Last year's deluge will have an impact, but 2013 offers big opportunities in organics
Reflecting back on 2012, like most years, there were many things to savour and also many to forget.
On the whole, it was a good year for most in the organic sector, helped by increased stability in the market.
However, yields were affected by the weather and this will have implications well into 2013. Nonetheless, the organic sector in Ireland has shown resilience in the face of the recession and generally sales have held their own.
The good news story of last year was that many of our members noted an increase in sales, reflecting confidence in the market.
Some horticultural producers saw an increase of up to 40pc in sales, which is encouraging.
Internally in IOFGA, we distributed a copy of the new organic standards to all of our members.
Essentially these are the rules and regulations that organic farmers must produce to.
Many consumers are not aware that the 'organic' label on food is legally binding and therefore products must display an organic symbol that shows that they are audited by an organic certification body such as IOFGA.
There was a rocky start to 2012 for 148 organic farmers, when the Department of Agriculture decided to withdraw payments to organic farmers participating in certain criteria of AEOS and the Organic Farming Scheme.
This affected farmers who had signed the contract in 2010 on the understanding that they would be paid under both schemes, and included parcels of land designated as species rich grassland, traditional hay meadow and riparian margins.
Thankfully, after considerable communication between Department officials and IOFGA, this decision was quashed, but only for farmers who appealed the move.
In the future, we look forward to an agri-environmental scheme that has more options for organic producers.
Organic critics and GM
The past year also contained challenges in the shape of vociferous critics of organic food.
Their voices highlight the fact that the organic sector needs to be clear about the benefits of organic food, because even committed organic consumers need an occasional reminder about why they are choosing the organic option.
It would be great to have more Irish research commissioned in organic farming.
However, with tight research budgets, this will probably remain on the wish list for the foreseeable future.
The decision taken by Teagasc to trial late blight-resistant genetically modified (GM) potatoes marked a major change in Ireland's GM-free status and was seen by many organic producers as a direct threat to our green image.
We were joined in our belief by many chefs, conventional producers and consumers who were equally concerned about Ireland's misplaced food strategy.
The Teagasc trial will continue until 2016, so be sure to watch this space.
The Common Agricultural Policy was never far from anybody's mind in the agricultural sector last year and with the budget still hanging in the balance, we envisage this to continue in a busy start to 2013 under the Irish presidency.
Back in October 2011, it was announced that organic farmers would gain automatic entry into greening because of the public recognition of their contribution to delivering on public goods.
IOFGA would like to see organic farming as a mandatory measure under the rural development programme (RDP), with 80pc co-financing.
There are many opportunities for the sector but it will require a dynamic RDP that makes best use of the different EU measures available if we are to see an equitable distribution of supports for producers.
Green public procurement
A promising opportunity for the organic sector lies in the area of Green Public Procurement (GPP).
In January 2012, the Government released its 'Green Tenders Action Plan' on GPP, outlining, amongst other things, a 50pc target for incorporating green criteria for food and catering services.
This means that tenders bidding for Ireland's €200m per year market for public sector food (for example hospitals, schools, defence forces, semi-state) can now stipulate that 50pc of the ingredients must be from an organic or quantifiably sustainable source.
In practice, this means that the Irish organic sector has a massive opportunity to catch up with its EU counterparts.
In countries that have already implemented GPP, organic and low-input farming systems has grown exponentially.
Case studies show that while organic ingredient costs may be marginally higher, waste is dramatically lower, making it cost efficient to source organic food even in challenging financial times.
In IOFGA, we are looking forward to the development and implementation of the Green Tenders document throughout the public sector.
Finally, import substitution remains a huge opportunity in the organic sector as we buy in approximately 70pc of the organic food sold in Ireland, much of which could be produced here.
Farmers who already have low input systems require little change to go organic, yet many have not considered it.
For the past decade, the level of certified organic farming in Ireland has hovered around 1pc of farmers (one of the lowest in Europe) while demand for Irish organic produce is rising among consumers.
We need more farmers to supply that demand and reduce our dependence on imported organic food.
Maybe 2013 will convince more farmers to consider the opportunities in organics?