Ireland bottom of the EU organic farming table

Irish farmers missing out on excellent opportunity to cash in on thriving market, writes Grace Maher

William Mulhall with a newly-born calf at his Derrymullen farm in Allenwood, Co Kildare, where he hosted an organic farming demonstration day. Photo: Tony Gavin
William Mulhall with a newly-born calf at his Derrymullen farm in Allenwood, Co Kildare, where he hosted an organic farming demonstration day. Photo: Tony Gavin
Organic vegetable and fruit grower Grace Maher
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

The third tranche of the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) under the Rural Development Programme opened for one month at the end of 2018.

It is still too early to determine exactly how many farmers applied and will be accepted into this current tranche.

Including these new entrants, it means the sector will have approximately two per cent of farmers certified organic in Ireland. However, this is not enough to change our position at the bottom of the league table in the EU, alongside Romania and Malta.

In Austria, more than 20pc of farmers are certified organic, with Sweden and Estonia quickly approaching 20pc also.

The average is between five and eight per cent across the EU, which begs the question why are there so few organic farmers in Ireland? There are a number of reasons that contribute to this.

Firstly, agriculture is a vital part of our economy and culture, and it is something that we do very well. In some European countries, there is a big disconnect between farmers and consumers, and people have reacted to intensive farming practices by demanding more organic food. This has enabled the market to flourish and given farmers the confidence to convert to organic in large numbers, allowing supply and demand to develop in tandem.

There is evidence that the trend for organic food is growing in this part of the world also.

Secondly, the term "almost organic" is often used by farmers here who perceive themselves to be extensive rather than intensive producers.

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These farmers are unlikely to convert to organic production either because they do not like the label, or are reluctant to take on any additional administration work, despite obvious market opportunities.

Lastly, Ireland has built a strong marketing image of itself as a green food island, which has increased its profile internationally and subsequently its access to international markets. Organic farming has proven environmental and animal welfare credentials, so it would seem that organic would be a natural fit for this image, but it has not materialised.

International organic retail sales have doubled since 2010, quadrupling since 2004, and are estimated to be worth over €85bn. The European Union is the world's second largest single market after the United States and is currently valued at over €33bn. Growth is projected to continue as consumer demand threatens to outstrip supply, particularly in Europe.

Ireland is part of this growth phenomenon. Admittedly, we are starting from a very low baseline here (€206m) compared to some of our European counterparts such as Germany (€10bn) and France (€8.4bn). At the moment in Ireland, we are hugely dependent on importing organic food to meet consumer demand. For example, we still import over 70pc of the organic fruit and vegetables bought here. Surely there are numerous opportunities for Irish food producers that could be developed supplying into the growing organic sector?

The more mature organic markets in Europe offer a blueprint to how the sector can develop here and offers excellent market opportunities for Irish organic produce.

Meanwhile, as we welcome the new farmers who have converted to organic farming at the end of last year, I can't help but feel we continue to ignore one of the greatest marketing opportunities available to us by not doing more to dramatically increase organic production here.

Grace Maher is Development Officer with the Irish Organic Association,

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