UPDATE: UK OTB just got £1.4 million (!) to carry on for another 3 years!
The organic movement, such as it is in Ireland, is stagnant. These is little disagreement on this.
This is not the fault of the certification bodies, or of organic farmers. Both have their jobs to do and do them.
Public policy support is, according to a report for the EU Commission from November 2011 “the major driver for organic sector development”. Yet the evidence for such support in Ireland is weak, as we saw in this column last week.
Organic farming payment rates are also very low in Ireland by European standards.
While it is difficult to compare different member states for various reasons, such information that is out there and is comparable points to very low payment rates in Ireland. According to Gillian Westbrook of IOFGA, writing in Organic Matters in Spring this year, payments in Ireland are 8th lowest out of 22 comparable member states for grassland; second lowest for arable; lowest for both vegetables perennials/orchards fruits.
Organic farmers, while having lower costs in some cases, also have higher feed costs and lower stocking rates, yet the notion of income forgone is not fully taken into account by these payment rates. Nor are the range of public goods, including in particular ecosystem services, supported adequately. As often is the case, Europe and CAP offer the best hope for organic farming.
Beyond the state, the public discourse on organic farming is almost always negative. Whenever the media bothers to take a look at organic farming, the starting point is usually an attack on the integrity of the sector.
For this, negative research is cherry picked while positive studies are ignored. The latter includes the sequence of recent TCD studies positively comparing Irish organic to conventional dairy farms in biodiversity terms (for an open access one, see here) or the meta-studies that actually show organic food scoring better than conventional in nutritional terms (Hunter et al 2011, Brandt et al 2011, Lairon 2009).
Without fail, the price of an organic chicken comes up, as if this is a typical product price difference between organic and conventional. The fact that branded or niche milk products (e.g. so called super milk) can be the same price, or even more than own brand supermarket organic milk is conveniently ignored: this would after all interfere with the conversation-closing narrative that organic is always considerably more expensive.
In all of this, the fact that business-as-usual is not sustainable in food is never the focus of this organic-bashing discussion. Discussions on organic farming and food are rarely introduced in terms of climate change, resource use, biodiversity loss, the expansion of the western diet (and waistlines). Instead the main problem, so the story goes, is that organic can take up more land - as if that is in and of itself exclusively negative, and as if current practices aren't making land less than useful anyway.
So what to do? The organic movement (for it is both a movement and a sector) needs to be out there, making positive noises and talking about what organic actually is. Rather than defensive responses to media set ups designed to make the sector look weak and deceitful, an Organic Trade Board needs to be established. There are UK (and a campaign of theirs here) and US models to look to.
This could bring together all the relevant players – the cert bodies, training organisation, producer groups and co-ops, bigger organic companies, researchers, advocates and more. This would have a specific job to market organic as organic.
The EIP – European Innovation Partnership, which is a new aspect of Pillar 2 of the CAP reform process - could be accessed to do this, under Article 15.
As part of this, or separately, the EIP could be accessed to form operational groups to solve specific problems the organic sector faces. This is the core purpose of EIP.
Both a trade board and the initiation of the EIP would require initial Departmental effort and support before they could function independently or semi-independently. Perhaps the bigger organic companies could contribute too? Perhaps the certification fees could be adjusted to make space for a contribution to this, without increasing costs to farmers?
Conventional farming in Ireland has a positive story to tell, in environmental and other ways. It shouldn't fear the organic message, as it were, getting out.
The two can sit side by side, each representing aspects of Ireland in their own ways. Organic just needs its little place in the sun, so it too can grow.
So what do you think? Comments welcome (please here and not on twitter or facebook - it only takes a mo to do them here, and they archive better here for future use - I'll also keep this feature up high on the page in the weeks ahead for easy access)