Beef watching for protectionism and food security COVID-19 flow-ons

Beef watching for protectionism and food security COVID-19 flow-ons

Beef
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Red meat trade expert Tim Ryan on COVID-19's good and bad stories.

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AUSTRALIA'S red meat exports have so far survived the global health pandemic relatively well and there have even been some wins.

There are, however, a number of areas where COVID-19 affects are still likely to materialise that the industry will need to keep a close eye on.

These were key points in an overview of the current trade and market access scene presented by Meat & Livestock Australia's Tim Ryan at a recent beef industry webinar.

SEE ALSO: Calls for beef to ditch China are simplistic

In the Middle East, where Australia's red meat industry had been advocating for a longer shelf life on its products, COVID-19 had actually served as a catalyst to fastrack reforms, Mr Ryan said.

"Overall, supply chains have survived the disruptions well - meat and food have still managed to flow around the world," he said.

Meat & Livestock Australia's manager of global trade development based in Singapore, Tim Ryan.

Meat & Livestock Australia's manager of global trade development based in Singapore, Tim Ryan.

The geopolitical front is likely one area where big future impacts will be felt.

COVID-19 had been a clear example of a lack of multilateral cooperation and it's likely to fuel more protectionist sentiment, Mr Ryan said.

Domestic industries may start to pressure their governments for protection.

"With most parts of the world in recession and government budgets stretched, if industries are struggling and can't get subsidies from governments, trade policies could be a measure that comes through as a means to protect those industries," Mr Ryan said.

Further, in the wake of empty supermarket food shelves following lockdown panic buying, increased concerns around food security, particularly in Asia, could unfold.

Strategic moves to greater self sufficiency would have a negative impact on trade.

"On a positive note, we are starting from a base where global food trade has survived through the disruption so we can argue the point imports play a key role in that food security story - it's not just about countries trying to produce everything themselves," Mr Ryan said.

Supply is key

It is an overall shortage of beef supply from Australia that has driven the trade outlook lower over the next few years, rather than COVID-19 disruptions, Mr Ryan reported at the online event hosted by the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework consultative committee.

Two years of drought sell-off was followed by the start of improved seasonal conditions, around the same time the virus started to take hold in Australia, which have triggered the herd rebuild underway at the moment.

"Before COVID-19 came along, we were forecasting a contraction in beef and cattle exports and the outlook hasn't really change between January and now," Mr Ryan said.

"That said, we have seen a range of areas where COVID-19 has impacted exports and supply chains."

The first occurred when the virus emerged in China.

Big volumes of meat, not just from Australia but many protein suppliers, had been sent to China at the end of 2019 and early this year.

"There was a lot sitting in reefer containers in Chinese ports and distribution centres and as that country went into lockdown, the whole system seized up," Mr Ryan explained.

"For a number of weeks there was a global shortage of containers in circulation and reefer rates increased.

"Then as we saw COVID-19 spread around the world, passenger flights were grounded and the bulk of Australia's airfreight was taken out of the system."

While airfreight is not the primary mode for Australia red meat exports, in some markets it is very important, such as lamb into the Middle East or beef into Hong Kong and Singapore.

"This has been a major challenge for the industry. Some product has moved to sea freight but overall it has been hard to replace that lost capacity," Mr Ryan said.

The third major area of impact has been in supply chains themselves. The live export industry, for example, has seen difficulties in manning ships and getting vets onto boats and in Victoria at the moment, the impact on processing workforces and reduced capacity is hard felt.

"At the same time, we've seen impacts on the market access front with China not wanting to take product from plants that have had COVID-19 because of a perceived food safety risks," Mr Ryan said.

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