Category Archives: Ireland’s Beef Sector

MARKETING CHAROLAIS CATTLE IN THEIR HOME MARKET

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 15th October 2017

How the French go about labelling Charolais Beef

As one should expect with beef produced in France from Charolais cattle, there is no such thing as ‘French Beef’ or even ‘Charolais Beef’, it is rather more ‘complicated’ than that!

The BŒUF DE CHAROLLES appellation d’origine contrôlée

The AOC Bœuf de Charolles is the ‘summit’ of Charolais beef production in France as it is Charolais beef from the Charolles itself. Although it is from the historical home of the breed the AOC only dates from 2010 and the EU PDO designated origin registration from 2014. This itself illustrates that French food-product labelling is still evolving.

Farming Charolais cattle in the region within the AOC scheme is about enhancing the value of the product at the farm-gate to maintain the viability of local cattle farming and it is about the preservation of farming traditions and the local hedgerow-lined pastures and their biodiversity.

To qualify for the AOC, farmers must meet strict standards. The cattle must be born, reared, fattened and slaughtered in the designated geographical area. The calves must be 100% Charolais and suckler reared. The cattle must be grazed for a minimum of 200 days per year at stocking rates not exceeding 2.0 livestock units per hectare. Fattening must occur on specified ‘fattening pastures’. These pastures are permanent and must not receive any artificial fertilizers. It is said that the pastures enhance the flavour of the meat. In winter only locally-produced hay is fed and silage is not allowed. The use of complementary feeds is limited to an annual average of 2kg per day during rearing and 1kg/day/100kg LW during the finishing period. Concentrates feeds must be based mainly on linseed and GMO feeds are forbidden.

Heifers must be at least 28 months of age at slaughter with minimum carcass weight of 320kg. The bullocks must be at least 360 kg and have a minimum age of 30 months. Cows that are used for Bœuf de Charolles beef must be no more than 8 years old [96 months]. The traditional slow finishing is required to produce beef with the characteristics required of Bœuf de Charolles, a finely marbled beef that must be matured for at least 14 days. Slaughter must be local to minimise stress.

The BŒUF CHAROLAIS DU BOURBONNAIS EU PGI

The Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais is also a Charolais-breed-specific EU registration; albeit as a Protected Geographic Indication [registered in 1996]. As the name suggests, the cattle must be reared in the Bourbonnais region. The beef also qualifies as Label Rouge.

The required production systems are not dissimilar to the earlier AOC although not as restrictive in terms of pasture management. Ages at slaughter are the same although the carcass weight minimums are 20 kg lighter. The minimum maturation period for carcasses is 10 days.

As with many designated-origin systems in France, the production volume is limited as there are only about 120 farmers supplying Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais beef. The sales are mainly through traditional butchers.

The CHAROLAIS DE BOURGOGNE EU PGI

The third and most recent [2017] EU PGI designation for pure-bred Charolais beef, the Charolais de Bourgogne beef differs from Bœuf de Charolles and Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais in that it is not so focused on traditional, slow production. Males must be slaughtered at between 14 and 24 months of age. For heifers the minimum age is 24 months and they must be grazed for two seasons. The slaughter weights required are lighter again at 320 kg and 280 kg for males and females respectively. Cows must not be greater than 10 years of age. A minimum maturation time of seven days is required and the beef may be sold fresh or frozen.

Feed must be based on grass and forage exclusively from the PGI geographical area. This means that the cattle must be raised on the regions natural, biodiversity and flora-rich grasslands. Hay is the required winter forage. Again, as with the Bœuf de Charolles, there is the link to the preservation of the local bocage country and its traditional hedgerows and meadows.

During rearing, concentrate usages if limited to an average of 2 kg per day. A more intensive finishing is allowed; a reflection that the PGI is about using Charolais cattle within a specific region but with more ‘modern’ farming methods than the PDO/AOC Bœuf de Charolles allows.

LE CHAROLAIS TERROIR and TENDRE CHAROLAIS Label Rouge

Beef which qualifies as produce of the Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais PGI region can also carry the Label Rouge superior-quality label. In addition, there are also other Label Rouge Charolais labels including Le Charolais Terroir and Tendre Charolais.

Tendre Charolais again stipulates that the cattle must be 100% Charolais and born, raised and slaughtered in France. The use of suckler rearing, minimum grazing periods and forage use within the diet are specified. The scheme also imposes housing and animal welfare standards and rules are laid down with respect to slaughtering and the aging of the beef.

Tendre Charolais is a marque of the L’Association Charolais Label Rouge; a supply-chain association whose role is to ensure the quality of ‘tender beef’ from the Charolais breed. It includes 4,500 farmers, 27 co-operatives and nearly 250 other entities including butchers and retailers.

Tendre Charolais also aims to ensure that there is equitable remuneration for each actor within the supply chain including the farmers. It seeks to ensure that there is a future for extensive livestock farming and the regional landscapes and that local, rural employment exists.

Charolais Terroir is another label that encompasses a complete supply-chain approach. As with all the other labels mentioned, it specifies that all cattle must be pure-bred Charolais. The emphasis is then upon the selection of the right live animal to deliver specific carcass characteristics, how the animal is transported, handled, slaughtered and processed, and the quality of the final carcass. The carcass can then be sold with both the Charolais Terroir and Label Rouge labels attached.

Overview of some of the French labeling schemes

The French have a long history of designating their food products. The first cheese was designated under France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC} system in 1925 and the first meat in 1957.

Many AOC products now also have one of the following EU designations:

Protected Designation of Origin [PDO]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared within a given geographical area using recognised know-how.

Protected Geographical Indication [PGI]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed [TSG]: highlights the traditional character of the product, either in the products composition or means of production

France has eight EU PGI’s for beef and veal and this reflects their emphasis upon locality of origin. A further three more production and location specific PDO’s exist.

Another premium but lower strata label developed in France is Label Rouge. There are 36 beef and veal Label Rouge products, mainly differentiated by locality of origin and a specific breed.

