AP front 1 - 2022

10 June 1999 Edition

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Missing the opportunity to go green

Organic agribusiness offers survival chance for Western farmers and rural life.


``Ireland is green but not half green enough.'' That is after the BSE, the Salmonella, the Angel Dust, the government foostering about over GM foods; and that's not even to mention the British and their conquest of Ireland.

People are crying out that Ireland is missing the boat. Whilst European agriculture races towards green food and consumers race to the organic grocery for clean food, Ireland loiters on the sidelines of fawning to U.S. interests and world-dominating chemical companies. It is throwing up the chance for Western farmers to rebuff Mansholt's original condemnation of the West of Ireland to a future in tourism or trees - in effect no future at all.

While Austria, Denmark and Sweden are well on the way to 10% agricultural production in organic farming, the 26-County government is still singing to the tune that organics are for trendies and flower power freaks who want to grow their own lettuce and tomatoes, the nuts and rice homeopathetics in regulation sandals. When will the politicians catch themselves on?

``I doubt if Mr. Ahern has ever even heard about organic farming'' says Finnain Mac Naeidhe, one of a rare breed of Teagasc agricultural advisers committed to the importance and opportunity offered by organic farming. ``Meanwhile we are throwing away an opportunity for survival not just of small farmers in the West and rural life as we have known it, but of continuing agricultural production in the next millennium. It is tragedy.''

While Austria, Denmark and Sweden are well on the way to 10% agricultural production in organic farming, the 26-County government is still singing to the tune that organics are for trendies and flower power freaks who want to grow their own lettuce and tomatoes, the nuts and rice homeopathetics in regulation sandals. When will the politicians catch themselves on?

Growing `Niche' market for organic produce in EU

The facts are clear. Under CAP 2 and the Santer package, which hasn't gone away even if he has, support prices for agriculture are set to fall and fall a long way because Germany is no longer interested in funding farmers, especially in Eastern Europe, to produce food at prices far above world food price levels. The days of paying people to do nothing, of set aside, are numbered. The writing is very clearly on the wall, especially as the CAP extends into Eastern European agricultural-based economies.

But meanwhile, organics have arrived on the horizon. For whatever the reason - higher income levels, which allow the EU consumer to be a bit particular about what he or she eats; BSE, Salmonella, E-Coli scares; better information seeping through to consumers about what the chemical corporations were doing to grab a monopoly share of farmers' inputs, like seeds and weedkillers; or the horror stories of disease from chemicals gone wrong - the EU consumer wants clean, green food, and will pay extra for it.

Whatever the reason, the ten largest grocery chain stores, and more recently Unilever, Nestlé and Cadbury Schweppes, are all of a sudden committed to 100% green food, with no genetically modified organisms. It is a beginning. Ireland needs to supply a market which is expanding beyond the niche market to retain a position in Europe. Organic farming is the opportunity with the potential to rescue Irish farmers, particularly the 80,000 or more part-timers who are being squeezed out of the industry.

Irish farming cannot compete with rancher farming in the States of North or South America, or Oceania, where land is cheap and scale is huge, where you plough the land by remote control copy-cat tractors, round up the sheep on Harley Davidsons, and spread the pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, nitrates and phosphates by aeroplane. We are just not in the same league, and geography dictates that we won't be.

The Organic Option

Michael Geoghegan has no aeroplanes or remote control tractors, in fact he has no tractors at all because he can't get them onto the wet land of Leitrim. But he and his wife Marie Rose, from Augmacashel, in South Leitrim have signed on with Irish Organic Farmers' and Growers' Associations and are successfully farming organic as a part of the Leitrim Organic Farmers' Co-op.

``We've been farming here for nine generations, says Michael, and we'll be here for the next nine.'' No fruit and nut brigade here. His grandfather fought with the South Leitrim Brigade IRA during the Tan War. They are a well-loved family. When, in the 1930s, the roof of the house fell in, Glangevlin people raised the money to put it back - no mean feat in those days. Michael's father Pearse died 5 years ago.

