Much is spoken and written about ‘grass-fed’ in Ireland? But how is/will the label be used?
Will ‘grass-fed’ be a characteristic of well-defined, linked-to-farming, designated-origin products or will it be a generic term used to promote all Irish meat and dairy? One expects the latter. And if so, will it meet consumer expectations when others use the term in a more defined way?
Crucially, will an all-encompassing ‘grass-fed’ label raise consumer perceptions to an extent that translates into a positive impact on farm-gate prices and farm incomes? Or will generic ‘grass-fed’ fall foul of strict definition rules or be replaced with labels like ‘pasture-fed’?
I recently visited a dairy farm eastern England. It had thirty-something Guernseys and added value to all its milk. Everything was sold directly to the consumer. It also used lucerne [alfalfa] as its primary forage. It is suited to drier tillage regions and it is a legume. Is it a sign of what we may see across Europe’s tillage regions?
If I was advising a tillage farmer I would be talking about reintegrating livestock back into the farming system. The reasons include improving soil health, raising organic matter levels, carbon sequestration, blackgrass control, fixing nitrogen and income diversity. It will become an increasingly compelling story and one that will change the supply side of milk and meat.
Although it is not a catchy label, I can see ‘legume-fed’, being a part of a broader ‘sustainable’ product story. As a development from ‘grass-fed’ and ‘legume-fed’, how about ‘herbage-fed’? The term ‘herbage’ encompasses many forages types and suggests biodiversity [trendy for the consumer]. ‘Herbage-fed’ then needs to be part of a holistic, designated-origin story that wraps itself around a multi-characteristic consumer-facing product.
Does ‘herbage-fed’ influence the eating experience associated with the product? Does the flavour relates to what the animal eats? From my experiences eating lamb from the biodiverse pastures in Transylvania, I would say that it does. For something closer to home, try Achill Mountain Lamb [www.AchillLamb.ie]. Or just ask a chef. Will they say that there is a link between pasture and flavour? Why else are so many French products tied to the ‘terroir’? Charolais beef, for example, reared under its home designated-origin scheme must be finished on specified, biodiverse pastures.
Irish Beef’s UK website makes the bold statement; “the flavour shows where the best grass grows”. But just how biodiverse is the typical Irish meadow, especially when reseeded with ryegrass and raised up on artificial nitrogen? There is a great variability in Ireland’s grasslands and can it weaken the genereic Irish beef story? Variability is the antithesis of what is required by the Bœuf de Charolles appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC] scheme in France.
It is also interesting to read that Irish cattle “boast a world-renowned pedigree”. That said, cross-breeding of the beef animal itself is the norm. By contrast, the French AOC schemes are usually breed specific; not least because that restricts supply and scarcity maintains price [a point that the ICSA has now grasped]. Sire-only breed schemes fail on this point. It is difficult not to conclude that the promotion of Irish beef is about talking-up the generic [‘grass-fed’ included] as opposed to beef products linked to specific breeds, locations and farming practices.
By and large, Ireland’s farmers operate in a business-to-business [B2B] environment. They supply processors and factories and do not sell direct B2C [business to consumer]. The B2B mindset pervades the farming and primary [the largely farmer-owned part] processing industry. It is about raw materials [aka commodities] and ingredients for others to process, to add value and to brand. In such an environment significantly improving farm incomes by adding value to premiumize the farm-gate price is near impossible. The value-added attributed to the final consumer-facing product tends to go elsewhere.
A quality assurance scheme has been rolled out over the last few years. In terms of farming participation, it is successful. In terms of consumer awareness in Ireland, it is successful. But does it return a premium price to the farmer?
For exports, is the QA scheme about B2B relations? Does it allow ingredient users and fast-food chains to tick the sustainability box? Does it allow major retailers to put on their label “produced on quality-assured farms”? Is it about ‘quality’ or ‘farm assurance’?
Does the QA scheme elevate the product onto a higher retail shelf? Does it even do so in Ireland? Or is the QA scheme logo found on products across the quality ranges from budget to premium? Are they all quality assured? If so, can there be a QA price premium? Or are we confusing ‘quality-assurance’ [as in QA systems] with ‘quality’ [as in eating quality]?
Should one have similar expectations for Origin Green? Is it a B2B or a B2C scheme? Is it aimed at raising the level of all Irish produce? Is the aim to help the farmer by enhancing export volumes? And will that translate into consumer-derived, farm-gate-price premiumization?
Ireland is successful at developing B2B QA schemes and it may be leading the World in doing so. But does the Irish family farm actually need to be the foundation stone for B2C, designated-origin, linked-to-farming-practices, eating-experience-enhancing products that can achieve market premiums that translate through to premiumized, farm-gate prices?
To come full circle, in Ireland, is the ‘grass-fed’ term about raising the profile of generic produce? As with the QA schemes is ‘grass-fed’ to be all inclusive? Is it again about ‘premiumizing’ commodities? Is it be about enhancing B2B relationships rather than creating the B2C relationships [and premium products] that the farmer needs?
To put it simply, to create a sustainable future for itself, Irish farming needs to move on from the B2B-only environment into a B2C environment. It is, however, the biggest challenge faced by Irish farming since the Emergency; not least because it has yet to begin the process. It has not even arrived at the racecourse let alone began to run the race.