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Covid-19: consumption changes present 'profound' challenges for ag sector

The spring of 2020 was expected to be a busy time for the pig sector, with so many anticipated changes coming in the form of new legislation, and welfare and environmental issues going up the wider agenda, says Edward Barker, senior policy advisor at the National Pig Association (NPA).

 

However not even the NPA could envisage the unprecedented workload that has arisen as a result of the coronavirus. We have been following the issue for some time; notably how the virus had affected export markets in China, whilst watching the issue unfold in Italy, where problems had been seen in processing, production and exports.

 

Whenever we do come out of lockdown, it is inevitable that the consequences will be felt for some time, and for all sectors. As these consequences are felt, we will have to understand how the fallout will inevitably impact the UK’s trade policy. The two cannot surely be looked at in isolation when that time comes.

 

It is well established that the UK imports a significant quantity of pig meat, almost entirely from the EU, and latest AHDB figures indicate that the UK is currently 54 per cent self-sufficient.

 

Demands

 

UK demand exceeds supply in the UK for loin and the leg. For loin, consumption has been estimated to be equivalent to around 23 million pigs worth of loins annually, more than twice the number of pigs slaughtered in the UK during a year.

 

The total number of pigs required for leg cuts would be an estimated 19 million pigs. meanwhile, demand for shoulders is estimated at only seven million pigs, and belly meat is even lower, equating to about five million pigs.

 

Demand in the UK for ‘fifth quarter’ products such as offal and trotters is negligible.

 

Challenges

 

With the above consumption habits, Covid-19 has thrown profound challenges for the whole agricultural industry.

 

The UK pig sector is unique in that it is arguably more protected from the loss of food service outlets, as this is filled largely from imported product.

 

Meanwhile, British pork is more common in retailers but common pork products sold through food service such as bacon and sausages are also in high demand by the British public right now through retail. Prices had been well supported in the previous six months due to increasing demand from China in the wake of African swine fever, which the country still continues to grapple with, leading to an overall stable picture for the industry.

 

Major challenges do still exist in processing, with staffing and distancing rules a major concern – it would take very little to slow down production and ultimately affect product availability and producer incomes.

 

One only has to remember the carbon dioxide shortage of 2018 to get an idea of what it could mean.

 

Brexit

 

What does this mean longer term for Brexit and the fallout from Covid-19? There is little doubt that the entire exercise has shown the importance of free trade and interconnected supply chains within Europe.

 

Cull sow carcasses can only be exported, as we have no processing capacity here, veterinary medicines are almost entirely imported and breeding animals come to or from the UK via Europe.

 

With more and more consumers buying increasing volumes of pork in retailers than usual, could this signal a longer term shift in what meat is eaten, as opposed to how much meat is eaten? This could have a big change in the trade priorities for the pig sector as and when trade negotiations take place, both with the EU and non-EU countries.

 

Policymakers

 

The whole affair could jolt policymakers into looking at food security and supply chains more seriously; the food security section of the Agriculture Bill could understandably well come under greater focus.

 

As an exporting sector, we also have to be cognisant of the longer term impacts of covid-19 in export markets.

 

Our biggest customer, China, could have a major review of its food security, consumptions and trends, possibly affecting pork exports. Whenever we are truly past this, getting to grips with the consumers’ reaction to meat will be vital as we start life as an independent trading nation.

 

Edward can be found tweeting at @edbarkerpig.


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