The European Union (EU) Farm to Fork strategy wants to make our food systems more environmentally sustainable while enabling healthier diets for consumers. It started in 2020 and aims to drastically cut pesticide use, increase soil health, reduce fertiliser use and reduce overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and aquaculture over 10 years. An additional aim is to increase organic farming area across the EU to 25% by 2030.
In 2019, in the EU, a total of 13.8m, hectares of land were being organically farmed (or 8.5%), so a jump to 25% in 10 years is considered ambitious.
Countries like Sweden, Estonia and Austria are the current leaders in organic farming – all three countries are over 20% in terms of land being farmed organically.
Ireland’s poor performance
Compare those rates to Ireland, a country deeply immersed in agricultural output, where our current percentage of land being farmed organically is less than 2%. Why such discrepancy? Like most things when it comes to politics and agriculture, there is no simple response to that question.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett, launched the Government’s new Organic Farming Scheme on 1 March. The scheme has secured an extra €4m in funding, which Minister Hackett says will help up to 500 new entrants convert to organic methods. She has stated this new scheme will prioritise young farmers looking to convert, as well as those who did not get into the previous organic scheme (2018). Applications are now open until 30 April.
Lack of support
In the organic scheme’s launch, Minister Hackett promised to help farmers with the organic conversion process, and says this scheme will ‘do just that’. ICL anonymously spoke with and surveyed 25 organic farmers of all sizes on their conversion experiences. A common thread indicates just the opposite: a lack of support throughout the conversion process. Some farmers have said they were actively discouraged from converting by farm advisErs, while others have said that even with the scheme money, they were left to face the complications associated with conversion alone.
“You wouldn’t want to be doing this for financial gain,” one respondent commented.
A fresh start?
Minister Hackett acknowledges there were problems with past schemes but feels this year the majority of those problems will be solved thanks to the increase in funding.
“When we opened the 2018 Scheme, we targeted horticulture, dairy and cereals,” she says. “But unfortunately that limited the scope to take applications from others, as we only had a limited budget.
“[This year] the scheme is open to applications from all sectors. And we will have a ranking and selection process only if it is over-subscribed.
“If we do need [a ranking process], it will give extra marks to current licensed organic farmers who were not successful in gaining entry to the previous scheme but have continued to farm organically. We will also prioritise dairy, tillage and horticulture as these are the areas deemed to be deficient, as well as young farmers.”
Minister Hackett has faced criticism from the agricultural community in recent months. Access to market, ongoing supports for conversions across sectors and changes to farming infrastructure will need to be addressed if we are to reach the goals set by the EU, and these are just a few of the concerns farmers have raised in this regard.
The previous scheme also left many organic farmers out of pocket. They did not qualify because of its points-based system; which is said to have favoured larger farms.
Farmers left behind
Nigel Renaghan is one such farmer who was left behind by the previous scheme. He is the IFA’s regional chair for Ulster and north Leinster and also chair of the IFA organic team. He has been highly critical of the previous scheme.
“In terms of the scheme going forward, a couple of things have to happen,” he says. ”The farmers need a discussion group and have access to advise from the likes of Teagasc. The biggest problem [with organic conversion] is knowing what to do and how to do it. Somebody going in needs to know about what to do to manage the ground and get the best out of it.”
In a statement to ICL, the IFA says any increase in organic area must be market driven, with necessary support structures in place for new entrants. They also address the lack of research and development in organics.
“Irish farmers are also backed by an excellent knowledge transfer structure,” they write. “However, it does not sufficiently extend to specialist organic farming. A strong network for the organic sector must be developed in line with expansion as organic farming is a very specialist area.
“The sector is currently under resourced regarding investment, market research, production research and development, and specialised advisory services.”
Teagasc has had involvement in organic farming since the late 1990’s. In that time, they have provided research, developed an organic farming course (a requirement for organic conversion) and started a farm walk system (in partnership with the DAFM) for farmers interested in conversion. These walks are generally well-reviewed by farmers and include information on access to market and organic certification.