In addition to these official labels, the producers also use their own labels.

Label Rouge is a quality assurance marque controlled by the French Ministry of Agriculture. It attests that food or non-food and unprocessed agricultural products have specific characteristics that establish a superior level of quality [especially resulting from their specific production conditions or workmanship] to similar products. The Label Rouge marque is to be found on bread, honey, herbs, dairy products, eggs and poultry, beef and lamb and charcuterie.

Label Rouge products may also be distinguished by a producer-group label, AOC status, an EU designated-origin marque and be organic. It is possible for a product to display all of the labels.

 

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BEEF’S FUTURE LIES WITH SMALL-SCALE PRODUCERS

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 17th August 2017

Stephen Carr wrote an interesting article in the Farmers’ Weekly concerning the future of beef in the UK. Those involved in beef farming policy making in Ireland should read it. It may appear to be counter-intuitive but not if you put your ducklings in a line first.

To quote from Friday 28 July 2017’s edition, “In a recent speech to the World Angus Forum, Gavin Hill of Scotland’s Rural College insulted the intelligence of British suckler cow producers by telling them they needed to understand how to calculate their total costs of production”. Strong stuff indeed. I wonder how many Irish suckler beef farmers have had felt similarly?

Stephen goes on to say that “No rational business person would have continued to keep suckler cows since 2005 when beef cattle headage payments were withdrawn… suckler cows have been a financial disaster (I keep 40 pedigree Sussex cows) … Eblex Business Pointers survey has shown consistent losses for suckler cows (often running into hundreds of pounds a cow a year) if unpaid family labour is included in the costings”. So why, then, have suckler cow numbers held up so well given the sector has been losing money for 12 years?

The ‘poor’ performance of the suckler herd is an issue that is being addressed in Ireland with knowledge transfer groups and demonstration farms. It is all about improving ‘efficiency’. It is also not just about farming profitability, it is about our ‘sustainable’ image and reducing GHG emissions; both require ‘improved’ on-farm production performance. And further, policy makers seem determined to replace poor-performing suckler herds with dairy cows and forestry plantations.

Poorly performing, unprofitable and just plain unwanted. So why do suckler farmers continue?

Let us first look at the decision making behind so many suckler farms, and Ireland indeed has many. To do so, one should mention that one has two broad groups; those that are part time and those who see keeping suckler cows as their full-time occupation and primary income source. The time that the farmer can or is willing to commit to keeping cows is a major but much under-appreciated factor when it comes to the way the farm is operated. That needs to change.

A flaw in Irish agri-food policy making in recent years has not been starting from an understanding of what the objectives of the primary producer are. It also ignores the key issue of the resources they have available. It has neither been about meeting farmers’ objectives or providing them with an adequate return for the use of their resources. Net result, a dysfunctional agri-food policy.

To return to Stephen’s article; “the key to the numerical stability of the national herd… is the small size of the average UK suckler herd, which remains stuck at 28 cows… The reason for this average low herd size is that a small herd does not require any third-party labour if the farmer and his family are prepared to do the work themselves… a few cows are not going to lose anyone much money in hard cash terms”. Sound familiar? How many Irish suckler farms continue because the owner’s objectives are not firstly about making money?

Basically, there are many who keep suckler cows because they have a passion for farming but work off-farm. It is also a way of managing the family homestead, keeping the land in the family, providing an escape from urban and/or office life and owning it for its amenity value. It is about enjoying these benefits and minimizing the financial losses. It creates a different mindset.

For some these farms are under-performing, be it in a financial, sustainability or emissions context. For the owners, they may be not. The crux of the matter is that their chosen farming ‘model’ does not factor in the labour or, crucially, the management time necessary to improve ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’. Simply, to commit the resources required will mean that the farm fails to meet the owner’s loss-minimization objective. They are successfully unsuccessful.

So how do policy-makers address this conundrum? Obviously forced land transfer is not an option. De facto, the control of the land is in the hands of farmers with their own ideas about what they want. It is what policy-makers must deal with, like it or not. And, to-date, they have largely failed to do so. One can have any number of policy targets but they are unattainable if the decision-makers on the ground operate with a different agenda. It is this agenda that must first be understood.

The key point is that we must design a farming system that works for Irish suckler beef farmers, be they part time or full. And the former’s less monetary goals must not undermine the latter. Most will remain small scale and that means focusing on producing and selling a high-value product. Irish beef farmers have a passion for beef farming and that is an asset that must be utilized. A farm-to-fork beef system must deliver the multiple product characteristics that the modern premium-paying consumer wants and it must convert that premium into an enhanced farm-gate price. Fundamentally, suckler beef farming cannot be about producing high volumes of commodity beef, albeit farm assured, that ends up as mince and meatballs on the shelves of Tesco.

And last, when it comes to policy and the design of support mechanisms for the suckler beef sector, suckler beef farms should also be evaluated in terms of emissions AND carbon sequestration, their role in landscape management and biodiversity enhancement, and their contribution to the social fabric of rural Ireland. They can and should be many things to many people even if, frustratingly for some, they are not just ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ profit-orientated ventures.

A Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products

Ireland desires to be a ‘food island’ but for a country with such aspirations it has woefully few European Union- registered designated-origin products. It may appear to be an anomaly but it is a well-founded one as the Irish agri-food industry apparently believes that premium products are created within a factory environment from farm-produced raw materials. An approach that simply restricts the premiumization of the product. Its products can be clever but they will never be recognized alongside the premium products of, say, France and Italy.

The rationale behind the establishment of The Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products [CEQUIP] is that for Ireland to make the transition to a premium-products food producer, it must first create the products that can achieve high market status. Traceability, in terms of origin and production methods, is absolutely critical. It must, however, go far beyond auditing farms; it must change both production and processing practices.

The products CEQUIP will work with will have their roots in the soil. In France, the highest quality products come from their ‘terroir’ and it is a characteristic that will be required of any food product from anywhere which aspires to being recognized as premium. Good food products may originate from within the factory environment and be manufactured using ‘ingredients’ but premium products will have origins traceable back to the land.

