The launch of an organic trading hub at the Ploughing this week is a step towards fixing the leakage of organic product into the non-organic market.
Only time will tell if the Organic Hub becomes the eBay or Amazon of the organic world, but if there was one positive benefit from the pandemic nightmare, it was that farmers became tech savvy in trading livestock online almost overnight.
COVID-19 fast-forwarded livestock and mart trading in a way that was unimaginable previously.
The Organic Hub will create a trading space to match buyers and sellers of organic produce in a way that conventional markets hadn’t to this point.
The road to a viable organic commercial market will be slow and challenging. For sheep producers, it simply hasn’t been worthwhile and many lambs were simply sold in the commercial trade and likewise with milk, particularly in peak production season.
Beef is one category where there has been progress over the past decade, with contractual arrangements in place for farmers.
It is very different from conventional spontaneous trading, which is the basis of normal cattle selling - organic cattle are booked into the factory for a specific day with a fixed price weeks in advance.
For those familiar with the system, it works but it doesn’t accommodate a spur-of-the-moment decision to sell. The online hub should make it easier for organic farmers to trade organic cattle to organic buyers prior to slaughter.
It is clear that Government policy is committed to creating a critical mass of supply with the next conversion scheme building from a 4% land base in organic compared with 2% previously.
Little is known about the type of farm business that is converting, but there is a strong suspicion that the increase in organic farmed land won’t be matched by a corresponding increase in organic produce coming off that land.
There is a view that many farmers are choosing conversion to organic as a way of cutting back on livestock production that was at best delivering a marginal profit, if any at all.
If that is the case, it may frustrate the ambition of processors to have a continual year-round volume supply to offer customers.
On the other hand, a long-term successful organic farming sector cannot be sustained on subsidy alone, there has to be the pull of the market as well as the push of subsidy.
If Bord Bia and our processors can find the markets, farmers will follow with supply.
Farmers need long-term commitment
There is no doubt about support for organic farming from the current Government, but will the support be there long term and will it be there to assist after conversion is complete?
Organic farmers don’t want to be left in the position of UK car manufacturers this week where, at a stroke, government changed policy on ending sale of traditional diesel and petrol cars in 2030 to 2035.
Closer to home, Irish farmers will recall Government and EU policy from previous decades which encouraged hedge removal, land drainage and suckler herd expansion, only for an about-turn whenever the mission was accomplished.
It may seem unlikely at the moment, but could organic farming similarly fall out of fashion at some future point?
To make the on-farm investment and commitment, farmers need at least a 10-year financial commitment that bridges between Government terms.
This week, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN revealed that global hunger had increased to 9.2% of people, having fallen to 7.5% in 2018.
Of course, this doesn’t apply in Europe or North America, where hunger affects less than 2.5% of the population, while in Africa it impacts on 19.7% of the population in 2022, rising from 16.5% in 2017.
Organic food is very much a luxury for people who already have it all when it comes to food and it is policy in the EU to drive production further.
Farmers have to follow the money and consider it as an option for their business, but, at the same time, beware that policy that appears cast in stone today can easily be reversed in future.