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Beef knocks milk from our agricultural sector top spot

THE beef market is changing in surprising ways. Cattle production, buoyed by higher beef prices, has regained its position as the most important sector of Irish agriculture. In 2012, it accounted for just over 30pc of the value of gross agricultural output and pushed milk production – which had held the leading spot in previous years– into second place.

Around 92pc of the beef produced is exported, contributing €1.9 billion to export earnings last year. This accounted for around 21pc of the value of total food and drinks exports. Irish beef is sold to more than 30 countries, but the great majority of these exports go to other EU countries.

The increased sale of Irish beef through European supermarkets has been one of the great marketing successes in recent years.

Per capita, beef consumption in Europe has stabilised over the past decade – and with very limited population growth – the overall market in the EU is not expected to show much improvement.

Under the Food Harvest 2020 targets, the aim of a 50pc increase in the value of cattle output by 2020, compared to 2005, is expected to come about largely due to higher prices, with the volume of cattle output not projected to be very different in 2020 compared to 2005.

Nonetheless, even maintaining the position of Irish beef in supermarkets across Europe will be no easy challenge. Bord Bia research has shown that environmental sustainability is becoming an increasingly important business issue for food and drink customers globally.

What is meant by the term 'sustainability' varies depending on the market or customer in question. For some, it is about food safety, traceability and quality; for others, it is about emissions or resource efficiency; while some believe the focus should be on issues such as animal welfare.

Bord Bia has developed a series of sustainability initiatives designed to document and improve the green credentials of Irish beef. At farm level, sustainability indicators are now included in its Beef and Lamb Quality Assurance Scheme which allows an assessment of the emissions performance of individual farms. Almost 40,000 farms have taken part in this assessment to date. Using the Farm Carbon Navigator tool developed by Teagasc, feedback is given to farmers on how to improve their emissions performance. Bord Bia has recognised that sustainability goes beyond just measuring greenhouse gas emissions and intends, in future, to examine areas such as biodiversity and water use.

Meat consumption globally is expected to double between now and 2050. Many worry that the consequence of increasing demand is the use of crops to feed livestock rather than humans; around one-third of the global production of cereals now goes to feeding livestock.

Livestock production is also criticised because of the demands it makes on finite supplies of land, water and energy – as well as its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to deforestation.

However, it is vital to make a distinction between beef produced from grass-based production systems and grain-fed beef. Irish beef is mainly produced on land which is not particularly suitable for grain production.

Grass-fed beef is thus complementary rather than competitive with other sources of food supply. Sustainability indicators may not all point in the same direction and there may be trade-offs.

Defenders of intensive grain-fed livestock systems argue that an advantage of grain finishing is that cattle get to the slaughterhouse sooner and thus produce less methane. However, pasture-based beef production has the potential to offset emissions through carbon sequestration in soils.

These controversies underline the importance of establishing the factual basis for sustainability claims as well as being able to demonstrate progress towards sustainability goals in marketing Irish beef.

The good news is that measures that enhance the environmental performance of farms typically also deliver economic benefits through lower costs of production.

Alan Matthews is professor emeritus at Trinity College Dublin

Irish Independent