Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Organic Farming Scheme: Bord Bia
We are now in public session. I welcome members of the organic farming scheme today. Before we begin I remind members and witnesses to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely as they cause interference with the broadcasting equipment.
I welcome the representatives from Bord Bia Ms Eileen Bentley, entrepreneurship manager, Mr. Mark Zieg, sector manager for beef and Mr. Declan Fennell, sector manager for sheep and special marketing initiatives. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee to discuss the organic farming scheme.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Ms Bentley to make her opening statement.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to address it today. I am the entrepreneurship manager in Bord Bia, and I am joined today by my colleagues Mr. Declan Fennell and Mr. Mark Zieg from the Bord Bia meat and livestock division. Over the course of the next ten minutes we will share with the committee Bord Bia’s activity within the organic sector on the Irish and export markets, with a specific focus on the meat sector.
Bord Bia’s role is to drive, through market insight and in partnership with industry, the commercial success of a world class Irish food, drink and horticulture industry. In the organic sector our focus is to establish markets for organic produce rather than the recruitment of new producers into the supply base. This role is undertaken through the creation and execution of the annual organic marketing plan which is overseen and funded by the organic unit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. In addition, there are over 40 active organic companies on Bord Bia’s client database, all of which can benefit from the many marketing and business development support services that are provided by Bord Bia on a daily basis.
I will give the committee a brief overview of current market performance of organic products. The value of the Irish organic retail market is just over €110 million. The organic market is approximately 1% of the overall food and drink market in Ireland and, like all aspects of the market, has had significant challenges at retail level in the years of the economic recession. However, in 2014 and 2015 the organic market has returned to growth and although not yet back at pre-recession value, year to date growth in 2015 is plus 9%. According to Kantar’s Worldpanel data, this growth is being driven by more shoppers buying more products more often.
With regard to market share, the three categories of vegetables, yoghurt and fruit make up over half of the market for organic sales at retail level in Ireland. It is always interesting to understand who is purchasing organic products and, again through Kantar data, we can see the key segments are the pre-family group, the over 45s with family and households with older dependants. Appeal is greatest in households with highest level of disposable incomes. The majority of retail sales for organic are through the established multiple retailers. Super Valu has performed strongest for organic sales in 2015 but Tesco is the most important retailer in volume. Interestingly, the biggest share growth for organic in 2015 was in Aldi, an indication of the importance of the discounters to the future growth of the sector in Ireland.
Internationally, the market for organic food and drink is valued at £40 billion according to recent figures from the Soil Association. There was a slow-down and in some markets a decline in organic growth over recent years but, similar to the market here at home, there has been renewed growth in the 2014-2015 period.
The United States accounts for almost half of this £40 billion and is by far the leading organic market in the world. Germany, France, UK, Italy and Switzerland are the top five markets for organic sales in Europe with a combined value of approximately €17 billion euro.
I will now turn to how Bord Bia supports the organic sector on the domestic and international markets. I remind members that in both cases Bord Bia’s remit is to act as the link between suppliers and potential new customers, providing market and consumer insight, route to market, brand communication and one to one support. In addition to the Origin Green programme, these are the strategic pillars under which Bord Bia operates.
On the domestic market, in addition to a market development role, our role is also to increase the awareness and understanding of organic products with the Irish consumer. Through research, we can get under the bonnet of organic with consumers and use this information to help us target messages and advertorials across the right media to the right audience. Importantly, this research is also a powerful tool in our meetings with buyers and retailers as we showcase the potential of the sector and the value of an organic offer to their customers.
The bi-annual National Organic Awards are another powerful means by which to showcase the sector to consumers and retailers alike and are used by the winning producers to raise their own profile and generate new business. The annual Bloom festival is the ultimate shop window for organic producers to meet more than 100,000 current and prospective consumers and over the last number of years, the sector has been well represented within the Bord Bia food village at Bloom while also educating the next generation of consumers via the organic schools garden initiative.
A programme of retail mentoring support specifically for organic producers large and small was introduced by Bord Bia in 2014 and feedback to date from participating companies has been overwhelmingly positive as they look to gain a stronger foothold in the retail market. Not surprisingly, with a size of prize of over £40 billion pounds, making inroads into export markets is the ambition for many organic suppliers. Bord Bia supports the identification of potential new markets and customers for the organic sector through a joined up process of market study visits and the research and publication of organic market reports. In 2014, the focus was Germany, in 2015 it was France and next year it will be the UK market. This year’s French market activity included research of the organic consumer in France and their awareness and expectations of organic products and brands from Ireland. This is critical information for companies intending to export to that market and gives them a headstart versus international competitors in the development of market specific products and communications. From a trade fair perspective, the annual Biofach fair in Nuremberg, Germany is the key event for organics on the European market. Each year approximately eight to ten Irish producers participate on the Ireland stand across a range of categories. The estimated value of new business to participants on this stand in 2015 was €2.5 million.
