Inaccurate portrayals of livestock’s environmental role risk turning off shoppers from buying red meat at a time when British beef offers the best value for money, a farming leader has warned.
Amid the lowest farmgate prices for beef cattle in years due to a market oversupply, some retailers are offering price promotions on premium cuts.
Nonetheless, North Yorkshire farmer Richard Findlay said a culture of misinformation about the impact of livestock on the environment means consumers could spurn the chance to support British beef at a critical time for farm businesses.
Mr Findlay, who chairs the national livestock board at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “The current beef price is completely unsustainable. We have a lot of farmers losing between £150 and £200 per animal at the moment and that just can’t carry on any longer.”
Last year’s extreme weather conditions have compounded the impact of lower prices, he said.
“The low price now is on the back of some of the most expensive cattle to produce because of the drought last summer and fodder shortages through the winter.
“Farmers have had to spend an awful lot of money finishing these cattle, much more than normal and they have been really hammered by the lowest beef price for several years.”
He said the NFU had held “positive” talks with meat processors, supermarkets and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board about greater promotion of red meat to help ease the oversupply of beef.
Bradford-based Morrisons is offering two sirloin steaks for £7, for example, said Mr Findlay, adding: “Unfortunately, it’s the farmer who is bankrolling that but the British consumer is probably getting better value for money than they ever have.”
He said he was concerned however about shoppers’ willingness to back British beef because some media coverage of environmental issues quote the global average carbon footprint for beef production, not the British average which is two-and-a-half times less.
In Western Europe, beef production emits 19 kilograms carbon dioxide equivalent (kgCO2e) per kilogram of carcass weight, compared to a world average of 46 kgCO2e.
“It’s completely misleading. We have a great story to tell,” according to Mr Findlay, who said shoppers are “almost being made to feel guilty about buying red meat for environmental reasons” at the moment, even though academic and scientific research coming had suggested the opposite - citing work by Cranfield and Cambridge universities and Rothamsted Research.
“When you take into account the grass that beef animals and sheep are raised on, and the carbon sequestration of that grass, British beef and lamb probably has a positive carbon footprint, not a negative one,” the farmer added.
“If you want to do your bit for the environment, and all the stewardship work farms are doing, you should be supporting the agricultural industry by buying British Red Tractor assured farm produce, because we are part of the solution to enhancing the environment, certainly not the problem.”
Prices expected to improve
Mr Findlay said he anticipates a welcome lift in the farmgate price for British beef as the year wears on.
According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the average price for cattle at auction marts across the North in the last week was 190.5p per kilo, down from 203.4p per kilo at the start of the year.
“The answer to the low prices is probably the tightening of supplies from now until the end of the year,” said Mr Findlay, who farms in the North York Moors at Westerdale.
“We have a fairly accurate idea of how many beef animals are in the pipeline through the British Cattle Movement Service and animal calf registrations, so we do know there will be a significant tightening of supply from now until the end of the year into 2020.
“I am confident the beef price will start to lift.”