Monthly Archives: September 2017


This post first appeared online at on the 6th September 2017

The third Love Lamb Week [#lovelamb] is happening across in the UK and some Irish farmers are joining in as, although, they are separated by the Irish Sea, they recognize a common problem.

According to ADHB, 1995 retail purchases were 131,000 tonnes compared to under 70,000 tonnes in the last year. UK lamb consumption has declined by over 11% over the last 12 months alone; a fall led by roasting leg joints [-15%] and roasting shoulder joints [-22%]. Total lamb consumption has gone from 7.5kg per capita in 1995 to 5.1kg in 2015 and it appears to be continuing to fall. One can expect the situation in Ireland to be no better. In anybody’s language this is serious.

While not wishing to malign the current initiative, are tweets, likes and shares really going to reverse the decline in lamb consumption? Or do we first need to recognize that the problem runs deeper?

A starting point must be to ask just why the decline has occurred. Is it an image problem or has the offered product just become unsuited to the demands of modern food consumption?

Has the farming industry failed to adequately promote lamb as a food product? In recent years there have been live TV programmes about lambing. We are also educating the young about where their food comes from. Open farms and places to meet farm animals are great for kids but are the sheep keeping one step ahead of us in the public relations battle? Does introducing children to lambs, and especially the bottle-raised variety, encourage them to be lamb eaters, or are they more likely to sign up to the idea that to Love Lamb means to become a vegetarian? Is our desire to portray the positive side of farming back-firing in this case?

Previous generations became acquainted with the smell of roast lamb long before they met the real thing; nowadays it is different. But we still choose to promote sheep meat as lamb and worse we even add the word spring [lamb] to emphasise the image of a baby lamb frolicking in a flower-filled meadow in spring time. Maybe we should stop using lamb and spring lamb as the images they conjure up for young consumers are ones that only lead to declining sales? It is a thought.

My fear is that the problems facing the industry go much deeper, it is about the product itself?

The demise of lamb as a meat is well known, it reflects the decline of the Sunday roast and family meals. It was not well suited to fast food or fast cooking as sheep meat is about flavour and time. The way we now rear it has given it conformity, it is about carcass size that conforms to supermarket packs, but of all the meats, the flavour of lamb and sheep meat is about what the animal eats. And are we guilty of trying to replace these flavours with fine words? Are we insufficiently critical of the product itself? Nobody likes to talk down their own product, but have we lost our objectivity?

We seem to think we can stem the ebbing tide with ‘marketing’, as if we can reverse such a strong market trend with promotions. Maybe this just indicates a failure to understand the nuances of the market. In the rush to place our well-conformed lamb into supermarkets, have we failed to develop the very differences upon which we can maintain and build consumer appeal? One fears so.

As lamb is moving backwards from the mainstream to the niche, do we need to start rethinking both our product and marketing strategy? At present, lamb’s consumer demographic is aging as the young are not buying lamb. We must not lose sight of them as longer-term consumers but, meanwhile, should we focus upon the older demographics with higher disposable income?

Should we be focusing on developing lamb, hogget and even mutton as a connoisseur’s food? Do we start rebuilding the market position of these meats by aiming at the top; it is after all where it has been far from forgotten. It is also a foodies’ segment that the young will buy into as they aspire with age. It is, however, a demanding market that wants a highly differentiated product with flavour and a multiplicity of other characteristics, environmental and animal welfare included. And thankfully for farmers, they are characteristics that are created on the farm and not in the factory.

One is aware of some local developments happening in Ireland. There are the ‘Mountain’ lambs and Achill Island Lamb. They are very much products for the connoisseur and they are exactly the ones that are needed at the top of the market. They highlight the differences that can be achieved when the product is linked to its terroir and the detailed back story is brought to the fore. They will not, of course, be the product or marketing solutions for all, but they should guide our wider thinking towards where lamb, hogget and mutton needs to go. It is about product development; a complex but not insurmountable task. The initial ideas are out there but they must be taken forwards.

The alternative is to continue to contend with chicken, pork or even beef by going head to head on the key attributes of convenience and cost. Simply, it is not going to work, as recent evidence shows. To continue following this path may suffice for some, for those who can compete on cost, but it is not the way forwards if you are small of scale and unable to survive financially at the foot of the existing supermarket supply chains. For the others, it is about changing and changing to survive.



