Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sheep event

This week, the nation’s sheep farmers descended on Malvern for the 2014 Sheep Event at the Three Counties Showground.  Taking place against the backdrop of the stunning nearby Malvern Hills, the ongoing debate around lamb prices and the supermarkets’ role in the farmgate price were clearly front-of-mind for many.

EBLEX sector director Nick Allen took part in a panel seminar on the outlook for the sheep industry, with Charles Sercombe, NFU National Livestock Board chairman, and Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive.  It marked the launch of the inaugural Sheep Vision Report, a joint publication from the NFU and NSA that assesses the current state of the industry and where priorities lie moving forward.  Nick said he wanted to see more transparency in market information for farmers, something that was echoed by those in the audience, given the concerns raised during the question and answer session. 

Early questions focused on the difference between what supermarkets pay and what they charge for lamb. panel recognised that this was a frustration for farmers, and outlined the work being done to challenge it, but also the fact that supermarkets answer to their shareholders, and not the English agricultural industry.

The rest of the EBLEX team were in their usual spot in Avon Hall, with a range of interactive displays to share the latest industry information and research with visitors.  One of the most popular was Monarch of the Glen, a ram that had been painted with his Estimated Breeding Values (EBV), to help visitors understand the way and reason why EBVs are determined.

Other features on the stand included a cool wall, virtual programme, Signet scanning exhibition, liver fluke demonstration and a chiller unit with four carcases, which formed a carcase selection competition for the NSA that received over 100 entries.  There were also two pens of lambs, one for the national young shepherds’ competition and the other containing lambs for discussion.  The combination of features proved popular with visitors as the stand was packed-out all day and the Signet team received a record number of enquiries. 

The real reward for the team was when the judges announced that the EBLEX stand won the award for Best Indoor Trade Stand.  Katie Brian, EBLEX’s Better Return Programme project manager, was presented with the award and said: “It’s great to receive this award as it means the people who judge it, which are levy payers, like what we’re doing.”

If you couldn’t make it to Sheep Event 2014, be sure to check out our YouTube channel, EBLEX TV, as a host of short informative films from the show will soon be available.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Beef production and the environment: the truth behind the headlines

The beef industry was back in the media for all the wrong reasons this week, with several British newspapers running articles about a US study which claims that beef production is 10 times more damaging to the environment than production systems involving other livestock. Some of the most attention-grabbing headlines have focused on the land and water requirements of beef production, with the study finding that it requires 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than other types of livestock production.

It’s easy to see why the study caught the attention of the British media as the results make compelling and disturbing reading, particularly when accompanied by carefully-selected images of cattle squeezed into arid feed lots.

However, I’m sure we at EBLEX HQ weren’t alone in reacting with frustration and possibly uttering a few choice words about this latest critique of beef production, which painted a picture of a resource-hungry global industry with little regard for the consequences of its actions.

Broadening the conclusions of a study such as this out to a global level fails to acknowledge important differences between production systems around the world. Most of the coverage included a line about how, while the study is based on US data, its findings are equally applicable to Europe. But, even within the confines of a single continent, the diverse range of climates and terrains means that any conclusions are going to be an over-simplification at the very least.

In the UK we primarily graze ruminants to convert grass, which cannot be used to feed people, into nutritious food for our growing population. In many cases these animals occupy areas of farmland which couldn’t be used to grow other crops, meaning that livestock rearing is the only way this land can be productive. And our rain-fed pasture system means we have very little reliance on irrigation; In fact it takes just 67 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.

There are also additional environmental benefits of grazing cattle and sheep, not least in terms of landscape management and maintaining biodiversity, as well as the ability of permanent pasture to capture and store carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

That’s not to say that we as an industry aren’t acutely aware of our environmental impact or our responsibility to reduce it. EBLEX, in addition to producing a three-part environmental roadmap geared towards practical ways of reducing the industry’s environmental footprint, funds numerous research and development projects in the area of climate change. We're also involved in the industry-led Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP), together with the other AHDB sectors. As evidence of the effectiveness of the GHGAP, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has now reported that the agriculture sector is on track to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets set by Government. 

The true picture of beef’s environmental impact is complex and nuanced – in short, not the sort of thing that makes for a good newspaper story. However, one thing consumers can be certain of is that while they continue buying quality assured beef from England, they’re supporting one of the most efficient and sustainable livestock production systems in the world.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How increased international trade in beef and lamb can help feed the world population?

Following the recent World Meat Congress, guest blogger Audrey Moulierac, from the AHDB office in Brussels, takes a look at some of the issues raised.

As delegates from around the world gathered to discuss the challenges ahead for the global meat industry – during the 20th session of the World Meat Congress held in Beijing from 14 to 16 June – the question of the sector’s responsibility in feeding a growing world population needed to be addressed. Latest estimates indeed show that the world will need an extra 60 per cent of animal-based proteins by 2050.

When tackling food security and the sustainability of agriculture, it seems more and more obvious that we moved from a paradigm where meat was referred to as part of the problem to one where it has become part of the solution.

Even speakers from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) acknowledged the importance of the livestock sector, which employs over 1.3 billion people around the world and provides a livelihood for 1 billion of the poorest people.

How can the meat industry take part in feeding the 9 billion then? The main answer heard at the Congress – although not the only one – was trade.

The way forward to tackle food availability is to push for free trade, not just for production, stressed Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. While many delegates agreed, adding that worldwide trade barriers should be dismantled and that only science-based barriers were acceptable, it was clear that there is no quick fix.