On a similar note, we live in times where ‘innovation’ is the buzz word in the food industry. It is being thrust upon the farming industry as incomes decline and further adoption of ‘technology’ is advocated as the solution. We, however, question whether the technologies of the last half a century have really delivered enhanced incomes to farm households and rural communities. In this light, whilst appreciating that innovation and technology has a role in farming and food production, innovation must be about creating products that are firmly linked to farming practices and produced within the local community. It may be considered ‘retro’ thinking but so be it.

This initiative comes at a time when farm incomes lurch from one crisis to another. It also comes at a time when the farming to food industry is being asked to minimize its impact upon the climate and our natural resources. Amongst the latter are the animals we rear and manage. Thankfully soil health and fertility is rising the agenda fast but we still overlook the welfare of our very food producers and the communities in which they live. We must produce food in fashion that rewards farmers for their time and effort and the use of the assets they own.

The objective of CEQUIP is to address the issues surrounding today’s food production. It may appear to focus on premium products for wealthy people but that is rationalized by saying that Ireland is characterized by small-scale, family-farming-based food producers working in a high-cost economy.  That said, the focus of CEQUIP is to encourage the production of high-quality, nutritious foods that are produced in a way that has a minimal impact upon the Planet and its finite resources. By some, we may be criticised for promoting farming practices that are seen as contradictory to this aim but we believe that those behind CEQUIP are at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution that will deliver both food security and climate-change mitigation.

For several years, we have researched the various designated-origin schemes used around Europe and further afield. Whilst we are aware of the official EU schemes, we do not feel that it is necessary to seek such recognition in the first instance. We consider that it is better to design and implement our own schemes first and only when they are well established to apply, if appropriate, for official recognition. This will allow greater flexibility at the design stage and allow the development of Irish solutions for Irish farming and food situations. It is also not just about developing Protected Geographic Indicators, it is about developing more in-depth schemes that go well beyond locality to include specific farming husbandry practices and food processing techniques. For these we will be investigating the way these are done in countries like France, Italy, Austria, Spain, the UK and the USA. Our plan is to now start by developing a multi-tiered, quality and origin scheme for suckler-reared Irish beef.

IRELAND’S FAILURE TO DOMESTICATE THE UK FOOD MARKET

As I was writing about Brexit earlier, I was thinking upon the position that Irish farmers now find themselves in. Elsewhere I have said that it is the single most important issue facing Irish farming since the Emergency [that is World War Two for readers outside of Ireland]. I have also recently read it described as the greatest challenge facing Irish farming since the Republic came into existence.

Somehow there was an inevitability about the latest crisis to hit Irish farming. If it was not Brexit it would have been triggered by a proliferation of international trade deals that exposed Irish farmers to the chill winds of free-trade. It may well happen for UK farmers post-Brexit, but at least UK farmers got to vote in the Referendum; unlike their Irish counterparts who are just being taken along for the ride.

As I stated in my earlier post ‘Post-Brexit delusions about deregulation’, I can see British farmers responding to the threat from cheaper imports by creating comprehensive unique-selling-points for their products. By so doing they will self-impose greater regulation upon themselves than what they lose from leaving the EU. It is perverse but quite probable. A major part of such a market-driven strategy will be to fully exploit ‘local’ and ‘British’. And therein is the crux of the matter for Irish farmers, they are neither ‘British’ or ‘local’; although one could argue that Wexford is closer to London than any part of Scotland.

Now, for historical reasons, I know the UK food markets reasonably well. I was taught at College to walk the food aisles and have been doing so ever since. And as I have alluded to frequently, I am shocked by how poor the presence of Irish produce is. As far as consumer-facing, visibly-Irish products go, Ireland is a one trick pony, Kerrygold butter. Yes, Ornua controls a major cheese brand in Pilgrims’ Choice but you would have to be knowledgeable to know that it is Irish.

As for Irish beef, it is only in three supermarkets [Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco] and even then, it fills the ‘budget’ and ‘standard’ shelves. Again, as I have said before, Irish beef finds its way into mince, meatballs and burgers. It is not the premium, grass-fed product that Irish farmers envisage or expect. They frequently send well-reared stock off to the factories that grade well. They are also likely to quality assured. And they end up on the bottom shelves of UK supermarkets or in burgers served up by the burger chains. If one is at the foundations of such a food chain, can one really expect to receive a premium price? And if you are so positioned, far better that you are a low-cost Brazilian rancher than a small-scale, Irish family farm.

Just why has Ireland ended up in such a weak market position in the UK? It is after all Ireland’s major market and it is one that it is highly dependent on; a fact that it will not be able to change in a short space of time before and after the reality of Brexit. With such a dependency, it is truly shocking that the country has allowed its food products to become [Kerrygold apart] nearly invisible in the UK. It is a marketing failure of truly awesome proportions.

One can probably find rational explanations for such a situation. Possibly the supermarkets have not wanted to promote Irish beef [after all British beef holds something of a special place in the minds of UK consumers similar to ‘English strawberries’]. Has the status quo been perfectly acceptable to the factories? Has it suited them to operate a simplified high-throughput, low-margin-per-head model; not least in the face of a supply base that offers them a far from homogenous raw material. They must also deal with the purchasing weight of the few buyers from the retailers and burger chains. And as for cheese, maybe it is a sound strategic choice not to put Irish front and centre when it comes to promoting Irish-origin cheddar in the UK. All of them are interesting explanations but they all leave the Irish farmer devilishly exposed to what Brexit might well usher in.

What I cannot understand is how so little has been done to develop Irish products for the UK markets. And by that, I mean products that would have created a following and a brand loyalty that goes beyond the UK-living Irish community. France does it, Italy does it, and others do it. In my childhood years, New Zealand Anchor butter was iconic [and how NZ must now regret having sold off the rights to use the Anchor brand to Arla Foods] and NZ lamb had a great reputation’ Likewise Argentina for its beef. And the owners of the Dewhurst chain of high-street butchers were ranching and processing across South America. They even owned the Blue Star Line to ship their beef back to the UK. And then as now, if you wanted cheese, you thought of France. Why then did the development of Irish products stall after Kerrygold?

