Ben Barnett: Value of better beef prices is a wider community concern

Beef prices have been falling for the last 12 weeks. Picture by Adobe Stock/Eddie Cloud.
Beef prices have been falling for the last 12 weeks. Picture by Adobe Stock/Eddie Cloud.

The viability of the livestock farming sector impacts on us all. A well-documented demise in farmgate beef prices has brought this into stark focus.

Twelve consecutive weeks of declining prices has sounded alarm bells with some farms already reacting by trimming herd sizes.

If the situation becomes unsustainable and forces farming families out, the impact on rural communities and the economy would be immediate. In such a scenario, spending with local businesses would be hit, social vibrancy would be damaged and there would be fewer families around to sustain vital services in the countryside, such as schools.

Many farms would no doubt diversify into other sectors, but some land is only suited to grazing. The point is that there is still a great appetite for beef, the way it is produced in this country is environmentally superior to many other parts of the world, and therefore its production should be valued.

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Consumer sales may have taken a two per cent year-on-year knock recently but such a difference can be partly accounted for by dietary choices because of the weather. Last summer’s drought-like conditions amid blistering heat no doubt prompted a greater rush on burgers for barbecues, for example.

There may be other reasons for lower demand, but the message is, if we as a nation really do value the standards of production we have in this country, then we need a farming sector that is properly rewarded for upholding them.

It is largely because of poor market returns that so many farming enterprises are reliant on support payments to the tune of £3.2bn.

One of the difficulties in understanding why beef farmers are currently being insufficiently rewarded is that there is no access for producers to figures that show what and how profit is derived for processors and retailers from the raw product they supply.

A tightening of supply is expected later in the year, which should lift prices somewhat. Hopefully, any damage in the meantime is limited, but this situation must serve as a lesson that we should not take British beef production for granted.