I returned last Sunday from a week-long study tour of the beef industry in Brazil and Paraguay in the company of SNP MEP Alyn Smith and two others from Brussels.
The trip involved a 32-hour journey from my house to our destination, Campo Grande, in Matto Grosso, the main beef rearing area in Brazil. The return journey took 34 hours – so we spent nearly three days travelling to experience a six-day tour!
Our trip was prompted by the imminent trade discussions between the EU and Mercosur, a trading bloc of South American countries, and our need to understand Brazil's beef industry so that Brussels could have an informed debate on the subject.
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Currently, Mercosur is not pulling together as a result of internal disputes, and those discussions are unlikely to go anywhere – but it is looking likely that the EU will go ahead with discussions on a separate EU/Brazil trade deal.
Brazil wants greater access to European markets for its agricultural products in return for allowing Europe freer access for its manufactured goods.
Scotland, for its part would see tariffs reduced on its whisky exports, but Scotland's beef farmers will be particularly hard hit by increased volumes of imported Brazilian beef due to tariff reductions.
It is estimated that the loss of revenue to the EU beef industry will range from 7.6% to 18% in the worst-case scenario, and is likely to be of the order of €3 billion (£2.4bn).
Scotland's fragile beef industry, with a mere 450,000 beef cows, could be badly hit as a result of abattoir closures through loss of critical mass.
Our minuscule beef industry has to face competition from a Brazilian herd of 209 million cattle in 2011, including 54 million beef cows, up from 164 million in 2000, with scope for further, massive expansion.
Following the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Brazil in 2005, a group of Irish farmers visited the country and discovered the Brazilian beef industry was lacking traceability.
That led to the EU banning beef imports from Brazil that had peaked at about 263,000 tonnes in 2006 (excluding processed products), of which 189,500 tonnes was frozen and 73,000 tonnes fresh-chilled.
Following the introduction of restrictions by the EU, imports from Brazil hit a low of 25,600 tonnes (24,500 frozen and 1100 fresh-chilled). Latest figures for 2011 suggests imports have climbed to 45,400 tonnes.
UK figures peaked at 33,600 tonnes in 2005 (20,000 frozen and 13,600 fresh chilled), fell to 1900 tonnes in 2010, but edged back up to 2300 tonnes in 2011.
Not surprisingly, Brazilian authorities were wary of our visit. As a result we were accompanied by a former state vet who acted as our translator, another state vet who was his former boss, as well as a vet who worked for Famasul, Brazil's equivalent of the NFU, and another employee who worked in PR.
Despite that, we travelled extensively and freely, and managed to see a wide of beef-ranching systems, a massive feed-lot fattening 150,000 cattle annually, as well as gaining free and open access to a modern abattoir that had the capacity to slaughter and bone-out 2100 cattle per day.
We also met with senior officials of Famasul and Accrisul – their equivalent of the National Beef Association.
Their traceability systems are not as robust as the EU's, which are overly complex as a result of the BSE crisis that sent shock waves throughout Europe.
In essence, those farms that have been approved by EU vets to supply cattle for export to the EU practise what I would describe as "traceability lite".
It is in effect the old batch- recording system we used to have for sheep. Calves are tagged at weaning, and while there was much talk of "proper paperwork", I saw no evidence of the kind of individual passports we have for our cattle. Brazil claims to be foot-and-mouth free, but because the disease is endemic in neighbouring countries like Paraguay and Bolivia, much of the country vaccinates for foot-and-mouth.
Brazil rightly says if foot-and-mouth was circulating in the country it would show up in their extensive pig herds. EU vets accept vaccinated cattle for importation to Europe.
There was an effort to compulsorily ear tag cattle in a 15km buffer zone on either side of the borders with Paraguay and Uruguay to identify those that strayed across the open borders, or swam the Paraguay river, but I wasn't totally convinced of the robustness of their system.
Those ranchers who made the effort to comply with EU vet regulations to be approved for export reckoned there was a 6-10% price premium, depending on who you spoke to, but many reckoned it wasn't worth the hassle.
That attitude could change if the EU reduces tariffs on beef imports.
That, and the fact that official estimates suggest there are 150,000 square kilometres of degraded cattle pasture that badly needs reseeding, means Brazil has an immense capacity to increase production – given the incentive of rising prices.