Where's The Beef?

28th August 2009

The beef industry, once a pride of English farming, is in trouble. The national herd is in slow but serious decline, and we are importing more of our beef from abroad. Why should anyone care?

Jack Watkins finds out.

One of the happiest farmers it was my pleasure to meet, earlier in this decade, lived in a remote part of Exmoor. As we drove up the high-banked roads that climbed to the farmhouse, a dark, long-corridored, timber-beamed affair that sat at the top of the hill like something out of Lorna Doone, he told me that he’d spent his entire life in the area, his only visits to London occurring during the Royal Smithfield Show, for which he would load some livestock into his van and set off on the long journey to exhibit them.

He proudly showed me his beef herd, comprised of North Devons – known as Red Rubies for their wine-red coats – whose bloodlines went back to the early 20th century, when his father ran the farm. I met his son, who shared his father’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the animals, and his fervent belief that these old native breeds – slowly raised on grass so that the meat had a tender quality lacking in many supermarket products – still had a place in modern farming. Then, as we ate in the kitchen, the farmer’s wife told me of the frightening experience they had endured a few months previously – this was not long after the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth – watching smoke from the slaughter pyres of diseased cattle on neighbouring farms rising above the hills, wondering if theirs would be next.

Such family farms as this have always been the lifeblood of the industry, its human face, its link with the past, its reminder that for every arrogant, greedy, and destructive farmer, there are hosts of good, hard-working ones, not accruing vast profits perhaps, but making a real contribution to the local economy, and to our choice in food.

However, the future for such middle-sized family farms is looking increasingly grim, and for those whose main specialisation has been beef, the going is getting increasingly tough. Beef, of course, was once a cornerstone of our farming, with an international reputation. The last ‘golden age’ was a brief period in the early 1990s, when the country was a net exporter, with figures hitting a historic high in 1995. But the following year brought the BSE crisis, which quickly led to a ban on cattle over thirty months old entering the food chain. Exporting on a significant scale resumed only in 2006 and, while it is recovering, remains at less than half of what it was fifteen years ago.

To some extent the recovery of export trade is being hindered by the strength of the pound to the euro. But it also owes something to domestic beef consumption. According to a new report by EBLEX, the body funded by levy-paying cattle and sheep producers to deliver knowledge transfer and to market the sector, British consumers have completely rediscovered their taste for beef, with the total figure for beef products purchased now 12% higher than it was in 1990.

Why, then, should we fear for beef farmers? Surely prospects are rosier than they have been for years? They have seen off BSE and Foot-and-Mouth, and the food marketing buzzwords of recent years have been farmers’ markets, and the championing of local and British products, a bandwagon that even the likes of Tesco and Asda have been keen to jump upon.

According to the report, however, the harsh reality is that our beef industry is in a ‘slow steady decline’. Rising costs for producers are not being matched, let alone exceeded, by returns from the market place; although prices are actually higher at present than they have been in years, the market has been depressed for so long, that in real terms they are still below what they were in 1990. Sagging profit levels mean young men and women no longer want to inherit the farms of their parents, and potential new recruits to the industry are less likely to view it as a viable career. The decline of the national breeding herd means the revival in customer demand for beef products is not resulting in a bonanza for home producers. Instead, according to the report, we are importing increasing amounts from abroad.

Many consumers may not be much bothered by this. So long as the shelves are stocked, and the meat is reasonably priced, does it really matter whether the beef comes from Britain or overseas? But, as Nick Allen, senior regional manager of EBLEX, says: “Beef is in short supply across the world, so imports will not necessarily be cheaply available as they have been in the past. The other ongoing issue with imports is that if we are importing more, we are merely exporting a climate change problem.”

Debate about the role of cattle in climate change usually centres around the fact that they are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and so our western partiality to meat eating must be a Bad Thing. This is a complex issue, but the EBLEX report does make the point that, as a result of efficiencies, emissions from UK livestock production are on the decrease. This cannot be said for all of the countries we’re importing from, nor are these necessarily as well suited as we are to livestock production systems that don’t cause damage to their environment.

As Allen says: “Britain has a unique climate for growing grass and, even with climate change, this will continue. About 47% of the land is covered by grass. Without grazing livestock, the landscape and flora and fauna of the country would alter significantly, something that would affect everyone.”

This role of cattle farming, in actually promoting biodiversity, is well worth remembering. As we pass through the English countryside on summer holidays and wonder at the wonderful diversity of landscapes, changing rapidly between regions, it is all too easy to overlook the role of livestock faming in creating and maintaining its appearance and the balance of wildlife within it. Take the cattle – and the sheep – away, and the difference is noticed very quickly indeed.

Allen remains hopeful about the future of family faming, but I’m not so sure. Certainly, in the Home Counties and beyond, the recurring tale is of farms being sold off, or being incorporated into larger units, run by farm managers, turning into soulless affairs, devoid of the personal input and attachment to the land that you find on smaller farms.

Who’s to blame for the decline? Our governments for allowing the multiples too easy a ride? The welter of hygiene regulations that have made it impossible for small abattoirs and butchers to operate? Farmers themselves, for taking their ultimate customers, the public, for granted for too long? Or we the consumers, addicted to supermarkets and cheap food, and impervious to provenance? It’s a sad story, but the conclusion, says EBLEX, is that we are ‘sleep-walking’ to the irretrievable decline of a part of our food industry for which we British – les rosbifs, as the French like to characterise us on account of our partiality to traditional Sunday roast – have long been renowned.

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