The lack of recognized products and brands is now going to make dealing with Brexit that much more difficult for the Irish farming industry. Just how much easier would it have been if the UK consumer has developed an affinity over the years for an array of Irish food products? Due to location alone, British consumer should be thinking that Irish is not British but it is local and it is produced to standards that are clearly akin to those employed by Britain’s own farming industry. Food miles are obviously lower and there is a strong, untold story about Irish family farms and rural Ireland. The story is there but the book remains unpublished. And sadly, when it is, where are the products to accompany the marketing story? This is, and it should be recognized as one of the great mysteries of food marketing; just how did the Irish fail to ‘domesticate’ the UK market?

THE OTHER CLIMATE-CHANGE THREAT TO IRISH FARMING

In what I expect to be a fast-moving food world in the coming decade, thinking creatively is critical. On the other hand, a prevailing ‘group think’ may be highly destructive.

I am closely watching the evolving debate over climate change and cattle farming; not least because cattle have been branded using emissions-based assessments of food production as the arch criminal. In recent weeks, I have written three posts on the subject: ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’, ‘Let us all just blame the poor old cow’ and ‘Climate change – thinking beyond the emissions’. It may be wishful, but I think I am beginning to see an awareness that not all cows [cattle-farming systems] are equal when it comes to climate change.

Ireland sees itself as a front runner in low carbon-footprint farming. The country’s mainly grass-based systems have conferred an advantage that places its emissions per unit of beef or milk as some of the lowest around. It is seeking to reduce this further through increasing the productive efficiency of its beef and dairy farming. The term ‘sustainable’ is a core part of how the country projects a green image to the World.

So, Ireland is a first mover when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from its agriculture. Is there, nevertheless, a disadvantage from being a leader when the knowledge base is still evolving? So far it is all about emissions and reducing those is a strategic [and marketing] focus of the Irish agri-food industry. The question is; will it be about emissions per se or will it become about net emissions? It may happen once cattle and pasture management is fully recognized as the key to lowering atmospheric carbon levels and reversing climate change.

If this is going to be the case, will the environmental champions be those who are deploying pasture management systems that sequester most carbon? Will it be about zero or negative carbon emission production? And will this later entry to the green field surpass Ireland’s efficiency-focused approach to beef and milk production? Not least if one considers Ireland’s reliance on imported nitrogen fertilizers, less than biodiverse swards and its infrequent use of clovers [let alone other legumes]. Some in Ireland may consider that the country is currently a leader in ‘sustainable’, low-emissions livestock farming but it must not rest on its laurels.

This is also a marketing issue as much of what I read emanates from the USA; oft seen as a key premium export market. The USA already has a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’. It must be forage-based and reared outdoors all year [traditional ranching]. It is about marketing because Ireland must produce the product to meet the rules. It cannot operate its usual produce-it-first-and-label-it-second, supply-driven approach. As consumer awareness of the role of pasture management in restoring North America’s historical grasslands grows, one can see that selling loosely labelled as ‘grass-fed’ products will become harder in the USA, not easier.

An interesting point that I frequently come across is that some of the atmospheric carbon rise has been due to tillage farming. Over the last 150 years or so carbon has been released from grasslands that have been ploughed for cropping. One also reads about how dramatically soil organic matter levels have fallen in arable [often former grasslands] soils from on-going tillage farming. Is this, along with fossil fuel burning, the primary cause of rises in atmospheric carbon?

From what one reads one could be forgiven for thinking that it is all down to cattle. In terms of the total atmospheric carbon increase, cattle may not be the victims of an injustice. Their role may be far less than we have been told and they may have only played a part since we stopped grazing cattle and started keeping them in feed lots and feeding them grain.

There is another potential unforeseen consequence for Ireland in the above.

What if returning carbon to arable soils becomes the climate-change solution?

And what if this happens in tandem with using cattle to restore arid grasslands?

And will the green ‘brownie’ points go to those who farm to sequester carbon?

Importantly, what will the consumer perceive to be ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’? We could have a new set of rules. Ireland’s tweaking of its farming systems may then be in sufficient to win over the consumer. As these issues rise in significance [as I believe they will] it will take more than good salesmanship to premiumize your product with green credentials; it will require more radical farming systems changes from the bottom up.

This is a consumer-facing issue. It is about who wins market share in the premium ‘ethical’ markets. It is, nevertheless, not the whole story. Just what will happen to the supply side of beef [particularly] and dairy markets if cattle farming is reintegrated with tillage farming?

Further, what will the implications be for beef and milk production economics if society chooses to support farms that sequester carbon back into the soils whence it came? Are the French with their 4-in-a-1000 scheme already on their way down that road?

Ireland with its preponderance of grasslands may not have contributed to tillage-released carbon over the decades and, thus, it may not benefit from incentives to sequester carbon into soils to the same degree as those with significantly larger tillage areas. It may appear an unfair way of looking at the subject but then is life fair?

Ireland may now be a leader in low-emissions beef and milk production but this may not be enough to capture issues-aware markets in the future. It may have to do a whole lot more when the wider populace realizes that it must prioritize carbon sequestration and the using of pasture management to return carbon back into the World’s arable soils. Do we even have a choice?

LET US ALL JUST BLAME THE POOR OLD COW

There was a time before the days of widespread dietary guidelines where people started the day not on muesli and skimmed milk but on pig fat and onion. It was a time when a skinny latte was not even a twinkle in someone’s eye. It was an era of cooking with dripping and lard and when we made steam puddings with beef suet as nobody had even dreamt of offering a palm and sunflower-oil based vegetarian suet. It was when ice cream contained dairy fats and not palm or coconut oil. Yes, as shocking as it sounds, those days did exist.