This post first appeared online at on the 4th September 2017

Just why do the words live export raise the hackles of those concerned with animal welfare? After all, to export is only to cross a national boundary so moving a cow from Donegal to Derry is a live export. True, long-distance overland haulage also attracts their ire but nothing seems to the way that live exports do when farm animals are loaded aboard ocean-going transports.

Notwithstanding that livestock farmers should aspire to operate high animal-welfare standards, consumer perception of its products must be paramount for both the Irish dairy and beef sectors. Neither can compete on a cost-alone basis with international players so must do so on quality. And in this age, a core quality characteristic is animal welfare.  One can also assume that there is a direct correlation between premium market prices and animal welfare standards. To take a simple example, a free-range label for eggs is about animal welfare and free-range eggs attract a premium.

Some may think that Ireland can export live animals to elsewhere while supplying animal-welfare-conscious markets like the UK but, ultimately, it will not work; you cannot have your cake and eat it. Live exports destined for countries other than to its immediate neighbours, risk undermining the integrity of the credentials claimed for its food products; be they animal welfare related or not. So why should Irish cattle and sheep farmers, who are often heard to be voicing their support for the live export trade, be willing to risk a premium-price-paying consumer backlash from doing so?

When faced with criticism over live exports from lobbyists, the response from their representatives is that farmers have no other choice; the processing sector in Ireland does not provide a competitive market for them to sell animals into. Effectively, live exports are the only means by which farmers can seek to counterbalance, albeit only partially, the over-bearing weight of their supply-chains partners. It is this lack of competition and its depressing impact on prices that is driving farmers’ desire for more live exports from Ireland. Their argument has much validity.

As with green issues, lobbyists need to engage with the farming community.  This is not only about animal welfare, it is also about farmer welfare, it is about their income. It needs a far more holistic approach beyond a moratorium on live exports. It is about finding solutions and the tangible support needed to implement them. And lobbyists need to work together with farmers on this.

Removing the farmer’s need for exporting finished cattle and sheep

Should we start by asking if there is a role for live exports for slaughter to countries outside the regulatory framework of the European Union? Yes, one understands that some specific markets demand live animals but it is not mandatory to supply them. However, with sheep in particular, these markets influence prices so serious market [and product] development work is needed if farmers are going to voluntarily withdraw from them. They will need substantial help.

Establishing maximum travel-to-slaughter times should then be a goal for lobbyists and farmers. One suspects it will appeal to the many consumers for whom animal welfare is a major issue.

Admittedly, recent agri-food policy has advocated rearing and processing beef at home but that seems to have been motivated by increasing the value of exports per se, ensuring high throughput volumes for the factories and preserving processing jobs. It has glossed over the issue of too few route-to-market options for the farmer, its impact upon prices per se, and that it inhibits the development of niche and premium markets and the products needed to supply them.

The industry needs an 80:20 split. The 80% should provide for the processors who operate a high-throughput model to make their economics work whilst the 20% is a realistic target for premium, more niche-market products. It is the only approach that will truly develop Ireland as a food island and ensure that farmers have opportunities to enhance their farm-gate prices.

Specifically, with beef, the 20% should be filled from the suckler sector. Naturally-reared calves is a plus for animal-welfare aware consumers and it should be the foundation characteristic of a product that also encompasses many eco-friendly farming practices. In the coming years the eat better but less meat approach will focus consumer thought on the confined systems versus freedom-to-roam issue and will offer a major opportunity for Ireland. Getting ‘complex’, multi characteristics products to market is, however, the problem and it is, frankly, not one that is going to be resolved if there is only industrial-scale, inflexible processing facilities within the supply-chain. That has to change.

Should we be looking elsewhere for ideas about how to develop the top 10-20% of the market? France springs to mind. There it is about designated origin products where farming practices are well known to the consumer and processing is invariably small and local. For meat, local slaughter is a must. These production, processing and marketing systems are what Ireland has to develop.

Bureaucracy is often cited as the major problem for small-scale processing. It is often accused of killing off our small and local meat processors. That must change. Hence, as the Common Agricultural Policy supports the primary producers, it should also step up and support the primary processors by way of paying for the bureaucratic costs relating to food safety. It would be a simple and major leap forwards for restructuring and improving our food systems.

