The perfect storm facing Irish food and drink exporters to the UK was added to this week by the UK government’s advisers recommending that British consumption of beef, lamb and dairy be cut by at least 20%.
The UK takes 34% (worth about €4.42bn) of Irish food and drink exports, in a trade which has already come under pressure from weakening economic sentiment among British consumers.
It remains the most important market for Irish food and drink, but is also under threat from the UK leaving the EU at 11pm, January 31, and entering a transition period scheduled to end on December 31 next.
At that point, frictionless EU-UK trade will end.
That is likely to adversely affect Irish exporters, but the impact could be devastating if a free trade deal is not agreed in time between the EU and the UK.
Irish food and drink exports to the UK grew by some €400 million in the three years since the 2016 Brexit referendum result.
But the momentum faltered in 2019, principally in the beef trade, with reduced demand reflected in a 15% fall in the annual value of Irish beef exports to the UK.
Further reduction in demand is now feared, due to UK government climate advisers saying people should eat 20% less beef, dairy and lamb.
The committee on climate change suggested the most carbon-intensive meat and dairy foods be taxed, in order to curb consumption.
It said public bodies should set an example by offering plant-based meal options.
The committee, tasked to advise the government on emissions targets, recommends that the UK reduce its own cattle and sheep numbers by 10%, as part of the land use plan to reach its legal target of “net zero” emissions by 2050.
Land use in the UK, including agriculture, forestry and peatland, accounts for about 12% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The committee said these land use emissions can be reduced by 64%, without producing less food in the UK or increasing imports.
British farmers responded by warning that the recommended measures will increase the UK’s reliance on food imported from countries with greater carbon footprints.
But the report warned against importing such foods.