Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

State failing to back homegrown organic sector

CONCERN: Government plans to increase the amount of locally grown produce it buys through hospitals and other public bodies appear to have failed spectacularly so far
CONCERN: Government plans to increase the amount of locally grown produce it buys through hospitals and other public bodies appear to have failed spectacularly so far
CONCERN: Government plans to increase the amount of locally grown produce it buys through hospitals and other public bodies appear to have failed spectacularly so far
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

In January 2012, the Government pledged to increase the amount of locally grown Irish food it buys for hospitals and other public bodies as part of its Green Tenders public procurement plan.

But almost two years later, the plan is starting to look like a spectacular failure.

An IFA survey of 165 public bodies carried out last month found that hospitals, the Defence Forces and other public bodies continue to buy huge quantities of imported food instead of local Irish produce.

The survey found that 58pc of public bodies bought imported chicken and more than 33pc bought imported pork. The Army had a particularly poor record in buying Irish, with one-third of its beef sourced outside the Republic of Ireland, while none of its bacon was sourced here.

The overall objective of Green Tenders – An Action Plan on Green Public Procurement – is to "assist public authorities to successfully plan and implement green public procurement (GPP) by highlighting existing best practice and outlining further actions to boost green public procurement."

The annual public sector procurement budget accounts for 10-12pc of Ireland's GDP and in 2011, amounted to a massive €14bn.

Food is a significant part of the procurement portfolio and one that has the potential to impact positively on farming communities by fostering innovation and creating employment.

So what can be done to ensure more support for Irish produce in public sector catering?

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Organic food is recognised in the Green Tenders document as delivering on its green credentials and the sector has the potential to become a major food supplier for the public sector.

This is already happening throughout Europe, where organic food has been embraced on public menus in many countries. Organic food is the only certified sustainable system of food production in Europe, and this has given it a major boost in supplying GPP contracts.

So in an Irish context, how is organic food positioned to supply GPP?

Organic production has a production base of just 1.23pc of the total agricultural area of Ireland, so there are obvious problems with potential supply of organic food and the geographic dispersion of organic producers is another possible barrier to distribution. Continuity of supply is essential to meet contract demands, particularly in the case of large public bodies.

However, the reality is that if GPP contracts for organic food were introduced, the industry would immediately find ways to meet the demand. The existing organic beef, lamb, aquaculture and dairy processors already have adequately scaled production to fulfil 100pc of GPP requirements, as well as supply networks for both local and centralised distribution.

This is a classic chicken and egg situation. A demanding market will attract greater supply but a market cannot develop without a supply.

From an economic point of view, using GPP to increase the amount of Irish organic food used would reap dividends. Recent CSO figures show high volumes of beef, pork, chicken and dairy being imported into Ireland, with much of this food destined for the catering sector. Using GPP criteria to displace imports and substitute with Irish organic ingredients would be a positive economic move that would see public expenditure on food used to support Irish producers.

Other European countries are way ahead of Ireland on this score. The Danish city of Copenhagen, for example, insists that 75pc of the food served in its public kitchens is organic. (See case study panel below). The Danish government plans to roll out this programme nationally and have 60pc of all food served in the country's public kitchens organic by 2020.

Other EU member states such as Italy, in particular, have embarked on similar projects, using organic ingredients in schools and hospitals. This has given a much-needed boost to the organic sector and the rural economies in those countries.

Looking forward, the potential support for short supply chains outlined in the new Rural Development Plan would sit well with a separate GPP support measure, should we choose to utilise it.

Here at home, pilot projects have already proven the idea can work.

In 2009, IOFGA general director Gillian Westbrook designed a pilot project to procure organic ingredients for the workplace canteen in the Marine Institute in Galway.

The project identified ingredients that suited the menu and catering style of the canteen, while adhering to food safety management systems in operation. Organic ingredients were sourced in the local region, using producers who met approved supplier controls for contract caterers.

The end result of the project was that food waste was significantly reduced when organic meals were offered, and staff feedback was also very positive in terms of taste, quality and menu choice.

Grace Maher is a development officer with IOFGA

Irish Independent