Looking at two export focused sectors in particular, I will now ask my colleague Mr. Mark Zieg to share a brief insight into how Bord Bia supports the development of the organic beef sector internationally. He will be followed by Mr. Declan Fennell who will focus on the opportunity and supports for the organic sheepmeat sector.
Mr. Mark Zieg:
Irish beef exports in 2014 totalled 524,000 tonnes carcase weight equivalent. It is estimated that organic beef accounted for approximately 2,800 tonnes in total production. This was marketed both on the home market which is dominated by retail sales, as well as exports to retail and value added customers in markets such as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.
Bord Bia's promotional strategy for Irish beef is centred around finding differentiated and premium markets and promoting Irish beef with higher value customers in those markets. Organic beef is very much part of this strategy representing a high value, differentiated, niche offering. Consumer perceptions of organic are very well aligned with the natural and sustainable image of Irish beef. In recent research in some of our key markets such as Germany, Holland and Italy we have found high correlations in positive opinions of Irish beef among consumers with a higher propensity to purchase organic beef.
Earlier this year, Irish organic beef secured a listing with one of our largest retail customers in Germany. Bord Bia supported the successful brand development and listing of this product. In Britain we are currently undertaking a consumer insight and branding project for an Irish organic beef range with a leading online retailer. This represents an important opportunity for Irish beef.
According to Kantar Worldpanel's research, organic and branded retail have been identified as two of the most promising growth trends in the UK beef retail category.
In the context of the future outlook, it is estimated that organic beef production in Ireland could grow by as much as 40% over the next five years, as a result of the high uptake in organic conversion among beef farmers. Feedback from the contact our overseas offices have had with existing and potential customers and from their discussions with exporters suggests this additional volume will be well received in meeting the growing international demand for organic beef. Specifically we see opportunities in the retail and food service sectors in Northern Europe, the USA and Asia. That said, full access to the US market for Irish manufacturing beef and certification of Irish beef plants to export to China will be a prerequisite to unlocking this potential. On the production side, seasonality of supply remains an issue as most customers require a year-round supply capability. This is a challenge that the entire sector will need to address.
Mr. Declan Fennell:
The Irish sheep sector has delivered a solid performance over recent years, with the value of exports growing at a faster rate than volume. Since 2009, total sheepmeat exports increased by 25% to reach €218 million, while volumes have reached 43,000 tonnes, equivalent to a 4% increase.
The UK and France continue to be the core markets for Irish sheepmeat, accounting for 60% of total export volumes. The success of Irish sheepmeat exports can be attributed to the shift away from trading in carcases towards developing prime cuts. Our ability to deliver a product according to an exact market specification has enabled us to optimise our product and market mix. This has ultimately delivered a better price return back to the farmer.
Notwithstanding this, the Irish sheep sector and, indeed, the broader European industry are faced with a universal challenge, which is how we attract younger, lighter buyer consumers to the lamb category. According to Kantar Worldpanel data, 65% of Irish lamb shoppers are over 45 years of age. This trend is not unique to the Irish market. Younger consumers lack exposure to lamb and knowledge on how to prepare and cook this meat. In an initiative to address this challenge, Bord Bia, in partnership with our counterparts in France and the UK, launched a three year campaign to promote lamb across six EU markets earlier this year. The Lamb - Tasty, Easy, Fun campaign targets consumers in the 25 to 45 year age group in the six EU markets involved and aims to highlight the importance of European lamb production and its versatility as an everyday meal.
From a consumer perspective, we need to recognise that lamb is relatively more expensive when compared to other offerings in the fresh meat category and thereby commands a smaller share of retail shelf space. While organic beef is relatively successful, organic lamb faces more challenges, as I have outlined. In general, conventional lamb sales are down in the UK and throughout the rest of the EU. Nevertheless, it is important to stress there are some niche opportunities for Irish organic lamb in mainstream retailers and specialist organic stores in our main export markets. However, listings of organic lamb in these outlets are often of small volume with a limited range of one or two types of cut, such as leg or rack of lamb.
Recognising that the number of organic sheep in Ireland is set to increase as a result of the GLAS scheme, Bord Bia has put in place a programme of activities to seek to identify and develop market opportunities for organic lamb. In partnership with the Irish processing industry, and through the network of our overseas offices, Bord Bia is engaging in a number of initiatives in trade research, brand development and market prioritisation to further the development of the organic sheepmeat market.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
Our presentation this morning has focused on the bespoke set of supports for organic producers that are delivered under the organic marketing plan. In the interests of time, I have not outlined all of the other supports that are available to organic and conventional producers alike as part of Bord Bia’s annual activity. These supports include supplier development programmes, such as our food academy and Tesco Taste Bud, and export programmes in retail and food service in the UK and continental markets. Many organic companies have undertaken extensive consumer and brand development work through Bord Bia’s SuperBrands and foresight for food services, and others are exploring new routes to market via our digital food hub with Google.
