As agricultural production comes under significant pressure in the UK, demand for Irish beef imports will inevitably have to increase, Rupert Claxton, director of meat and livestock with European consultancy GIRA has said.

Speaking to the IFA’s county chairs forum at the Irish embassy in London last week, Claxton said that currently consumption of beef in the UK is higher than production.

“We [the UK] have got to import, we are not self-sufficient in beef. We’ve got a significant load of imports, just under 400,000t of carcase weight equivalent – of which Ireland is the primary supplier,” he said.

UK farmers don’t have the political support that Irish farmers enjoy, Claxton said adding that the upcoming general election on 4 July would not change this.

“We will see an ongoing decline in production here, we will see an increase in costs. We don’t have the protection of Europe, we don’t have the CAP set up there,” Claxton added.

Consumers, he said, are prepared to start spending again as signs of economic recovery emerge in the UK.

“Consumers are less concerned, the energy prices have come down and they’re back to spending a little bit more on food as we go into the next 12 months. I’m a little bit more optimistic about where we’re going. I’m a bit more hopeful about the second half of 2024 and that means that we are going to have to import a bit more,” he said.

Rupert Claxton is correct in that the UK will be a net importer of beef and always has been.AHDB, the levy board in England which has a similar role to Bord Bia, publishes data on an ongoing basis that shows the production, import and export data, and it indicates that UK consistently consumes between 20% and 25% more beef than is produced in the UK.

In the first five months of 2024 to the end of May, UK beef production overall was actually up 3% on the same period in 2023, at some 387,000t.

Between January and April this year, the UK imported 102,906t of all types of beef and offal, according to AHDB data, with 71,724t of this coming from Ireland.

These are actual product weight volumes, not carcase weight equivalents (cwe).

During the the same period, beef exports stood at 47,816t, which may be a surprise as the UK consumes more beef than it produces.

There are two main reasons for a significant UK beef export sector.

Just as Ireland is the biggest supplier of beef imported into the UK, it is also the biggest export market. In the period to the end of April, 12,134t were exported to Ireland. A significant part of this is due to cross-border trade on the island of Ireland.

The other driver of UK beef exports is the fact that countries in mainland Europe have a higher preference for cow beef than UK consumers, so what happens in practice is that the UK imports steer and heifer beef and exports its cow beef.

Future supplies

Rupert Claxton painted a gloomy picture for UK production prospects in the post-Brexit era. However, it isn’t just UK production that is under pressure, it is a similar picture across the EU, with production also falling.

In Ireland, suckler cow numbers have been in decline for over a decade, though expansion in the dairy herd has until now offset this. Given the nitrates pressures and the need to achieve a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030, it seems inevitable that Ireland will also have less beef at the end of the decade than we do at present.

At 400,000t cwe, the UK will be the world’s fifth largest import market for beef this year, behind China, the USA, Japan and South Korea.

It is also a high value market and attractive to all major beef exporting countries.

As the UK is no longer a member of the EU, it is free to make a trade deal with whatever country it chooses and has already done so with Australia and New Zealand – two major beef exporting countries.

It is likely that it will grow its presence in the UK market for imported beef in coming years and has increased its sales to the UK over the past year, since tariff-free trade commenced.

Ireland will remain the preferred source of UK beef imports, being the closest high volume supplier of similar product, but there will be plenty of future competition.