And finally, one should add that it is imperative that competition exists in all aspect of the post-farm-gate supply-chain including the easily over-looked provision of rendering services. When ‘Brussels’ talks about having balanced relationships in the food supply-chains, the Irish folk there should start at home. And they need to ensure that Ireland is the example for others to follow.

Providing farmers with alternatives to the export of weanling cattle

Livestock movements have been part of food production for millennia. Herders have moved stock vast distances to seek grazing and transhumance practices take stock from the valleys to alpine pastures in the summer. Within the British Isles, stock has moved from uplands to lowlands. Traditional mixed farming in tillage areas often used young stock raised in the north and west. Ireland itself sent weanlings across the Irish Sea to England; indeed, if we are going to see soil restoration happen on English tillage lands, it may need to happen again. Farming is constrained by topography, climate and soils and that means some animal movement is necessary.

It is sad to read of weanlings being exported. Where they are suckler-reared they should be sold as such within consumer-facing products that highlight their naturally-raised credentials. There is also a gradual realisation that suckler-reared beef raised on biodiverse pastures using specific grazing practices may also be the climate-friendly way to produce beef. Especially so if the weanlings are finished on biodiverse swards and herbage-based fodders with only a little locally-produced grain. At present, Ireland is exporting the very foundations of what should be truly premium beef products.

When the above is realized, as it eventually will, and the products and routes to market created, there will be little demand from farmers to see weanlings exported. It is a point that animal-welfare lobbyists must help farmers to reach. It is a win-win situation.

Addressing the issues that drive the export trade in dairy-bred calves

It is a contrasting picture with the export of dairy-bred calves. Is exporting calves for the Dutch veal industry a necessity because of their numbers and/or their unsuitability for producing beef? One hopes that culling calves does not also become another issue. Live calf exports are something that the industry must be wary of as they may undermine the sustainable and green credentials of Irish dairy produce. For the increasingly savvy consumer, they do not go hand in hand.

It was only recently that BBC highlighted the dairy-bull calf problem in the UK. There animal rights activists effectively made it impossible to export them. Variants of veal are being developed but it is not always easy to educate the customer. It would be no easier in Ireland to develop a veal sector.

One has heard it suggested that breeding for dairy-only traits is lowering the beef value of many dairy-born calves. Hence, is an expansion in smaller ‘grass-system’ dairy cows impacting upon the quality-focused beef sector? Further, is an increase in dairy beef numbers for processing into farm-assured mince and burgers undermining the price of beef-bred cattle; after all, when processing is about throughput surely more of the former will impact upon the price of the latter? The net result is beef farmers pushing for more live exports to reduce the cattle supply to the domestic market.

Hence, should the dairy sector be taking a broader view of the genetics that it uses, not least to minimize the risk to its own image from dealing with low-quality, low-value calves? Given that the average milk yield within the Irish grass-based dairy system is low, maybe there is scope for a more dual-purpose rethink; sacrilege that it may be to suggest such. As with so many things in life, problems can become opportunities, but only when we look outside the box to find them.

The wheat and chaff of synthetic food

Posts from Keith Woodford

It has become fashionable for agri-food commentators to talk of disruptive change. In particular, in recent months there has been much talk about industry disruption that will supposedly occur from synthetic food, with much of that grown in a laboratory.

Until now, I have steered clear of discussing synthetic food, despite often being asked my opinion. But now, I have decided to venture forth.

View original post 1,152 more words


This post first appeared online at on the 30th August 2017

The idea of a GM-free Ireland is rising the agenda. To date, the debate has been about using GM technology on farm but, increasingly, it is being driven by consumer demand for GM-free foods. It is now about some supermarkets in the EU wanting products that are from entirely GM-free supply chains that, with animal products, contain no GM animal feeds. With its grass-fed focus, is this an opportunity for the Irish farming and food sectors?

Various questions over going GM-free immediately spring to mind.

How much GM feed is imported into Ireland and for what purpose? Can this be replaced so all-Ireland can be GM-free? If not, can GM feed be segregated so certain farming sectors can operate with GM-free status? Or is it best to focus on producing GM-free products and to farm to create them? Will GM-free come at a cost to the farmer and will that cost be compensated for by an enhanced farm-gate price? Will the farmer receive a further reward for the hassle of being certified GM-free? And critically, does Ireland have the post-farm-gate supply-chain structures to differentiate GM-free product streams and, hence, operate to transfer any premium from the consumer through to the farmer? Or will being GM-free only benefit those beyond the farm gate?