All this began to change when it was concluded that saturated fats were bad for you. Apparently, those of animal origin were worse. The consequence was that many of us grew up being told butter was bad and margarine was good and we should select the low-fat or zero-fat dairy option whenever possible. For years, the nutritional advice was to eat less fat and to replace the energy supplied from the fats with carbohydrates. It appears that times are now changing and some of the fats are being rehabilitated. At the same time, we are beginning to ask if eating too many carbohydrates and, especially, sugar may have significant and [apparently] unforeseen health consequences. Important as this evolving and controversial story is it is not the focus of this article.

To the best of my knowledge, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s as animal fats became ‘unfashionable’ the food industry had to identify alternatives. Thus, the emergence of trans fats [(from Wikipedia): Trans fats… are a type of unsaturated fats that are uncommon in nature but became commonly produced industrially from vegetable fats for use in margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods and frying fast food starting in the 1950s… Trans fat has been shown to consistently be associated… with increased risk of coronary heart disease]. As with animal fats, trans fats eventually fell by the wayside leaving the food industry hunting around for another option to use within so very many food products. Palm oil has proven to be that alternative.

It is safe to say that two major beneficiaries of the dietary changes that have seen animal fats replaced with vegetable fats have been soybean oil and, later, palm oil. Setting the nutritional issues aside, these changes have not been totally benign from an environmental perspective. The expansion in soybean and oil palm has had consequences but ones that rarely get mentioned at a time when ruminants [especially cattle] get such a bad press from the climate change lobby [see my earlier post, ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’].

Soybean is a major source of vegetable oil. The soybean is ‘dual-purpose’ but, historically, two-thirds of its value [ref. soymeal.org] comes from soybean cake [thus it is often referred to as a protein (for animal feed) crop]. For reference [soymeal.org], about 17.5% of the bean is extracted as oil and 80% as meal. Consequently, a greater emphasis is placed on the use of soymeal for poultry, pigs and cattle rather than oil even though soybean oil production has risen from nearly 16 million tonnes in 1990 to nearly 43 million tonnes in 2014 [FAO]. The emphasis on meal is why meat and dairy production is often seen as resource-hungry and a major problem with respect to climate change. Apart from years of nutritional advice that favoured vegetable over animal fats, animal fats are now often believed to be bad for the environment and our climate.

A great deal of importance is placed upon cattle and climate change so one would expect that most soybean meal was fed to cattle. Usage in the USA is, however, estimated as “approximately 48% of the soybean meal is used in poultry feeds followed by 26% in swine feeds, 12% in beef cattle feeds, 9% in dairy cattle feeds, 3% in fish feeds, and 2% in pet foods” [Cromwell in soymeal.org]. The figures highlight just how much soybean is actually used for poultry and pig feed.

Are the climate-change concerns about soybean meal use in cattle because they are less efficient converters of the meal into human-consumable protein than intensively-reared, confined poultry and pigs? One would of course like to see the question answered in terms of cattle that are predominately herbage-fed and those that are grain-fed [the research may be out there but the author has yet to find it]. As stated earlier, all cattle are not equal and especially if one considers their possible role in carbon-sequestration and grasslands regeneration. Meanwhile is sufficient scrutiny being placed upon pigs and poultry?

Poultry as a white meat is often promoted as the healthier option but is it, if the usage of soybean meal in the USA is typical of wider global usage, also the environmentally-friendly choice?

To quote the World Wildlife Fund [panda.org], “unfortunately, the expansion of soy to feed the world’s growing demand for meat often contributes to deforestation and the loss of other valuable ecosystems in Latin America… in South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone… [it] can largely be blamed on heavily soy-dependent livestock farming… limiting consumption of animal-based food products, particularly meat, is one thing people can do to help end this devastating trend”.

To add some background, using the FAO production figures [which date back to 1961], the global area devoted to soybeans was nearly 24 million hectares in 1961. By 2014 it had risen to nearly 118 million. Over this period Argentinian production has risen from 1,000 to 19¼ million hectares, Brazil from 240,000 to 30¼ million and the USA from 11 million to over 33½ million. Therefore, one can also see that Argentina has seen a massive expansion; presumably at the expense of its Pampas grasslands rather than rainforest [and thus it does not attract the same attention]. If, however, one considers that carbon loss from grassland converted to tillage as a major source of atmospheric carbon, how great has the impact of Argentinian soybean expansion been? And is the loss of carbon-sequestering, pasture-based cattle-farming only made it worse?

Who buys soybeans or its meal? In 2013 World trade in soybeans was 103 million tonnes [USA exports accounted for 38%, Brazil 42% and Argentina 8% [the latter processes most of its beans)]. Of this nearly 60% goes to China [which processes beans rather than imports meal and oil]. Some 62 million tonnes [FAO] of soymeal was traded internationally of which nearly 25 million [40%] was imported into the EU. Argentinian exports accounted for 35% of global trade, Brazil 21% and the USA 12% [FAO]. For reference, Argentina is 100% GMO, the USA 93% and Brazil 92% [GMO Compass].

What would be interesting to know is what proportion of soymeal imported into the EU was used for poultry, pig and cattle [dairy and beef] feed. In the context of EU imports, Ireland is a relatively small importer of soymeal. In 2013 it imported about 415,000 tonnes [FAO]. By 2015 [CSO] this had risen to nearly 450,000 tonnes of which about two-thirds came from Argentina. For what is it used?

As highlighted earlier there are environmental issues around land use for soybeans in South America. For some food consumer and those in the supply-chains that provide for them there are also other issues with soya; namely the use of GMOs and the associated use of the glyphosate herbicide. Whatever farmers and scientists think about these technologies; the situation is that many consumers [often premium-paying] are concerned about their use and are willing to pay to avoid them. The question for a country like Ireland that aspires to be a premium foods producer is, does it wish to take account of these consumer preferences or not?

