When you go to international food trade fairs it’s eye-opening to see how small Ireland really is on the global food map.
Compared to the likes of Brazil and Australia, we are small fry, yet 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 details, Irish beef exports to the UK go unnoticed by British farmers and it is no surprise.
Last year we exported 214,000 tonnes to the UK and we have a regular market share of around 70 per cent of imports. Irish beef also holds a strong position in a host of major British retailers.
But it hasn’t always been like this. For centuries our beef trade with the UK has been characterized by the trade of live cattle.
In the early 1970s, more than 800,000 cattle were being shipped from Ireland to Britain each year.
While farmers today often view live exports as valuable competition for meat processors, at one time it was actually a staggering loss of value and economic activity for Ireland.
Finton O’Toole wrote that the cattle boat became a perfect image of Irish independence ambition: a profitable export in the hold, a bitter exodus of people on deck.
It’s surprising to think we’ve gone from this situation to the situation where Irish processors are said to control 60 pcs of UK beef processing.
Irish agriculture had undoubtedly benefited from the change in the beef trade from ‘on the hook’ to ‘on the hook’, although beef farmers may question whether they profited as much as they should have.
However, our focus on finished products rather than live cattle has allowed us to take advantage of our EU membership to target consumers in a much larger and equally valuable market.
While the declining importance of the UK market to the Irish beef sector is a reflection of greater market divergence – in light of Brexit – we must not forget how important our nearest neighbor still is.