Organic growth stunted by lack of support

 

Mad cow disease and dioxin-contaminated Belgian chocolates may have done more to promote the organic food industry than all the exhortations of its supporters. Other food scares - BSE, e-coli, dioxin - have raised questions on the use of antibiotics, pesticides and other chemical additives in food, and to demand alternatives. At the same time, EU funding for organic production has persuaded many farmers to convert.

So what was once the preserve of a small group of dedicated fruit and vegetable growers is emerging as a viable industry. But while demand now exceeds supply, organic production in the Republic still trails the rest of Europe.

According to Teagasc, the agriculture and food research, advisory and training authority, only 0.5 per cent of farmland or 60,000 acres is devoted to organic production, compared with an EU average of 1.3 per cent. In Sweden and Austria, it is 8.9 per cent.

Organic farming began here in the 1980s with a few fruit and vegetable producers, but it was not until the mid-1990s, with the introduction of cash incentives under the EU-funded Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS), that it really took off.

Between 1994 and 1998, producers increased by more than 300 per cent, mostly in the livestock sector. Many small drystock farms were being run with little chemical input, so shifting completely into organic production was not a huge step, says Mr Liam Connolly, a Teagasc economist specialising in farm diversification. About 820 farmers are registered as organic, out of a total farming population of around 135,000.

No figures exist for the value of the Irish organic sector, but in Europe where it accounts for 2 per cent of the total food market, it is estimated to be worth about £4 billion (€5.1 billion) and increasing rapidly, especially in northern countries.

Organic producers say Ireland could have been supplying part of that European market, if government support had been forthcoming in the early days of the organic movement. As it is, about 85 per cent of the organic fruit and vegetables sold in Ireland is imported, few butchers sell organic meat, and organic milk is almost impossible to get in the shops.

"We're still suffering from the lack of commitment by the Department of Agriculture. Even Teagasc has only started to think about organic farming in the last few years," says Mr Hugh Robson of Glencarn Organic Produce, a family-owned farm in Clare which sells organic pork, lamb and beef products at the Temple Bar Food Market in Dublin and to a number of Dublin restaurants.

Ms Noreen Gibney, operations manager of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), says: "In some ways, I feel we've missed the boat. We should have been to the forefront five or six years ago in setting up a fund in Ireland, especially with the REPS coming on board. Other countries such as the UK have shot ahead."

The association wants the Government to set a target of 20 per cent of agricultural area to be converted to organic farming by 2010. It also wants more money set aside for research and training in organic farming techniques, and proper funding of the inspection and certification scheme it provides.

Some action is already being taken. Last year, Teagasc established an organic milk research firm to study the best production methods and the economics of organic milk production. The State agency has also decided to convert its agricultural college in Athenry into an organic training and demonstration unit for livestock. In addition, the Government has earmarked £6 million in the National Development Plan for organic farming.

Meanwhile, some processors are turning to Europe. Yoghurt manufacturer Glenfisk, the only organic dairy processor in Ireland, began selling into the UK in November and believes it could become the number two organic wholesaler there, if it can get sufficient supplies of Irish organic milk.

The company has also had talks with German wholesalers interested in sourcing organic farmhouse cheeses from Ireland. Glenfisk plans to supply them with cheeses through a co-operative venture with a group of farmhouse cheese manufacturers. The cheeses will be marketed abroad under a new brand, Organic Ireland, which could eventually be expanded to encompass other non-dairy, organic products, says Mr Vincent Cleary, a director of Glenfisk.

The Cleary family switched to an organic yoghurt operation in 1995. "Initially, it was a survival thing for us. We felt we had to be different if we wanted to survive. But I had also lived in Germany for several years and saw how the organic movement was taking hold there. I wanted to sell back to that market," says Mr Cleary.

Their decision has proved successful: Glenfisk had a turnover of £2 million in 1999, up from £300,000 five years ago, and holds 10 per cent of the Irish yoghurt market.

Expansion for organic processors, however, depends on the willingness of Irish farmers to convert to organic production. "The reason why farmers should be looking at it is to secure their long-term viability," says Mr Cleary.

"It's a two-year conversion process and that's why a lot of farmers are not jumping in, but they need to think of the advantages at the end in terms of premium prices. We are one of the best milk payers in Europe."