Organics is commercial sense

``We've four children in the house. When you add it up, self-sufficiency saves us over £1,000 a year in food bills - apart from the fact that we enjoy good food. Michael points across the valley to the cattle sitting quietly in a green field, with no pollutants, nitrates, phosphates, antibiotics, growth promoters or hormone-flavoured milk to worry themselves about. ``We don't stuff the animals full of chemicals for prevention of diseases they haven't got, though when they need treatment, then they get it.''

But when it comes to selling his cattle, they kill organic, put the meat into 25 lb. boxes which each sell for £50 to meet considerable local demand. That is £2 a lb. Going kill-out price to the non organic producers of beef averages 80p a lb. It has fallen as low as 60p. Premiums on organic meat are between 20% and 50%.

``But'' says Marie Rose, ``organic farming is not just clean, healthy food, it's a lifestyle - a respect for the land and the animals which inhabit it, and looking after them. Using chemical agents makes you dependant upon using more and more, which ultimately destroys the environment. Here the emphasis is on preserving the balance of the eco system, by preserving the soil and not destroying its nutrients, or the natural predators.''

Organic farming is the opportunity with the potential to rescue Irish farmers, particularly the 80,000 or more part-timers who are being squeezed out of the industry

£20,000 an acre on Leitrim Farm

Rod Alston is an organic farmers on 20 acres near Rossinver in Leitrim. He grows herbs, 180 varieties, and has made £20,000 on a one acre field. It is success which has been based not on subsidies and grants but on reading the market, and the organic market in Europe is growing at an extraordinary pace of around 25% per annum.

A report by the Western Development Commission pinpoints the enormous potential for growth in organic farming. Noreen Gibney, Operations manager of IOFGA (Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association), one of three main organic farmers certifying bodies, says the same. In France, organic food sales have already taken 39% of retail turnover.

In Ireland, there are 817 registered organic farmers, as compared with 6,793 in Germany and 19,996 in Austria. Ireland is only in 11th place out of 19 European countries, with 23,591 hectares under organic production.

REPS and organics

A lot of the expansion into organic has come as a result of REPS, the Rural Environment Protection Scheme, which is 75% financed by the EU. So far, 40,000 farmers have joined the REPS. £240 million was allocated to this scheme over the five years since it started in 1994.

Under the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, farmers can get £77.13 an acre for the first 100 acres, which by EU standards is now considered a small farm. They can get £7.65 for the next 99 acres and so on. The scheme is for 5 years. In addition, if the farmer joins the organic scheme he can claim an additional £59.08 per acre during the three years it takes to convert to organic, and then £29.54 per acre.

These two schemes might look quite a bonus to the small farmer, who is part-time, unable to make a living on the farm, and unable to find a job to supplement income. But REPS is not a handout. It carries with it numerous requirements for good farming practice, all of which cost money. REPS is like a tidy farm programme, fencing, drainage, housing for livestock, limitations on how many cattle per acre a farmer is allowed, grassland management, painting up the fencing, the housing, the stalls. It is money that has to be spent as the farm plan dictates. To get a farm plan will cost you in the region of £300 for REPS and as much as £900 for organic farming. With the shortage of trained organic advisers, there is no guarantee that your farm adviser will know his stuff on organics, still less whether he or she will direct farmers in markets and sales strategies.

And then the farmer has to deal with bureaucracy, and the money doesn't always come on time. Training courses are not necessarily available locally, nor is organic farming necessarily supported within a local co-operative which enables self-subsistence and small-scale trading. The real needs of organic farmers have just not been addressed on a planned basis which could enable organic farming in Ireland to reach the proportions it has already attained in some EU countries.

What's needed?

Marie Rose and Michael talk of help and support they have had from their local County Leitrim ADM Partnership. But in reality, we're only talking of very small-scale help. Anyone involved in IOFGA has the same story to tell. It is one of fury at the lack of initiative, on a larger scale, and an absence of whole-hearted commitment by the government to developing this obvious niche market, which organic farming can provide. They condemn the short-sightedness, the failure to look to market development, supply of organic grain, assistance with infrastructure, the provision of widespread training and properly qualified advisers, and funding for research, and above all investment in organic downstream processing and marketing.

Anne Coyne of IOFGA talks despairingly of trying to set up training courses, looking for funding, and being directed to Teagasc as the responsible body. But Teagasc isn't doing it. Last year, Teagasc announced it was to appoint three part-time trainers and advisers, and this was for the whole country. It still hasn't been done. It is a catalogue of incompetence.

