Opinion

China news could be much-needed boost for the British suckler sector

The latest report from the Gira Food Consultancy highlights the critical role played by China at the very heart of the global meat industry – could it be the saviour for the British suckler sector?

Imports into that country currently account for 20% of the world’s total trade in beef, lamb, pork and poultry meat. And this figure is growing.

Growing middle classes

The confirmation of these trends coincides with the decision by the Bejing authorities to allow the import of beef from the UK.

China’s beef consumers are to be found amongst that country’s fast-growing middle classes.

This same grouping of people are, no doubt, getting a taste for quality beef, a development that really should constitute a good news story for the suckler sector here in the UK.

Suckler cows have a key role to play at the very heart of the local livestock sector. The reality is that sucklers are synonymous with the production of high-quality beef, which can be sold the world over.

In fact, there is no reason why the size of the British suckler herd cannot be increased. Quality beef will never overhang the market.

As a consequence, exports can act as a key driver to maintain sustainable returns for suckler farmers.

Suckling has been a traditional farming enterprise in this part of the world, going back many generations.

Given its particular significance in those parts of the country where farming alternatives are very limited, the need for the UK government to support the sector post-Brexit is obvious.

‘Inheritantly inefficient’

The reality is that suckling will always be an inherently inefficient business. The one cow: one calf scenario, which underpins the industry, is hardly the best starting point one could ever have wished to consider if it was simply a case of determining how to put a farm’s resource to best use.

This, however, is only part of the story. Suckling also ticks every environmental and conservation-related box that governments and stakeholder groups can come up with.

The grazing impact of suckler cows – and breeding sheep – has helped create the beautiful countryside, particularly in the hilly areas, for which the UK is famous the world over.

In other words, sucklers are a special case. And they must be treated as such. Currently, all the farm lobby groups in the Republic of Ireland are pressing for a €200 a head support payment on suckler cows.

Here in Britain, we may be leaving the EU. However, the need for specific additional assistance to be made available for our suckler herds should be made loud and clear to the authorities in London

Back in the day, this was the case, courtesy of bona fide suckler cow headage payments. And, I firmly believe that this state-of-affairs must be brought back into play with immediate effect.