Last March, approximately 20 organic companies participated at Marketplace International in the National Convention Centre, the largest buyer-supplier showcase for the food sector staged in Ireland, with over 180 participating companies and more than 500 buyers that will generate more than €30 million of new sales for participants this year.
It is the view of Bord Bia that the potential for continued growth of organic exists and that organic plays an important role for consumers at home and abroad. Through the collective efforts of all elements of the organic sector to overcome the challenges of supply, we hope Irish organic producers can make the most of this potential. I thank the committee.
I thank the witnesses. According to the presentation, the Irish market for organic produce is €110 million. How much of it is supplied by Irish, as opposed to imported? How much organic production is marketed, branded and sold as organic? Farmers produce beef organically and receive the top-ups and grants for doing so. However, when it goes to a factory, the factory sells it on as ordinary meat, not as a premium product. There is a major mismatch in both directions. The witnesses said three categories, vegetables, yoghurt and fruit, made up half the retail organic sales in Ireland. It is fascinating the beef and lamb are not included, and it shows there is a major challenge. I would love to see the composition of what organic farmers are producing. Is it mainly beef, vegetables, fruit or dairy products that can be made into yogurt? How do the producers and retailers match up? It is very important.
Is there a significant variation in our organic exports? Many of the organic products sold in Ireland would be vegetables, potatoes and fruit, whereas our exports are less likely to be in this market. Some domestic organic produce would be sold in farmers' markets. I imagine our organic exports are more in the lamb and beef sectors. There is no point in telling me the organic market is worth £40 billion if we do not know what we are likely to get on the market and what there is demand for.
I take it that everything sold as organic here under the Bord Bia label is accredited. For some reason, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine requires organic farmers to get accreditation from private companies at a phenomenal annual cost of approximately €3,000, which is a hell of a lot of money for a farmer. Given that Bord Bia is doing accreditation for these farmers, why do they have to get a duplicate accreditation at such a cost? Could Bord Bia do the accreditation for them? Presumably, Bord Bia sends its inspectors to check that everything is done correctly so products can be sold as organic. I do not understand why they have to hand over so much of their hard-earned cash for accreditation, given that Bord Bia is already doing it. As is often the case in Ireland, it seems we have to do everything twice rather than in a simple way.
It always seemed a strange paradox that none of the farmers who probably operate in the most natural way, by whom I mean hill farmers, are, to my knowledge, organic farmers. Of these, hill sheep farmers particularly are not. I understand the reason is that they dose the sheep, particularly for worms and fluke. On the other hand, it is fair to say that, compared to intensively fed animals, the blackface mountain lamb is one of our most unique and most natural products. Perhaps they would consider this, maybe not under an organic label but under some label. I might be straying a little out of court but, please God, the Chairman will indulge me on this one. I was involved, as a co-op manager many years ago, in trying to market hill lamb. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do. We started flying them live by jet to Italy. Then Halal companies came in and started slaughtering them. It cost £4,000 in 1976 to charter an aeroplane from Martinair to fly them from Shannon to Milan. As I said, there was a market then in Italy, Portugal and Spain, but it always has been a very variable market. One of the thought processes I have had over the years is, rather than selling Connemara hill lamb and Kerry hill lamb, why not have a Wild Atlantic Way hill lamb?
Do not mind that; those are all Cheviot crosses. They are not the purebred blackface mountain lamb. They will sell anyway in the normal market. There is no a problem selling them. I am talking about blackface lamb.
One could have "Wild Atlantic lamb - Donegal" and "Wild Atlantic lamb - Mayo," if they want to keep their county colours as well, but there should be one brand, from Donegal to Kerry, of pure blackface. I am not talking about crossbreeds that can be sold on the normal market and would go into the French market. I am talking about those that would be more suitable to a southern European market, for which we would develop one brand, and that we would guarantee certain standards, even if they were not fully organic, for that brand and market it under a common brand up and down the coast rather than have every sub-region, which does not have critical mass, going on its own. In my experience, one might get a reasonably long season by bringing all the regions together, because I would say Mayo and Connemara have by far the smallest lambs, and Donegal and Kerry have better lambs. I would also be interested in their views on that issue.
Beautiful. There is nothing like it. That is a good start anyway.
