“FOR the last few months, I have given up what was previously one of my favourite foods: beef.”
So wrote the serial Virgin entrepreneur, Richard Branson, on his company’s blog a couple of days ago.
Mr Branson has taken a hard line, for environmental reasons, on a soft trend: in Western countries, people are eating less beef.
Last year, Americans ate more chicken than beef for the first time. That was partly driven by sky-high beef pricing driven by the prolonged US drought, but it’s also a continuation of a long-term trend that began in the 1970s.
It’s not a trend that’s going to magically reverse. Beef, and red meat in general, suffers from bad press. When a 2012 NPR-Truven Health Analytics poll asked 3000 Americans about their eating habits, 39 per cent said they had cut down on meat.
Two-thirds were doing so for health reasons. Environmental and animal health reasons were factored in by about 30pc of respondents, and cost was a consideration for about 50pc of the poll.
The picture is similar in Australia. In 1976, Australians ate 66 kilograms of beef and 14kg of chicken per person; in 2011, they ate 33kg of beef and 43kg of chicken.
(I suspect those proportions are roughly right for my own household, even though we are eating through a freezer full of our own Angus-Wagyu cross heifer. For me, it’s a matter of taste. I don’t want a heavy red meat meal seven days a week, although that’s what I grew up on, which was 14 times a week, counting cold meat for lunch.)
Beef is far from off the menu. With population growth, and the legions of new red meat eaters among the newly-affluent people of Asia and the Middle East, global beef consumption will inevitably rise.
Richard Bransons aside, most people with ethical concerns about beef consumption aren’t giving it up, but are buying less of it and choosing more branded product carrying some form of ethical guarantee.
But a trend tends to keep on trending, unless the populace has good reason to reverse its thinking. There are currently no signals from the global beef industry that might counter the increasingly unfavourable perception of red meat.
The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is on the case, but it remains a work in progress, and is vulnerable to charges of “greenwashing” beef production.
New markets aren’t immune to the constant drip of negative press, either. The Chinese, in particular, have health traditions like tai chi and Traditional Chinese Medicine deeply rooted in the culture. Four hundred gram T-bones are not prescribed in the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic.
Richard Branson has already copped a whole lot of indignation for his stance on beef. There is another way of viewing Branson’s statement, though: it’s another signal highlighting opportunity for Australia’s beef industry, should it choose to be nimble and quick.
Branson’s list of reasons for moving on from steak include Amazon deforestation, the environmental footprint of feedlots and ruminant methane’s role in global warming.
Deforestation doesn’t apply in Australia, unless the rolling back of remnant vegetation laws goes too far. Our feedlots aren’t the suburb-sized complexes of the Americas, nor very numerous, and our environmental laws are among the world’s most stringent.
Until the Coalition largely strangled it with funding cuts and altered priorities, there was also a growing body of Australian research that suggested ruminant methane production could be re-routed into animal productivity.
Branson said something else in his post: “Grass-fed cattle raised on pasture need much smaller resource inputs,” he wrote.
“And as people like Earth Challenge finalist Allan Savory have shown, livestock, if managed properly, can even restore degraded land.”
What major beef-producing country turns most of its cattle off grass, doesn’t push down virgin forest to graze stock (at least, not any more), has a small number of well-managed feedlots, and has the scientific capability to address ruminant methane?
Australia has a unique opportunity to position its beef in the minds of global consumers, as it has done with American fast food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Chipotle recently announced that due to a shortage of the “responsibly raised” grass-fed beef it sought in the United States, it would start buying more beef from Australia. Predictably, US cattle producers are not pleased.
The Bransons, the Chipotles, the Arab mother who buys organic beef because it gives her a sense of trust that she doesn’t have in anonymous beef - all are signs, in flashing neon. They say “OPPORTUNITY”. Opportunity for Australia to be a trusted source of beef that people can eat with a clear conscience and untroubled stomach.
Western consumers may continue to eat less beef. That matters less if they increasingly choose Australian beef, and if they pay more for it because it carries some ethical guarantees.
Alternatively, Australia’s beef producers can choose not to fly Virgin. But as a response to a threat, reaction has always come a poor second to action.