A while ago I read an article from the USA that asked whether Irish butter was GM-free. It may be promoted as grass-fed but is it also produced without the use of GM feeds [i.e. soybean meal]? When one reads about UK and German supermarkets looking at only stocking livestock products from animals that are fed GM-free diets, the GM-issue should be of major concern to Ireland. Is there a correlation between Ireland’s target markets for, for example, developing the Kerrygold brand and consumers who wish to eat a GM-free diet? One can believe that these consumers are poorly informed but can you create a sustainable business by ignoring the wishes of your target consumer?

To return specifically to soybean meal usage, should we be looking at our consumption of poultry meat more than we are? Chickens bred for intensive, confined systems grow at an incredible rate. Are they fuelled by protein-rich diets to do so? Are we consuming vast amounts of soymeal to feed our desire for cheap chicken-derived protein? And should we also be considering the broader issues like bird welfare and antibiotic use? If one compares chicken-based protein with that from grass-fed, largely free-range, cattle production, are we targeting the wrong protein producing systems?

Another major protein feed imported into Ireland is palm kernel extract [PKE]. This is the reside left after extracting the oil from the palm kernel. The palm kernel itself being the minor proportion of the palm fruit [from which most the palm oils is derived]. In this case PKE is the by-product of producing palm oil. Its availability has, nonetheless, increased significantly in recent years as the demand for palm oil by the food industry [as trans fats usage has declined] has risen.

In 1961 the global palm oil area was 3.5 million hectares [FAO]. By 1990 this had risen to 6.1 million hectares. It exceeded 10 million hectares by 2000 and over 18.5 million in 2014. In 1990 palm oil production was about 11½ million tonnes. By 2014 it was nearly 54½ million. Palm oil has seen a recent and dramatic increase in usage and it is one that is driven by the demand for palm oil as a vegetable-fat. It is probably the greatest development resulting from the substitution of animal fats by vegetable fats in the human diet [a consequence of decades of nutritional guidelines]. The question is, has this change been a benign one for our environment and our climate?

To say that there is concern about deforestation in regions like South-East Asia due to the expansion of oil palm is an understatement. Not only is there the carbon emissions from forest clearance itself but there are the issues of habitat loss and species extinction. There are now sustainable palm oil initiatives but are they doing more than scratching the surface? And our demand for palm oil seems to be insatiable and it has major environmental costs. Is it a cost that can be traced back to our nutritional-guidelines-driven switch to vegetable from animal fats [with an intervening digression into trans-fats along the way]? Is it an unforeseen but costly consequence?

It was only a few weeks ago that Professor Keith Woodford [Lincoln University] raised the issue in his blog of PKE usage in New Zealand. The country’s dairy industry has taken massive advantage of the increasing availability pf PKE in its wider geographic region. In 2000 New Zealand imported 539 tonnes of PKE [FAO]. By 2013 this had risen to 1.6 million tonnes! Ireland, by contrast, imported an eighth of the quantity in 2013. Now PKE is a genuine by-product of palm-oil production [simply nobody would grow oil palms for animal feeds, the yields are just far, far too low] but that aside, Professor Woodford still considers it necessary for New Zealand to look at how it can protect its grass-fed, sustainable image from being undermined by its use of a potentially ‘toxic’ [from an environmental image perspective] imported animal feed. Ireland needs to watch this space.

Here I have highlighted issues surrounding two sources of animal protein feeds; both have environmental question marks. One would strongly recommend that, in the context of promoting Ireland as a sustainable, green premium-foods producer, their sourcing is reviewed. It is a review that should also be taken further in terms of animal feed imports; the overall tonnage is not limited to circa a million tonnes of proteins as [in 2015] a similar tonnage of food processing by-products was also imported. And then there was nearly another million tonnes of maize… Ireland’s livestock farming is highly import dependent in terms of feeds, fertilisers and fuels and it could have implications when it comes to selling the country’s green, sustainable image. One accepts that Irish farming, with its limited land resources, needs to import what it cannot produce but it is important to ensure that the input supply chains are also verified as ‘sustainable’.

There looks to be several positives appearing concerning cattle farming at present; albeit for cattle farmed in a certain way. There is a lot of talk of ‘grass-fed’ but, as stated in a previous blog, it will become insufficient to be selling products that are loosely-defined as ‘grass-fed’. There is also the Omega 3 / Omega 6 issue that favours grass-fed over grain-fed. And then there are farmers who are working on grassland management techniques focused on sequestering carbon. And there are researchers and practitioners who belief that it is possible to use cattle to regenerate ancient grasslands and restore arid areas. The author believes that the coming years will reveal that cattle farming is not all bad, far from it. It is just that we must be selective about how we farm cattle and, many people say, some societies must eat less meat per se. They must simultaneously place a greater value on meat itself.

Having started by writing about nutrition, I will come full circle and mention the current ‘rehabilitation’ of the animal fats. At least it has happening for some, if not others. It is now, at least, a point of controversy. I would recommend reading ‘Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz; it takes to task many decades of what has become the conventional thinking on nutrition. It asks just how far reaching have been the health implication of those guidelines and our replacement of animal fats with vegetable fats and fats with carbohydrates. I cannot adequately summarize here what Nina Teicholz has to say, but for anyone with interests in the production of grass [herbage is a better descriptor] -fed meat and dairy products, it should be obligatory reading.

Further, I would add to the obligatory reading list ‘Defending Beef’ by Nicolette Hahn Niman and ‘Grass-fed Nation’ by Graham Harvey. For herbage-focused farmers they are a triumvirate of books when it comes to creating a vision for the future. By reading them together, one can see how nutritional guidelines have impacted upon the health of whole nations and massively influenced the direction of the farming and food industries.

