Organic farming and Ireland

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Levels of organic farming in Ireland and EU

According to a report on The Sunday Times today, Ireland has the second-lowest level of organic farming in Europe, with just 1.6 per cent of agricultural land assigned to it, says a report by Eurostat. The EU average is 8.5 per cent, while Malta is the only country with a lower rate of organic farming than Ireland, at 0.5 per cent. Last year, the EU set a target of having a quarter of all agricultural land farmed organically by 2030. It was mentioned as a priority in the Irish programme for government but, while some countries are at or close to 25 per cent, Ireland has been at the bottom of the league table for years.


Why don’t we have more organic farming in Ireland?

Organic farming involves the elimination of all synthetic fertilisers and pesticides with the focus shifting to crop rotation and natural compost. Animals are given more space indoors and there is a more judicious use of medication, while no artificial sprays are used in tillage. The demand for organic produce is continuing to grow internationally, particularly for fruit, vegetables and dairy products.

Those working in the sector say organic farming has never been a priority in Ireland and there are insufficient incentives for farmers to make the switch. The Organic Farming Scheme, which gave grants to those who converted, closed in 2015. It reopened briefly in 2018 but most of those who applied were refused.

Last week Pippa Hackett, a Green Party senator and minister of state at the Department of Agriculture, announced the scheme would reopen next month. “For years we just haven’t really valued organic farming here,” said Hackett, who has an organic beef and sheep farm in Offaly.

By reopening the scheme, she hopes to increase the number of farmers operating organically by 30 per cent this year, and to bring Ireland up to 7.5 or 8 per cent within the lifetime of the current government. Hackett will be targeting the dairy, horticulture and tillage sectors.

“We know there is strong market demand for those particular types. We probably have mostly beef and sheep farmers in organics at the moment, and they do OK, but the demand is not as strong for meat-based products,” she said. “However, there is demand, and it is probably from the more discerning meat-eater now. If they’re going to eat less, they want to eat better.

“We’re hoping to take on 400 or 500 farmers, but it’ll give us an idea of what the demand is. We can’t force people to convert to organic farming; it has to be demand-led from the farmer. Our ambitions are high.”

Gillian Westbrook, chief executive of the Irish Organic Association, put Ireland’s low rate down to a lack of promotion, organics being ignored in agricultural education, and the absence of incentives. “People look at what they’re doing and think, ‘We’re selling what we have, we’re doing well with it, so why mend something that isn’t broken?’”


The future of organic farming

Hackett and her husband switched to organic farming in 2013. It takes two years before the land is rid of all chemicals and given an official organic status, but she believes it was the right decision.

“We’re better farmers because you can’t rely on something out of a bag to make the grass grow — you have to think longer term about how you’re going to manage your land,” she said.

“Our farm became more profitable. Your input costs go down because you’re not using synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and you actually use less petrol in your tractor.”

We would need to educate and train the farmers on the values of organic farming but also indicate in numerous ways that organic farming is not only good for the Environment but also for the food chain.

If the food we eat is free of chemicals, then this means that we are going to start consuming less chemical and in the long run we are going to produce better and more nutritious food. The levels of cancer morbidity are going to reduce.

There are also close links between chemical fertilisers and the value of organic food.

The best salmon (and most expensive!) salmon in produced in the Republic of Ireland. This means that salmon has better nutritional value and improved sensory properties.

So, switching to organic farming leads to more sustainable agriculture but also more nutritional food.