There are those who will argue that forsaking GM technology will inhibit farmers to produce more and to compete with those who have access to the technology, but that is another debate. This one is about consumer demand and deciding if it is viable for Irish farmers to meet that demand.

Although others within the supply-chain may see ‘GM-free’ as a positive attribute to have when it comes to selling their products, the costs of being GM-free will mainly fall on the farmer. They need to be compensated and, preferably, rewarded by the market for being GM-free. If Ireland is become a GM-free food producer, its farmers must see the benefits from being so.

Ireland is a major importer of cereals and oilseed cakes for animal feeds.

In 2016 (all data is from the CSO) Ireland imported 968,000 tonnes of grain maize of which 350,000 tonnes maybe GM-maize from North America. After considering other cereal imports and home production, Ireland is probably about two-thirds self-sufficient in cereals for animal feed.

In contrast, the Irish livestock industry is highly dependent on imported protein feeds. In 2016 close to 800,000 tonnes of oilseed cakes was imported, a reduction of 20% on 2015. The total volume and oilseed cake mix varies year-on-year, although soybean meal volume is relatively constant. Nearly 450,000 tonnes of soybean meal were imported in 2016 up from 375,000 five years earlier. It is sourced from the Americas where nearly all soya is GM. Of the three major growers, only Brazil has any significant production area of GM-free soybeans. The USA and Argentina are the other two.

In addition to soybean meal, about 225,000 tonnes of rapeseed and sunflower seed cake [EU sourced and non-GM] and 125,000 tonnes of palm kernel cake were imported in 2016. One should also note that there is a sustainable-sourcing issue around palm kernel cake, imports of which have often been nearer 200,000 tonnes per year.

In addition, nearly 700,000 tonnes of prepared animal feeds were imported, a significant proportion of which originated in the USA. Do they have a GM-free provenance? There were also nearly 460,000 tonnes of brewers’ grains and 150,000 tonnes of sugar-beet pulp imported. As some originates in the USA, its origins need checking.  Finally, about 600,000 tonnes of other food industry by-products were also imported in 2016 with Argentina being a major supplier.

In total, livestock feed imports in 2016 were about 3.7 million tonnes or over 60% of a total feed use of approximately six million tonnes.

From a GM-free animal-feeds sourcing perspective, the biggest issue is GM soybean meal and the feasibility of substituting it with other non-GM protein meals. And there are also other imports of food-industry by-products from the Americas that would require verifying as GM-free.

As one investigates the concept of a GM-free Ireland further, it is clearly not as straight forward as substituting imported GM soybean meal with other oilseed meals.

What is the realistic way forwards for GM-free farming in Ireland?

With Ireland’s emphasis on grass, just how much GM-associated feeds goes into ruminant rations? Or, more specifically, what proportion goes into pigs and poultry and ‘feed-lot’ finished beef? Among the country’s dairy herds, there are also those that use far more meal than their lower-yielding, grass-based counterparts. It is complex and maybe a GM-free Ireland is, at least in the short-term, a bridge too far. At present, more research and investigation needs to be done and a practicable strategy developed from there.

In the short term, it maybe be better to determine how to support the development of GM-free sub-sectors and individual products. The costs need to be assessed and the potential market-derived benefits evaluated. As with the debate over forsaking the use of GM technology, others will argue that there may be environmental and health benefits from being GM-free, but for now, this is about doing a cost-benefit analysis of fulfilling tangible market demand.

The home production of peas and beans has, historically, been low. It has been rising with the current crop-specific support scheme but it will still be well short of what would be needed to provide for cattle and sheep feeds let alone pigs and poultry [about 25% of feed use]. One would, suggest that in the short term, the focus is upon sub-sectors of the ruminant sector where going local and using GM-free proteins produced in Ireland may be achievable. It may, nevertheless, still need the transmission of a significant GM-free price premium from the consumer all the way through to the tillage farmer.

For the beleaguered Irish tillage farmer, being part of a dedicated, higher-value product supply chain is exactly what is needed.  Triggering an expansion of certified-by-someone, GM-free may, nonetheless, need direct government support to facilitate it. If, however, there is consumer demand for GM-free foods, we need to look at the feasibility of meeting that demand from Ireland. It could be a significant opportunity for Irish livestock and tillage farmers. And if it proves to be so, we must ensure that they and not just their supply-chain partners benefit from going GM-free.