When supported by rising consumer wealth, the nutritional guidelines have had environmental consequences as we have used soybeans to fuel the growth of, in particular, poultry meat production and palm oil to provide for the needs of a food industry in a post-trans-fats era. They have also impacted upon animal welfare and especially bird welfare as we have switched to white from red meat. These are consequences that are often go unmentioned; they are extrapolations of my own and they come from joining the dots of what is a complicated issue. They are, however, issues that herbage-focused farmers need to understand when everyone appears to be blaming the poor old cow.

is not saying that cattle production does not have its issues. Should we be eating so much cheap beef? Maybe we should be eating more pulses directly rather than converting them into proteins via farmed livestock? Maybe we should be asking ourselves more rigorous questions over the merits of confined versus free-range livestock farming. And, although I have highlighted, the environmental consequences of soybean and palm oil production, we should not ignore the impact of cattle farming on, for example, water quality or carbon emissions in general. And we should be asking ourselves just how resource hungry is grass-based farming when it is reliant on man-made fertilizers rather than nitrogen fixed by legumes. Everything is not rosy in the garden, but it is also not as weed-infested as some would like us to believe.

opportunities that changing thinking on nutrition could be immense for Ireland’s ruminant-based agriculture. They will, nonetheless, not be realized by believing that a generic-Irish, slap-a-sticker-on-it, sell-what-we-have approach will work. It is not what will convince the target consumer to pay the premium necessary to allow the structure of the Irish farming industry to remain. As I often state, for that to happen we need to see a premiumized farm-gate price. That could happen given that premium-paying consumers are going to increasingly demand credible traceability and a fuller understanding of the farming system behind the product [and providing them with anything less will risk another ‘horse-gate’]. The foundations of that credibility must be created on the farm with farmers making the changes necessary to deliver on what the consumer aspires to. And when one views it from such a perspective one also realizes that the opportunities can benefit the farmer; that is if they are their leadership are willing to go out and grasp them before others do.

HAS ‘GRASS-FED’ GONE BEYOND ITS ‘BEST BEFORE’ DATE?

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about ‘grass-fed the American way’; or more specifically about how ‘grass-fed’ is defined by the USDA and American Grass-fed Association {AGA}. The term ‘grass-fed’ has, in the USA, already been specifically defined. This did not, however, stop a great deal of talk this side of the Atlantic about how Ireland was going to sell a vast tonnage of ‘grass-fed’ beef into a newly opening US market. It was as if the definition in use in the USA did not matter.

Now it appears that ‘grass-fed’ is a label that is on the up in the USA. AGA is not alone in having established a grass-fed label. These labels [as with the USDA definition] come with protocols and standards [something that appears to be absent when it comes to the sales-promotional use of ‘grass-fed’ in Ireland]. Should one expect, at some point in time, that the organisations promoting grass-fed brands will defend their intellectual property through any legal avenues open to them? When/if it happens will the days of ‘grass-fed’ being easy-to-band-about sales patter be over? Is it realistic to suggest that its use as such for beef, lamb and dairy products may already be nearing its ‘best before’ or even its ‘use-by’ date?

And one should not consider that these developments are peculiar to the USA. ‘Grass-fed’ as in ‘pasture-fed’ has already been defined in the UK. It is interesting that in the UK they have already chosen to use an alternative to ‘grass-fed. Over use and the rigour associated with the term ‘grass-fed’ may be a reason for using the alternative ‘pasture-fed’ term. If so, it was a wise choice. If one is going to develop the standards and protocols behind a designated-origin, proven-provenance label, why start out by using a term that is already being widely used and one that is not defined by specific farm-husbandry practices encapsulated within a designated-origin scheme.

Creating ‘grass-fed’ products is not only happening in the USA and the UK as one hears of initiatives in, for example, Australia and New Zealand. One should also expect them to happen in countries that are renown for beef and have a history of grazing extensive grasslands. Amongst these one may find the former communist countries of Eastern Europe [and some may be well placed to take advantage of premium markets in countries like Germany (not least because they may utilize German investment)]. The author well knows the grasslands of Transylvania [God’s own country when it comes to cattle] and they have a history of being farmed by ethnic Germans and Hungarians and supplying the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its armies with horses and cattle. And then one reads about 135,000 suckler cows in one single operation in Russia.

Suckler cows and Aberdeen Angus may be common to many of these ‘grass-fed systems. Of course, one can argue that many of these locations do not have Ireland’s long grass-growing seasons but then again they will have scale in their favour [and often much lower land costs]. Locations like Transylvania are also where lucerne/alfalfa and other legumes thrive. Just how does the economics add up when these can provide low-cost winter forages? The numbers are somewhat different when the forage-based system is not built upon ryegrass and nitrogen fertilizers. Does Ireland really have that great a cost advantage or, for that matter, lower per unit climate-change-linked emissions? The whole grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed issue is a rapidly evolving one and it is not one that can be addressed by simplistically attaching the term ‘grass-fed’ to your products.

So what Is Ireland up to? Is it now running around the globe trying to open ‘premium’ markets for its ‘grass-fed’ beef? Is it ignoring what others are doing and hoping that it will be able to convince the consumer that its more generic approach will suffice; that it is grass-fed simply because we say so? Is this just another sales-team approach that says that we can sell it because it is Irish? Is it all about what the ‘marketing boys’ say, regardless of whether the product stacks up when scrutinized by an issues-aware, day one say it, intelligent consumer; albeit that they are the ones who generally inhabit the upper tiers of the food markets? If so, it is not a sustainable approach.

Hence the very real question, what does ‘grass-fed’ mean when it comes to products from Ireland? Is there a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’? Is it that a minimum of 51% of the animal’s lifetime diet must come from grass [including grass-based forages]? And just what is meant by ‘grass’? Is it from ryegrass swards that are fed with the country’s 1.5 million tonnes of imported nitrogen fertilisers? Or is it from more diverse swards that also contain legumes? Or is it from more extensive biodiverse grasslands? The consumer might wish to know.

And what about the/any non-grass based part of the animal’s diet. Of concern is for the issues-aware consume is GM-feeds but Ireland imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soymeal from Argentina. The GM issue may not be of concern to Ireland’s ‘science’-focused establishment but it is of concern to many premium-paying consumers [as exemplified by Waitrose’s choice to only sell products from animals fed on a GM-free diet]. One can also add in issues like whether the soya was grown on land that was originally rain forest or Pampas grasslands or whether the palm kernel extract from certified-as-sustainable plantations. Both have climate-change emissions ratifications that consumers are and will become increasingly aware of. And to repeat oneself, the consumer is in charge and the future is not about ignoring the consumer.

