There is a sustainable future for beef production in Northern Ireland, according to Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) chief executive Ian Stevenson.
“The good news is that the potential to grow more grass and, as a consequence, produce more beef is significant. So the general prospects for the industry moving forward must be positive,” he said.
“But that’s not to say we won’t have challenges to face. And, looking down the track, Brexit is by far the most significant of these.”
Stevenson agrees that even if the UK walked away from the Brexit negotiations with a ‘no deal’ outcome, there is significant potential for Northern Ireland’s beef industry to secure a greater foothold in the GB market.
“This will be on the back of falling EU beef imports,” he added.
“But the UK market will not take all of the beef we produce. The question of carcase balance then arises: how do we market offals and the other components of the beef carcase that British consumers are not enamoured with in the most efficient way possible?
“Up to this point, Europe has been our main outlet for these products. This is why it is so important that the UK secures a comprehensive trade deal with the EU before Brexit becomes a reality.”
Stevenson, pictured, also confirmed that Brexit will put more pressure on Northern Ireland’s beef industry to secure trade deals with other countries around the world.
“Again, it comes back to carcase balance. Our processors are already doing business with customers in a host of locations outside the EU, the Philippines being the latest jurisdiction to accept beef from Northern Ireland.
“And we need to build on this with the likes of China, the United States and Japan being key export targets for the future.”
From a future support perspective, Stevenson believes that the suckler sector must be ring fenced, once London becomes the driver of farm policy in the UK.
“Suckler cows are synonymous with quality beef production,” he said.
“Yet the sector is the one that is most exposed to market change. Suckler herds tend to be the backbone of the farming industry in our most disadvantaged areas. We are already seeing the additional funding package agreed for these regions by former farm minister Michelle McIlveen running its course.
“It’s important for this issue to be re-addressed by a future Stormont Executive and the powers-that-be in London, once Brexit becomes a reality.
“But, above all else, we need future support measures that recognise the fragility of the suckler beef industry here in Northern Ireland.
“If this is not achieved, we could well see the large scale human depopulation of our hill areas. And this would be in nobody’s interest.”
Stevenson made these comments in the run-up to the Farm Quality Assurance (FQAS) 25th anniversary dinner, taking place next Tuesday evening. He confirmed that the scheme had helped local exporters confirm the quality of the beef produced here in Northern Ireland for the past two decades and more.
“And, no doubt, it will continue to do so for many years to come,” he concluded.