Nazim Shaikh hasn’t heard of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But the 42-year-old livestock trader from Ghoti, a small town in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, shares the agency’s views on the non-sustainability of the current rate of buffalo meat or carabeef exports from India.
In a recent report, the USDA has said that if the present trends of slaughter rates and meat production growth for exports continue, the country’s female buffalo herd — which contribute to more than half of its annual milk output — could register a decline from around 2023 onwards. This could, then, end up “creating a tradeoff between milk and meat production”.
For Shaikh, who is in the business of procuring buffaloes for carabeef exporters, the tradeoff is, however, not going to be between milk and meat. Instead, it would be between domestic consumption and exports, which he, in turn, links to the stringent laws against cattle slaughter passed in many states.
The ban on normal cattle beef has pushed up domestic demand for carabeef, as consumers are now being forced to substitute the former with the latter. This, Shaikh believes, could hurt the country’s exports of carabeef.
He may have a point. The price of buffaloes sold in livestock markets across Maharashtra is currently averaging Rs 13,000-14,000 per 100 kg of animal weight, as against Rs 10,000-11,000 before the state government’s comprehensive ban on cattle slaughter — extending to even male calves, bulls and bullocks — came into effect in March 2015. Ironically, the same period has seen prices of milch cows fall from around Rs 65,000 to Rs 50,000 per animal, and those of male calves, bulls and old cows from Rs 18,000-19,000 to Rs 15,000-16,000.
“Carabeef today commands a premium that was non-existent earlier and reflected in buffalo prices rising by up to 30 per cent in the last one year,” observes Shaikh. The fall in cattle prices, on the other hand, is an outcome of both lower milk realisations for farmers (because of private dairies reducing procurement on the back of a collapse of milk powder exports) and the virtual disappearance of a secondary market for animals meant for slaughter.
Data from the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fishing shows cattle accounting for over 5 per cent of meat production in India, behind poultry (45 per cent), buffalo (19 per cent), goat (16 per cent), pig (8 per cent) and sheep (7 per cent). The 5 per cent figure may, however, be an underestimate, as it only includes animals officially slaughtered in municipal abattoirs. But even five per cent consumption getting blocked could cause many people to shift to carabeef and, hence, increased domestic demand for this meat at the expense of exports.
India’s buffalo meat exports have registered a surge in recent times. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15 alone, they grew more than four-folds to reach $ 4.78 billion in value terms. The country became the world’s largest beef exporter in shipment quantity terms in 2014, though it conceded that position to Australia last year.
Many see the latest USDA report projecting a “tradeoff between milk and meat production” as a reaction to India’s emergence — from nowhere — as a major shipper of low-cost beef, especially to developing-country markets in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. “I don’t foresee any such tradeoffs, in terms of milk production getting affected by rising meat exports. In any case, our rules do not permit slaughtering of milch animals,” says Shariq Khan, director of the Mumbai-based Al Karim Exports Pvt. Ltd.
The USDA report, in fact, notes that the buffaloes slaughtered for exports are primarily culled dairy animals — those no longer fit for milking or breeding purposes — apart from male calves and culled draft animals. India’s total buffalo population has increased from 10.53 crore to 10.87 crore between the Livestock Censuses carried out in 2007 and 2012, respectively. This period has seen a dip in the male buffalo numbers from 1.96 crore to 1.61 crore — largely a result of culling — even as the female buffalo population has significantly gone up from 8.57 crore to 9.26 crore.
In 2015, the country’s buffalo meat production was estimated at 37.96 lakh tonnes, out of which nearly 20 lakh tonnes was exported and the balance consumed domestically. Industry players believe that the brakes on exports could come from local demand for carabeef picking up, rather than any perceived tradeoff between milk and meat production.
There is agreement with the USDA report, nevertheless, on the need for India to encourage rearing of male calves for meat production. In western countries, there is a clear demarcation between animals reared for milk production (which are Holstein Friesian, Jersey or Brown Swiss cows) and those raised specifically for meat (cattle breeds such as Angus). “In India, we use the same milch animal that has stopped giving milk for meat. There is no organised animal farming for meat production,” points out Mohammed Ali Qureshi, a leading trader at the Deonar abattoir in Mumbai. While there is no dearth of government schemes for raising livestock for milk production, no such support is given for individuals wanting to rear male calves or bullocks for meat. “Even those who rear poultry, goats and fish get assistance of various kinds,” he adds.
“Our Pink Revolution took off five years ago without any major sops from the government. The boom in exports of buffalo meat has been entirely private sector-driven and running on its own steam. Whatever the reports by various agencies may suggest, this industry will survive and grow,” claims the director of a major beef exporting firm, who does not wish to be identified.
The report has attributed the success of India’s buffalo meat exports to its being low-priced compared to regular beef. The unit value of frozen, boneless carabeef from India in 2015 was just above $3,000 a tonne, as against $4,000-plus and $6,000-plus for Brazilian and US beef, respectively. That makes it appealing to lower and middle-income consumers in developing countries. Besides, Indian carabeef is a “relatively lean product that is comparable to cattle beef in terms of nutritional value and palatability” and has “good binding properties, which makes it suitable for processing”. These characteristics, along with the stipulation for all animals to be slaughtered in accordance with halal standards, enable Indian buffalo meat “to meet a key requirement for entry into Islamic country markets”.