Following the initiative of Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, a forum has been established with the aim “of exploring current and future challenges of the EU sheep meat sector”.
The forum, organised by the European Commission, is bringing together stakeholders from member states involved in the sheep sector. This includes representatives of producers, processors and traders, including national and EU associations. National Governments, the European Commission and other official bodies, including AHDB, HCC and QMS, are also represented.
It consists of three workshops with presentations by experts in their fields followed by in-depth discussions. These are chaired by John Bryan, a producer representative from Ireland. The first workshop held last November addressed economic, social and environmental aspects of sheep farming in the EU. The second workshop held at the end of February addressed food supply challenges as well as promotion initiatives for sheep meat. The third workshop to be held at the end of June will have a stronger policy focusand wrap up conclusions from the previous two workshops.
On trade developments the second workshop included presentations of global historical developments and that growth in global trade has been slow. The presentation from Beef and Lamb New Zealand looked at the success of the country in developing its exports. It now trades with more than 100 countries and despite sharp falls in sheep numbers in the last 25 years productivity has increased enormously. The forum considered whether the EU could play a part in being a global exporter. It has already had some success in recent years, penetrating the Middle East and North African markets, both sheep meat and live sheep. However, there are further opportunities, if for example, the EU could gain access to the Chinese and North American markets. More EU Free Trade Agreements would also help facilitate trade.
More promotion of sheep meat is considered important and the AHDB presentation from Kathy Roussel outlined the joint campaign with Bord Bia and Interbev France, 50 per cent co-funded by the European Commission. Promotion campaigns for light lambs were also featured by speakers from Spain and Bulgaria. Such campaigns are designed to target consumers in the younger age groups, 25-45 years, emphasizing that lamb is modern and practical and of a high quality. The use of social media and digital aids are playing an increasing role in promotion activity in many member states.
A key question has to be whether the EU sheep sector can be made more sustainable and therefore on a firmer footing. The 1980s and 1990s, for example, was a period when the sector was more resilient, including being more profitable. Production was stable or even increasing at times, helped by the establishment of the EU Sheep Meat Regime in 1980. It is really only in the last 15 years that production has fallen away, partly given the end of coupled support payments, but also given that demand has also fallen.
However, as contained in the presentation from the first workshop by the Institut de l‘Elevage, sheep production is now not very profitable. The older age profile of sheep farmers, competition from other uses of labour and land, and increased regulation are also problematic. In addition, there is also the competition from imported product, especially from New Zealand. Despite this there is still scope though for innovation in the sector, from market orientation through to genetic improvement.