Europe must face up to the "huge threats" posed by our growing dependence on imported beef, delegates at
the MLC Outlook conference were told.
Matt Dempsey, a prominent figure in the Irish farming industry and editor of Irish Farming Journal, said a decline in production, coupled with growing consumption means Europe is likely to face a deficit of 1mt of beef by 2015. This would leave it vulnerable to increases in the price of South American beef.
At the moment, European beef prices average €3.50/kg dw, a significantly better price than South American beef, which averages €1.15/kg dw. But Dempsey questioned how long this advantage could be sustained. He said: "As Europe slips further into deficit, the question for us is how robust is this hierarchy of prices?"
The decoupling of subsidies from production, introduced with the CAP reforms, has led to the widespread expectation that cattle herd numbers will decline. Dempsey said the UK is expected to see a decline of 11% in its cattle numbers between now and 2015. However, he revealed that, despite forecasts of a drop of 16%, Irish cattle numbers are remaining steady.
This was not enough to stop European numbers falling though, he said, adding: "This is expected to translate into a 1% annual fall in EU beef production all the way through."
With a greater presence of South American beef on the EU market, Dempsey urged beef producers to safeguard their futures by differentiating their products from Brazilian and Argentine products, by both clear labelling and by considering a move towards producing profitable bulls for beef.
"It may be at least worth considering whether our traditional attachment to a 'steer-only policy' is still justified for farmers. We are playing for high stakes and this is not an industry for the fainthearted," Dempsey said.