SA beef exports show slight recovery after foot-and-mouth disease

South Africa’s beef exports experienced a slight recovery last year, increasing by 3% year-on-year (y/y) to 27 675 tons, after falling below the five-year average a year before due to the outbreak of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

According to recent data from Trade Map, beef exports fell below the prior five-year average in 2022, down by 16% y/y and totalling 26 881 tons.

Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) chief economist Wandile Sihlobo said yesterday that the previous two years had presented major challenges for the South African livestock industry. 

“The spread of the FMD and higher feed costs were the two major factors that weighed on their business,” Sihlobo said. 

“The government worked to control the spread of FMD, the impact was deepening on the revenues of farming businesses as they suddenly had to limit the movement of animals, and various export markets were temporarily closed.”

Even as the beef industry confronted these challenges, it had already resolved that widening the export market would catalyse its long-term growth.

“There was evidence pointing to the expansion of exports. For example, between 2017 and 2021, South Africa’s overall beef exports averaged 31 169 tons,” he said. 

“This was notable progress as the beef exports had averaged 26 670 tons five years prior, and the years before that were less than 15 000 tons. The spread of animal diseases threatened this export growth.”

Between 2017 and 2021, the exports comprised, on average, 49% fresh beef and 51% frozen beef as they served a diverse markets.

For fresh beef; Kuwait, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Mozambique, Lesotho, Qatar, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, and the Netherlands were some of the largest and most consistent markets. 

Similar markets and new ones were at the top of the list for frozen beef. They included Lesotho, Mozambique, China, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, the Netherlands, Qatar, Hong Kong and Kuwait.

Sihlobo said while some regional markets had temporarily closed off the red meat products from South Africa, some had fortunately remained open, and this was why the exports did not collapse in 2022 and 2023 when animal disease was a major challenge.

Agbiz also said this challenge was not limited to the cattle industry as the wool industry was impacted by temporary closure of markets, even though it was not directly affected by FMD.

“China, which accounts for more than two-thirds of South Africa’s wool exports, temporarily closed for various periods in 2022 and 2023. The impact of those temporary closures is visible on export volumes of wool,” Sihlobo said. 

“For example, in 2022, South Africa’s wool exports fell by 19% year-on-year to 42 239 tons. The major decline in volume was in the Chinese market.”

According to Sihlobo, fortunately, the engagements between the South African and Chinese authorities to reassure them of the safety measures in place to ensure that there was no spread of disease led to the resumption of exports. 

Last year, South Africa’s wool exports recovered 18% y/y to 49 715 tons.

Agbiz said the higher feed costs were a factor outside the control of the farmers and regulators. This was a global phenomenon. 

Sihlobo said there was also a transformation and inclusivity agenda in the performance of the wool and beef sectors as these industries were among the agricultural sub-sectors with a large share of new-entrant black farmers. 

National Agricultural Marketing Council data shows that black farmers account for roughly 18%, 13% and 34% of wool, mohair, and cattle production, respectively.

“Indeed, the past two years for South Africa’s livestock industry were challenging. Fortunately, the path forward is promising. The export drive and strengthening of the biosecurity system are part of the interventions that provide an environment where this industry could continue to play a vital role in the South African farm economy,” Sihlobo said.