``Government action''

There is enormous scope for development of processed organic foodstuffs, which could, in the case of meats, bypass difficult questions of how to finish stock in the winter months, when there is a scarcity of organic cereals. As an example, IOFGA points out that 60% of baby food in Europe is organic, and all organically produced baby food in Ireland is imported. In Denmark, for example, there are already 120 processing and wholesale organic companies.

Above all this, it is the failure to grasp these opportunities - which offer a lifeline to farmers in the West and the potential for value-added processing of organic food - which is condemned. As Sinn Féin's Seán MacManus points out: ``The development of organic farming is far too important an opportunity for the whole country to be missed. It should not be left up to the small farmers, on their own, who are struggling to survive on the land, to finance the necessary infrastructure and development schemes. This needs government and regionally planned and funded schemes.

``Where the government can spend over £100 million on seaside resort tourist accommodation, like the Achill Tax Relief scheme, it is not too much to demand that funding on this scale be allocated to an industry which can ensure the survival of thousands of part-time farmers in the seven Western seaboard counties, and beyond.''

Who is to blame?

``First and foremost is the government in failing to draw up a national plan for the development of organic farming, markets and supplies. Then there is the irrelevance of local authorities, which should have been at the forefront of pushing forward this development but instead have done nothing,'' says Anne Maughan of the Mayo branch of IOFGA.


NGOs withdraw from GM debate in protest


In two weeks time, the government has to take a position at the Council of Ministers' meeting in Brussels on the question of the EU allowing GM foods. So the Minister for the Environment, Noel Dempsey, set up round table discussions between academics, the bio-tech and GM food industry and NGOs to discuss the issue, which opened on 25 May.

It all seems a bit late in the day, given that the government needs a defined position in just a matter of days. It could be asked did the minister want to consult organisations opposed to GM foods at all.

Sadbh O'Neill of Genetic Concern, one of the 19 NGOs which were involved in the discussions, and withdrew in protest, doesn't think the minister wanted to consult their views at all.

The minister, in his opening remarks, ruled out the question of a moratorium on GM foods, which the NGOs thought was the very issue they were there to discuss. ``The minister had already decided that a moratorium was illegal under EU regulations,'' says Sadbh, `` yet already some countries like Austria and Luxembourg have prohibited some GM crops.''

``That is only a limited and provisional ban on a small product,'' says Margaret Lee of the Department. The product happens to be Bt-Maize, which is a major food crop, present in numerous food products.

So away they went with the first session. ``The opening debate was a popcorn debate, with people jumping up all over the place announcing different and unrelated views on a welter of issues.''

Then an agenda was produced for the second session to take place a week later. ``There was only 90 minutes set aside for environment and health issues in the whole session. Instead, they were going to discuss the economy and the regulatory process. This wasn't the consultation process which is needed at all,'' says Sadbh. In protest, the NGOs withdrew, all except two groups concerned with animal health issues and their topic was not even mentioned on the agenda.

And then the very next week, the dioxin scandal hit the headlines in Belgium. Known lethal carcinogens, dioxins, had gotten into the feedstuffs. First it was chicken and egg products which had to be taken off the shelves, then it was beef and pig products that were announced to be contaminated, and then the scare was extended to dairy products, including chocolate.

The crisis is flagged as the biggest health scare in Europe since the BSE crisis of 1996. What has caused such a major scandal is that the Belgian government knew about the contamination six weeks ago, and according to EU spokespeople, suppressed the information.

The U.S. and some Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia have banned all European meat and dairy products, as often exports from EU countries do not differentiate between EU member states. The EU exports 230 million ecus of pork products to the US alone.

It's another indication of the growing signs of trade war between the U.S. and EU states, as the U.S. attempts to force on Europeans acceptance of GM crops, antibiotic tagging and use of growth hormones in livestock.

The whole issue of environment and health in agriculture is coming to a crisis, which may have severe effects upon Irish agricultural exports unless the government here takes a more progressive attitude than it has to date over the issue of clean food.

Ireland has always been the country sitting on the fence in these discussions. The round table discussions were not set up to take them off the fence.


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