Meanwhile others are developing the products that the premium markets want. The French with their multi-level, designated-origin schemes have been doing so for years. Others are cottoning on. Ireland is not because to do so means first changing the systems from the farm up. These schemes must be first about the husbandry employed on farm. They are then about operating supply-chain partnerships and ensuring that the routes to market are genuine partnerships that return a fair price to the farmer to reward the husbandry skills employed. Does that sound like something that Ireland’s often antagonistic [when it comes to relationships] routes to market can deliver?

The very industrial-scale, centralized nature of the routes to market may also count against Ireland when it comes to delivering to the top end of the markets; not least when some consumers see ‘local’ as an increasingly important consideration [local in terms of animal slaughter is also an animal welfare issue and, some would say an eating-quality (less stress) issue]. Low cost, centralized processing may deliver cost advantages [that may or may not benefit the farmer] but what role does it have when it comes to linking the premium-product producing farmer to the premium-paying consumer? Is it inhibiting the income-earning potential of most Irish farmers; be they supplying meat or milk or grains? It is a result of years of agri-food strategy preparation that has been dominated by the needs of the processor/exporters and not the farming or rural communities. There is, sadly, no sign of this changing. And in allowing this to happen, Ireland’s vaunted farmer representation has failed its membership. It is a failure that is going to be difficult to rectify.

To return to the original premise of the post; is ‘grass-fed’ a term that has reached its ‘best before’ date? For an agri-food industry that liberally uses ‘grass-fed’ it must be a shocking idea. Setting aside the thought that it is in danger of being over-used for sales promotion, [I choose not to use the word marketing because ‘marketing’ in its purist’s form means first using market research to define the product, pre-production], one is asking if the term ‘grass-fed’ is, from an evolving farming systems perspective, already dated? It may well be.

Long term one cannot see Ireland’s ‘produce-it-and-then-shift-it’ approach [where labelling is a part of the ‘shift it’ activity and not the ‘produce it’ activity (it is sales and not marketing-led; i.e. supply-driven)] delivering for farmers via improved farm incomes? It may continue to deliver for the post-farm-gate, processing sector but, as recent months have suggested, that sector is well able to protect its own supply-chain margins through market downturns. Just how well have they passed on the pain of low market prices to their farmer-suppliers?

As said earlier, the World is moving on. ‘Grass-fed’, as per the USDA, is gaining a stronger foothold in the USA [often seen as a target market for Irish ‘grass-fed’ products]. What will premium beef become in the USA, marbling and eating qualities aside? Will it be about cattle reared using traditional ranching and rangeland management methods? Will it be about returning land to its biodiverse former self? Will it be about returning carbon to soils through using, for example, mob-grazing? In an era where cattle are often considered as a major cause of climate change, will it be about showing how cattle farming can sequester carbon and be, at worst, carbon neutral? Will raising beef be about being in tune with nature and with the demands of those consumers who do understand that beef is a complex product that encompasses many characteristics and issues? This is all a far cry from rearing cattle on nitrogen-fed, non-biodiverse, grasslands.

Moving on from the USA, Tasmania is developing a label that promotes the sale of cattle that are totally free range and are certified hormone, antibiotic and GMO free. And then there is the premium beef range from New Zealand that specifies that its cattle are Black Angus and that they are raised free range on New Zealand’s pastures.  Its beef is “grass fed” and that means 100% grass fed and grass finished. The cattle are 100% pastured as required under USDA grass-fed rules.

The French go further and have done so for years. Their upper-tier products specify the production location, the breed, the feeds used, minimum and maximum slaughter ages and the use of local slaughter only. In some cases, like with the premium Charolais label, the rules specify the specific pastures [designated because of their biodiverse nature] upon which the cattle can be finished. It is all about the ‘terroir’. It is about ensuring that the consumer knows exactly how the product is produced and from where. Interestingly. it is also about limiting production volumes to ensure that the producer retains some control and that volume limits create scarcity to maintain a price premium. It is about premiumization of the farm-gate price and farm incomes.

The underlying message here is that premium markets are far more sophisticated than appears to be appreciated in Ireland. Increasingly they are about having the transparency that allows the consumer to understand and appreciate how the product is produced on-farm. Yes, it often includes transparency about the processing activity but the premium-paying, issues-aware consumer wants to know more about how the ‘raw material’ is produced down on the farm. And this goes well beyond form-filling quality assurance schemes, it is about the farming systems themselves and ensuring that they and the products they produce meet the demands of the consumer. Adding a label at the its-already-produced, ‘shift-it’ stage is not going to cut it going forwards. Well not if the expectation is to access the real premium markets. And they are the ones that the small-scale, volume-constrained, Irish farmer needs to be suppling if farm incomes are ever going to move towards that key target of Origin Green, to achieve sustainability all along the Supply Chain.

So just what is Ireland doing? Is it running around the World believing that its concept of what is ‘grass-fed’ will allow it to access the top end of the market? If it is, is this in the full recognition that this will deliver better incomes for the farmer? Or is it still largely about shifting commodities? Have the responsible parties yet grasped the idea that it is about developing long-term supply-chains for unique-to-Ireland, designated-origin products? Or is there still the old problem, that Irish farming is supply-driven and not market-led? Is it still commodity-minded and not product-orientated?

The current approach to using the term ‘grass-fed’ is both supply-driven and commodity minded; it is about producing the beef in the same old way and then adding the label later. It is still the ‘produce it / shift it’ model. It is not an approach that will work with sophisticated, premium-paying consumers and it is not one that will open-up premium markets for the long-term as there will simply be too much competition around that will be equipped with the real McCoy; designated-origin products with a complete story and a transparent history to support its grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed [insert your term of choice here] claims. Aiming to sell products using only a broadly generic ‘grass-fed’ label; albeit that the grass is grown in Ireland, will not be where it is at.