Obviously, pushing for increased trade with a country like China will bring direct benefits, not least of which, as it was highlighted on several occasions, is the fact that developed countries have saturated markets and the EU and the US are increasingly dependent on China for carcase valuation.

It was no surprise then that China, host of this Congress on “Balanced Development of Global Meat Production and Trade”, should be the centre of attention. Because of its increasing share in the world’s meat demand, China is set to becoming a major influencer in the global meat market. China’s meat demand already represents about 40 per cent of overall global demand and will keep rising due to its growing middle class, urbanisation and changing eating habits.

But the Chinese meat industry cannot currently guarantee supply, in particular for beef and sheep meat. Cattle and sheep herds are declining in China, as significant restructuring is taking place and in the recent years the country has been increasingly dependent on imports. Many Chinese delegates therefore highlighted the importance of international trade, not only to meet the growing meat demand but also to address the declining breeding stock. They advocated throughout the Congress for an increased international cooperation, in particular for assistance on food safety standards, a major concern in China – and asked that their country increases its level of openness and tackles barriers to trade.

Closing the last session of the Congress, Neil Fraser, chair of the FAO-led Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock initiative, picked up on the discussions on international trade and cooperation. With the diversity of production systems around the world, he concluded, there is no single answer to sustainability in the livestock sector but a need for collective, global action.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Technology on farms

It may be one of the oldest and last-standing manual industries, but farming is embracing modern technology to find evermore inventive ways to assist both farmers and consumers.

This week, Morrisons and Tescos were the latest supermarkets to launch high-tech initiatives, joining the likes of McDonalds, the NFU and of course EBLEX.  Morrisons became the latest in line to offer a mobile app for beef cattle farmers to help them with livestock management, with a feature enabling users to register cattle births, deaths and movements.  Farmers that supply beef to Morrisons can also use the app to automatically generate the Food Chain Information Declaration required by all farmers sending livestock to slaughter.

Tesco’s offering is aimed at consumers rather than producers, particularly school children, to help them understand the source of their food.  Known as ‘virtual field trips’, the innovation sees hundreds of school children from around the country link up with a live farm over an interactive video feed and given a tour of the facility by the farmers.  Tesco also provides the schools taking part with food produce from the farm so the children can make a physical link between the farms and the packets they see on the shelf.

The idea was developed in response to a survey that suggests that 20% of teachers have arranged fewer field trips this year than last, and three quarters of primary school teachers see cost as a barrier to taking children on farm visits.

In Australia, McDonalds has well and truly bridged the gap between consumer and farmer, by launching Track my Macca (the Australian nickname for the restaurant chain).  The smartphone app allows customers to scan their burger box and find out where the meat was sourced and then processed, before being cooked on site.

Anyone who visited Livestock Event 2014 at the NEC in Birmingham last week (we were there) will have noticed an increasing number of businesses offering digital tools and technology, evidence indeed that the farming industry is embracing innovation. 

Looking further afield than our shores, New Zealand sheep farmers are increasingly using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as drones, to keep a remote eye on their flocks and grass growth. 

The UK Government has also got involved with this scramble for technology, announcing a £160million investment as part of the Agricultural Technologies Strategy, which aims to develop cutting edge technologies and innovative products in response to the global demand for food rising so rapidly.

Which of the emerging army of robots, drones, virtual visits and apps pass the test of time and prove markedly beneficial to English beef and sheep farmers remains to be seen, but by embracing technology as it emerges the industry is banishing the tired stereotype of the ‘yokel’ farmer chewing a piece of straw on a swinging gate!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Export conference showcases global potential of beef and lamb sector

The Beef and lamb sector’s role as a global player came into sharp focus at the 10th annual EBLEX Export Conference.

Opened by Food and Farming Minister George Eustice, the event drew a large number of delegates and considerable media interest, with journalists invited to ask him questions on the opportunities for the sector, the challenges it faces and how it can meet them.

The conference has become a key fixture in the industry calendar, an opportunity for leading players to network and for us to showcase what we’ve been doing and what the next steps are.

Developing export markets for our beef and lamb remains one of the cornerstones of EBLEX’s work. We now have access to 91 markets for beef and 102 for lamb and continue to work with government, UKTI and other industry stakeholders to help maximise the potential global export markets offer.

The overarching message from the Minister last week was a positive one. Outlining the positive role the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has to play, he cited very good long-term prospects for the future of the British beef and sheep industry. Encouragingly, Mr Eustice added that: “British produce is seen as a premium product around the world. There’s going to be growing demand for British beef and British lamb. That creates export opportunities.”

While we don’t yet have access to China for ruminants, Defra recently announced that negotiations to secure market access are underway. Welcome news, although it is very early days and likely to be a lengthy process. With the Far East very much in mind, delegates were also given an insight into trends in Asia, with an emphasis on the importance of authenticity and newness as key factors in attracting consumers to products. They also heard about next year’s Milan Expo, which will focus on food and sustainability and how the industry needs to think creatively to promote our food and drink.

Overall, the conference highlighted the many positives on the exports front for the beef and lamb industry, including the huge global opportunities and how the UK could be the main beneficiary of increased imports of beef and lamb to France. Of course, there’s always more that can be done to maximise export potential, but there’s no doubt we’re moving in the right direction. As EBLEX chairman John Cross summed up: “No global opportunity should be missed by the industry. Our mission is straightforward. If we are going to thrive, it must be on our strengths – quality and provenance.”

Presentations and videos from the event can be found in the events section of the EBLEX website by clicking here.