conference’s final question and answer session when he called for farmers to stand up and speak for one of the most vital industries in the country, but the point he was making was a valid one: If we don’t sell our industry, then why should anyone do it for us?

Events such as the NFU conference and the campaigns talked about in last week’s blog - The steak bouquet and the value of great PR – all play their part in shaping public opinion of our industry. We need to use all the tools at our disposal to convince consumers that UK agriculture is worthy of their support and, most importantly, their investment.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The steak bouquet and the value of great PR

The story of the Valentine's Day steak bouquet really captured the public imagination this week, with the meaty gift creating a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, as well as gaining coverage in the media.

Created by Tewkesbury-based Quality Standard butcher Anthony Bowness as an alternative to the traditional dozen red roses, the beef bouquet even gets a mention in the Daily Telegraph. The tasty treat has divided the population, with reactions ranging from ‘awesome’ to ‘ewww’, but at least it got people talking.

This may be a bit of fun, but the importance of great public relations stories like this to the meat industry should not be overlooked. The tough economic climate means we must do what we can to ensure that people continue the meat-eating habit. Added to that, there are plenty of groups out there who would rather we didn’t eat meat, for reasons related to climate change, animal welfare, health or many others.

There are plenty of groups and individuals out there who are already doing a great job of promoting the industry. Yorkshire-based butcher John Penny and Sons recently launched the ‘Meat Crusade’, communicating to consumers the benefits of shopping at their local butcher.

Another example is Ladies in Beef, a country-wide network of female beef farmers formed to drive awareness of the quality and versatility of British beef. Their annual event, the Great British Beef Week, gives the industry the opportunity to make a concerted push to promote British beef consumption.

And we shouldn't forget Meat Trade Journal's National Butchers Week, which gives the butchery sector a fantastic platform to promote their trade to consumers. There are plenty of others out there of course – unfortunately we can’t mention you all!

PR is no longer exclusively the domain of expensive agencies. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook mean that the tools to communicate with the public are accessible to everyone. And, most importantly, at zero cost.

This industry is full of people who believe passionately in what they do and have fantastic knowledge and skills that they should be proud of. Hopefully initiatives like these will give consumers a much better understanding of where their meat comes from and give them plenty of good reasons to choose quality, farm assured beef and lamb.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Livestock production and the curse of the zombie statistics

It is unfortunate that in recent years, the livestock production sector has been a scapegoat for climate change. The furore really reached fever pitch just before the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 when we seemed beset on all sides by those suggesting cutting livestock numbers was the key to solving the ills of greenhouse gases. “Stop eating meat and save the planet” became the mantra. This was not helped by The Times (mis) quoting Lord Stern of Brentford, author of the 2006 Stern Review on tackling global warming, as saying: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. A vegetarian diet is better.”

The fact that he challenged them on the accuracy of the reporting of that comment (the original story was on p1 – his letter saying he was misquoted was printed two days later on p41) is irrelevant because people today still quote that initial story at and it will still come to light if a journalist or researcher is using an internet search to find back ground on livestock and climate change. The story keeps coming back to haunt us, despite being discredited.

A phrase has been coined for this type of story – or more often facts and figures – “zombie statistics”. We seem to suffer from them more than most in the beef and sheep sector so we thought we would use this blog to set straight two of the most belligerent ones in the hope of providing some sort of balance to future debate.

“The livestock sector is … responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents. This is a higher share than transport.” This came from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

This figure – and the comparison to transport – is still regularly regurgitated by those for whom it serves a purpose, despite serious flaws in the methodology. According to a report by Dr Frank Mitloehner, renowned expert on agricultural air quality and animal-environmental interactions, the lifecycle emissions associated with livestock (a cradle-to-grave examination of the industry that takes into account everything from the fertiliser used in growing feed to the methane burps of cattle) and the direct emissions of the transportation industry as calculated by the IPCC (the burning of fossil fuels as independent from everything else, including extracting the oil from the ground, manufacturing the cars, etc.) were two very different studies. They are therefore not comparable.

This point was conceded by the FAO when the agency’s livestock policy officer, Pierre Gerber, told the BBC. “We factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport.” The report is flawed. A revised report is expected this year and early indications are that the livestock figure will be well under 10 per cent. In the interim, an EU study concluded that livestock contributions were around 9.1 per cent of all emissions.

You only need to look at the story last weekend in the Independent on Sunday which again looked at this issue in isolation and compared livestock production unfavourably with transport’s GHG output to see that this myth continues to live on after death. It is still used on the Meat Free Mondays website, one of many single issue pressure groups encouraging people to eat less meat.

Another high profile stat is that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. Other studies suggest different figures, but all are quite staggering. When figures are quoted relating to the UK, then UK figures should be used throughout. EBLEX’s own research, which informed the Testing the Water report, the second chapter in our ongoing environmental roadmap work, showed it takes just 67 litres of “blue” water to produce 1kg of beef. Blue water is water taken from a piped source, effectively taken from the water supply that could have been used for something else. It is therefore misleading to cite such zombie stats as the 10,000-litre figure when discussing meat production in the UK.

So beware the figures from beyond the grave and please do what you can to set straight those who continue to breathe life into dead stats.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Mapping the industry’s environmental impact

When the beef and sheep environmental roadmap project was launched in 2008, its aim was to deliver a better understanding of the environmental challenges facing the industry and to develop messages on practical ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the sector.

Nearly four years into the work – and make no mistake this is an ongoing project – we have just launched the third chapter of our roadmap, Down to Earth. Together with the first two instalments, Change in the Air and Testing the Water, the roadmaps should be viewed as a single cohesive document, examining a broad range of issues connected to the overall carbon hoofprint of the English beef and lamb sector and giving us a far better understanding of the problems and how we can address them.

This includes not only the direct contribution of emissions from livestock but covers energy and water use, economic returns, landscape and biodiversity value and waste in the supply chain.

We have a target of reducing emissions by 11% by 2020. The research we have completed and the target efficiency levels we have included in the roadmap work are steering the industry towards this. There is no quick fix though, and the very lifecycle and nature of the animals we raise means change cannot happen overnight.

The information in the first two chapters of the roadmap has become a widely-quoted, authoritative source on the carbon footprint of the beef and lamb production sector, not just in England but in the wider UK, Europe and even further afield.

However, if we truly want to reduce the carbon footprint of the beef and lamb industry we must look beyond the farm gate and examine each element of the supply chain, from farm to fork. For this reason, Down to Earth includes contributions from the retailers which show not only the diverse range of approaches to tackling the carbon footprint but also a willingness to improve and a desire to share good practice. Every link in the chain shares a common goal: a healthy, sustainable and profitable beef and lamb industry.

Climate change remains one of the biggest challenges for our sector. As acknowledged in the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, sector roadmaps, such as this one and those produced by other AHDB divisions, are important vehicles for changing practices to improve production efficiency. We remain as committed as ever to research that highlights the key drivers to efficiency and delivers practical measures that can help producers, processors and all others in the beef and sheep meat supply chain reduce our environmental impact.