Last week That's Farming post "Fatally injured Bullock left for over 10 hours in mart" has been viewed over 24,000 times. It is also a week when BBC Countryfile raised the question of how many calves are killed soon after birth on UK dairy farms. And it is not so long ago that the fate of Irish cattle exported live to Turkey was also attracting the attention of the media.
The common theme of these stories is 'animal welfare', a term that covers an array of activities, be they everyday farming practices to what one hopes, as with the mart bullock, are far from common-place incidents. Animal welfare is a concern from birth to death and, if you believe that eating quality is influenced by pre- and post-slaughter practices, it extends to the consumer's fork.
Vegetarian and vegan numbers are rising as more people prefer not to eat meat or any animal-derived products respectively. Some may consider them as at the fringe but to do so is to hide from the reality of their broader influence. Then we have foodies who seek premium foods and who want to know more about production and processing practices and animal welfare issues are high on their agenda. And then we have those lobbying for an eat less but better approach. True their primary concern may be to reduce foods' carbon footprint but you can rest-assured, most will see better as also relating to animal welfare.
In a social-media-informed market that is increasingly urban, animal welfare, in all its guises, is only going to rise further up the agenda. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg at present. And any producers who aspire to supply these markets need to be highly aware of animal welfare, what it means to consumers, and to work out how to respond accordingly. If you don't you will join a race to the bottom where only cost matters, whereas, for a country with small-scale farmers, it is must be about partaking in the race to the top.
To do so, we must first ask if we want to impose market-orientated regulation upon ourselves or accept it from others as has happened before? Demands for higher animal welfare offer opportunities for those who recognize them as such and are willing to change to meet those demands. Ireland's farmers work on the periphery of major consumer populations and they will have to react to the demands of those consumer, eventually. The question is, do they wish to be in control to the degree that they can they make a profit while fulfilling those demands?
Inevitably, there will have to be some change to farming practices. It will mean, for example, questioning dairy systems that produce low-to-zero-value bull calves. At the other extreme, a few dairy farmers in the UK are trying to develop calf-at-foot milk production; it is a positive way to address the rise of veganism but it is not easy. It also means developing very close contact with the consumer. Without doubt, changes accrue cost and the question must be asked of our broader society, do we wish to support farmers to make these changes?
After decades of responding to a low-cost-food policy environment, change will cost farmers and if we, as consumer-taxpayers, wish to see major changes to our food systems we must be willing to pay for the changes through the shop till and through offering change-over financial support. One would also like to see more animal welfare groups support farmers to change. There is a relationship in the UK between Compassion in world Farming and the Pasture for Life Association.
The issue of live exports for meat animals is a case in point; it can only be resolved without antagonism by cooperation. Farmers point out that live exports are needed to counter-balance a local livestock market dominated by a few processors. It is this lack of local competition in the supply-chain that is driving the farmers desire to see live exports grow. The solution is more routes to market that enable farmers to slaughter and process close to home. It is a double win as the presence of these new routes should also allow farmer groups to access premium markets with fully traceable, designated-origin products. Hence, farming leaders and animal-welfare lobbyists should hand-in-hand be demanding that the government helps to create more routes to market. Further, those Irish in Brussels who talk of more competition in the food supply-chains should demand that it happens within Ireland first.
Over the years Irish beef has gone from being sold frozen to being sold fresh. It was a step-change in the industry. It is now time for another one. This will not happen overnight and there will remain a major role for the current high-throughput/low-margin players to handle the volume side of the business. In theory, they could provide farmers with alternative routes to market, but does their operational model or facilities allow it? Could they provide a fully-transparent, competitively-priced slaughtering and processing service to enable farmer groups to develop their own consumer markets? It would certainly take a great leap forwards in cooperation and trust from where the often-antagonistic relationship is now, but one should not rule anything out. Supply-chain partnerships is where it is at, but will the Irish meat sector ever get there?
If not, it is time for farmer groups, possibly in the guise of co-operatives [where farmer-ownership is guaranteed infinitum], to go their own way. In so doing they need farm to fork control. Both farming leaders and animal welfare lobbyists need to see that this happens. And within this the farmer groups need to do their own market research and product sales as it is imperative that they understand their customers and the final consumer. For too long now they have been several steps divorced from the consumer. They now need to fully appreciate what motivates them, animal welfare perceptions included. Only then can they 'design' the products that meet the expectations of consumers who are willing and able to pay premiums to those who satisfy their demands.
And as to the Government, it must ensure that supply-chain development funds are available and that regulatory burdens are not inhibitory, even to the degree of subsidizing the ongoing bureaucratic costs. So often, these are cited as the reason why we have lost crucial, local supply-chain options and they need to be addressed directly. The Government's role is about removing bottlenecks to farming's development and this is a prime case in point when it comes to enabling Irish farmers to sell high animal-welfare, high-value products to consumers who want to buy them.
Ensuring that the Government plays this role is why farmers pay their associations to represent their interests and, in this instance, it is now time for the latter to stand up and to be counted.