The UK market is not as important to our cattle breeders as it used to be, but it is still crucial

It’s instructive when you visit international food fairs to see just how tiny Ireland really is on the global food map.

We’re small fish compared to countries like Brazil and Australia, but we have a strong position in the world’s most valuable beef market – the UK. One that is often taken for granted.

As our farm profile on P10 shows, Irish beef exports to the UK do not go unnoticed by UK farmers and it is no wonder.

Last year we exported 214,000 tonnes to the UK and hold a regular market share of around 70 per cent of imports. Irish beef also holds strong positions with a number of major UK retailers.

But it wasn’t always like that. Our beef trade with Britain has for centuries been shaped by the trade in live cattle.

In the early 1970s, more than 800,000 cattle were shipped from Ireland to Britain each year.

While farmers now often welcome live exports as valuable competition to meat processors, it once meant a huge loss in value and economy for Ireland.

Fintan O’Toole wrote that the Cattle Boat became a perfect picture of the ambivalence of Irish freedom: a profitable export in the hold, a bitter exodus of people on deck.

It is amazing to think that we have gone from this situation to one where Irish processors are said to control 60 per cent of UK beef processing.

The transformation of the beef trade from ‘on the huof’ to ‘on the hook’ has undoubtedly had benefits for Irish farming, although beef farmers may question whether they have benefited as much as they should.

However, the focus on finished products rather than live cattle has also allowed us to use our EU membership to target consumers in a much larger and equally valuable market.

While the UK market’s declining importance to the Irish beef sector reflects greater market divergence – a must in light of Brexit – let’s not forget how important our nearest neighbor still is. The UK market is not as important to our cattle breeders as it used to be, but it is still crucial

Fry Electronics Team

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