Monday, January 24, 2022

Is there a case for live cattle export: Yes, but…

A cursory look at the global live animal export trade provides a compelling case for a beef producer nation such as ours to consider this avenue as a credible alternative, or a strong complement to the existing European beef market.

Trade in live animals globally has been increasing, and it is likely to accelerate as the developing world and its burgeoning middle class increases its demand for animal protein.

The growth in demand for animal protein has come hand in hand with an increase in demand for grain based feedstuffs, which in turn, as some will remember created a seismic shift in world agriculture, and was identified as one of the major drivers in the increase in agricultural commodity prices seen in 2001. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, global trade in live animals has grown from 15 million head in 1961 to about 70 million head in 2010 (worth a staggering US$13 billion). Notwithstanding the fact that the most spectacular growth has been in pig exports, mainly inter-European trade, the growth in live ruminant trade has been significant. The world trade in live cattle, sheep and goats hovered between 30 and 35 million head annually over the past two decades and in value terms has grown dramatically to US$9 billion per annum.

If we look at the live cattle trade in isolation it has grown by 1.3 % over a decade (2000ÔÇö2010) but the annual growth of the trade in value has exceeded 5%. France is by far the leading cattle exporter; accounting for about 13% of world exports. Another interesting little trinket of information is that the Middle East and Africa are the largest markets for both live cattle and sheep, accounting for around 20% and 75% of international imports respectively. With such a picture, where Africa certainly is the largest importer, it is prudent that we ask whether focus should be shifted to this market, and reduce our reliance on the European market with its stringent requirements?

Not so fast, I wish to opine! The rosy market opportunity picture I painted above belies a very soft belly. We need not go far but look at the beef value chain from farm to fork, and the supply dynamics that underpin it in Botswana, and also look at the top end of the value chain and acquaint ourselves with the socio-economic drivers of the ‘wet market’ together with the infrastructure bottlenecks that bedevil land based transport of commodities let alone live animals in most of Africa. At the consumer end, a major impetus for importation of live animals for slaughter is predominantly religious beliefs that require that meat be ritually slaughtered and preferably be traded fresh in local markets. A further driver according to the OECD’s World Energy Outlook 2012, is that large live animal importing countries such as Yemen and Nigeria have 15 million and 79 million people respectively living in homes without power. The lack of electricity is therefore one contributing factor that prevents the establishment of modern supply chains based on the import of frozen or chilled meat. So why not so fast, you may ask! I will borrow a term from the mining industry lexicon; ‘beneficiation’ for purposes of clarity and pithiness.

It is common knowledge that the meat industry is relatively awash with by products that when fully exploited, the nation can at the least put a slight dent in the jobless stastistic. Exporting cattle live will rob us of a logical and straight forward opportunity for downstream processing of the raw material (cow in this case) to create value added products for export and generate employment. We should not lose focus but stride to one day have that fifty square centimeter ‘Louis Vuitton’ branded piece of leather produced here in Makalamabedi. Live cattle export, is a kamikaze of sorts; goodbye to leather tanning, cold storage, butchery, skinning and all the other labor intensive parts of the value chain. A serious worry for the small producer is that he is likely to fare badly in the value chain.

I fear profiteering by middlemen, agents and freight operators, as this trade will take off as nothing more than ‘commodity arbitrage.’ Another feature of the trade is that successful live animal exporting countries have very strict animal welfare programs in place, and predominantly use ocean transport thereby avoiding the trans boundary biosecurity impediments. We on the other hand, are landlocked and our animal welfare framework still needs to be tightened. And yes, I can see most readers rolling their eyes at ‘animal welfare considerations’. The welfare of animals in transit is not a trivial matter, we are still smarting from Survival International’s campaign against our diamonds. Do we really need a cause celebre to muddy the waters for our heritage industry? I would advise that we are best staying clear of PETA’s radar for continued access to the markets of Europe. This, fellow countrymen, is not a crusade against the trade but a salient caution that this is one area where the depth of the water should not be tested by submerging oneself. I am painfully aware of vast pastoral areas with no access to the lucrative markets of Europe, mainly because of FMD but I still firmly believe that high end markets for these farmers can still be sought without having to resort to live cattle export, and as demographic changes will have it, meat consumption in neighboring countries especially South Africa, is forecast to growÔÇöand these are markets that do not require strict slaughter rituals!

*Dr Radihephi is veterinarian based in Australia

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