However, there have been reports of their conventional farm advisers lacking expertise in organic farming and sometimes even advising against the conversion for all the aforementioned reasons when asked by farmers about organic systems. Being the first line of best-practise communications for most farmers, this is concerning.
Minister Hackett mentions Teagasc is taking steps to better guide farmers who are interested in organic conversion. “In February, 100 Teagasc advisors and education officers received professional development training on organic farming,” she says. “The training covered regulation, steps to conversion, scheme supports, market opportunities and financial considerations.”
It is understood that Teagasc has not had as much funding into areas of organic research as they have in conventional agriculture. ICL spoke with one of Teagasc’s organics advisors, Elaine Leavy. She says many of Teagasc’s current areas of research can be adapted to organic farm models.
“Much of the technologies and methodologies currently being researched for conventional farming – a lot of these findings can be adapted to organic farming,” she says. “They’re not organic-specific, but they can easily be adapted.”
She says as interest in organics increases she also hopes to see a rise in sponsored research, but that all stakeholders need to take responsibility for helping increase conversions.
“I would hope, as the sector gets greater funding, all the rest will come in line with it - that’s what I would love to see as an advisor. It’s not about one stakeholder’s approach, it needs to be a collaborative approach for all – including processors.”
Organic certification bodies
Organic certification bodies, like The Organic Trust, are not affiliated with the Government. Members pay an annual fee and are subject to yearly inspections in order to maintain their certification.
While Teagasc is often the first line of communication for farmers on the ground, an organic certification body is the first port of call for farmers interested in converting. Because it’s in their interest to attract as many new entrants to organic farming as possible, they can be the most reliable source of information. They help farmers avail of government schemes and support them through the conversion process.
We spoke with Gillian Westbrook, CEO of the Irish Organic Association. She says while there isn’t just one obstacle for farmers looking to convert – there are many variables, depending on the type of farm enterprise - nothing is insurmountable if the farmer is properly informed and supported.
She also says that, while farm walks are an excellent learning resource, taking a practical approach to providing guidance to farmers in conversion is of utmost importance.
“The most salient aspect of all is planning,” she says. “Plan how to farm without synthetic inputs, make best use of organic nutrients on your farm (such as manure and straw). Take care of the soil, build its fertility and the rest – including animal welfare and weed control – will be much more manageable.”
Effort from all parties needed
When it comes to organic conversions, we need to recognize: our problems go far back. Drastically increasing these rates (when your Government has an historic track record of doing little to promote organic conversions) is going to be a huge task.
Minister Hackett is bringing some optimism to this space, but she is not off the hook. Clear communications with the farming community, coming from a place of understanding, is essential moving forward.
Farmers deserve clarity since, at the end of the day, they are the ones being blamed for our deteriorating environment.
When Government and affiliated bodies are responsible for relaying what best agricultural practise looks like, but fail to actively promote organic practises, it speaks volumes to Irish farmers. They’re basically saying “it’s not worth the effort”.
To achieve the goals set by the Farm to Fork strategy, all stakeholders need to do more – and do better – to support Irish farmers in organic conversion.
If you’re considering organic conversion but don’t know where to begin, your best bet is to contact an organic certification body (contact details below). Depending on your farm, you may have to make some changes to your infrastructure. They can also advise on first steps to limiting fertiliser and pesticide use.
While the OFS (Organic Farming Scheme) is meant to help offset costs incurred during the conversion period, even if you don’t avail of scheme money there are small changes you can make which can help prepare for eventual conversion.
ICL asked Minister Hackett if we can expect the OFS to reopen in 2022. Her office responded, saying she sees the 2021 scheme as the start of a significant expansion of the OFS over the next few years. While they can’t predict the amount that will be allocated, we can be relatively assured the scheme will reopen.
Stay tuned for next week, when we will discuss demand for organic products and will speak with some well-known Irish organic food processors.
Irish Organic Association (firstname.lastname@example.org; irishorganicassociation.ie)
Organic Trust (email@example.com; organictrust.ie)