The witnesses stated that 1% of the total production is down to organic in the agriculture sector and that there had been an increase of 9% from 2014 to 2015. We had a debate here on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, part of which would be to do with genetically modified, GM, produce and cross-contamination. Are GM foods in use having any effect in Ireland? Is Irish produce completely free of that? If there are GM crops being grown or if there is a proposal that GM crops be grown, will that be a problem for organic production?
What type of representation do organic producers have with farming organisations? It seems there is a big opening in organic farming, particularly given climate change and the related problems of mounting emissions for those involved in the production of cattle, sheep, etc.
The figures given show produce of approximately €100 million. Are those the real figures? There are probably farmers who are rearing lambs, sheep, etc., who would have their own customers and would not be in the commercial market but I would say the figure is much bigger than that, if one were looking at it that way.
Much of the presentation suggests that most customers of produce on the retail side would be those on middle incomes who would have a lot of disposable income in their hands rather than those at the lower end of the income ladder. Is there any way around that, through providing subsidies or whatever, to help promote the benefits of organic produce?
I thank Ms Bentley, Mr. Zeig and Mr. Fennell for their excellent presentation.
Deputy Ó Cuív has me smiling over here. I keep thinking of the wild blackface lamb and the Wild Atlantic Way and I thought, why not have the "Comeragh sunny south-east whiteface organic wild lamb"?
Moving on to serious business, it is interesting that Aldi and Lidl have entered the organic market. Organic was big before the recession but it is coming back. I should know the answer to the following question, and it must be a good one, but what percentage added value do meat or vegetables gain for a producer selling to the market if they are organic?
We had an interesting chat here. We have had so many meetings recently but it was a defining moment for me. I am interested in Deputy Ó Cuív's point. If a farmer is grazing sheep on the hills and dipping his sheep, and therefore they are non-organic, there could be organic sheep grazing alongside them. The light-bulb moment for me was that all our commonages and hills are organic and if the farmers knew that and we could help them become organic, they could get a much greater return on their lambs. These are farmers who need this money and who are suffering great hardship.
The three witnesses will be able to tell me better than anyone else what they are doing right in Austria. Is it something to do with European grants and have we got the grants wrong here? Austria is only a little bigger than Ireland and its population is much larger, but it has 20,000 organic farmers and we have 1,700. Obviously, theirs is a much wealthier nation. They are getting a much bigger price but our sector is doing the same amount of work. There is a bit of hassle in organic but once one gets into it, it is pretty much the same. I am sorry to say this, but we have much more low-hanging fruit in terms of image than Austria. When one goes to Biofach in Germany, as I have done, they see our Origin Green and the Minister, Deputy Coveney's sustainability programme straightaway. It is a real piece of low-hanging fruit.
The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, asked last year if Irish farmers are slightly afraid of converting to organic. Is there something we are not doing in this regard? He stated that there are very significant opportunities for the sector, and that we have a great name right across the world in terms of cleanliness, the beautiful food and the environment. Are we missing something there? Some 14% of all Austrian farmers are organic. I note the words they used: "premium", "differential" and "Irish". There is a lot more money to be got for our farmers here but somehow or other, although Bord Bia is doing a lot of work, the Government is not doing something and we are not joining the dots. I would appreciate the representatives' straight-up hard views on this subject. The position of hill farmers is a piece of low-hanging fruit for us because neither I nor, I think, Deputy Ó Cuív knew that we could help many farmers convert to organic where they could get perhaps 80% more for their lambs.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. Most of the points have been covered but I wish to raise a topic I have been talking about for many years. In my previous job I represented hill farmers, most of whom were from the west, within the IFA and I covered the western seaboard. I am interested in Deputy Ó Cuív's point about the Wild Atlantic Way brand and in branding lamb from along the coastline as wild Atlantic lamb. The volume would be there. There is an area in west Sligo where people sell organic lamb, as do people in Connemara and Kerry. There is significant potential if everybody came together. Now is the time to encourage people to graze these hills some more. The hills were overgrazed but then left undergrazed for eight to ten years. We would like to encourage young people in particular to get their sheep stock back on the hills. To do that they must be assured of a good price for their product. Irish lamb is an excellent product and there is significant potential with organic lamb and smaller carcases in beef, such as Angus beef which is more easily finished. Grain can now be sourced within Ireland rather than it having to be imported. This was a problem if one wanted to finish animals as the organic grain was expensive and people had to pay high prices. More of that grain can be home-grown so while there is potential, much work remains to be done. The number of farmers is quite small, as Senator O'Brien has said. With 1,700 organic farmers, we should certainly try to encourage more farmers to get into this type of business.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
I will address Deputy Ó Cuív's question first. He correctly pointed out that within the €110 million, vegetables, fruit and yoghurt represent the majority of sales in my estimates. At least 50% to 60% of the €110 million comes from the Irish market purely based on the strength of horticulture and dairy sector products represented in those categories. Fruit is much more seasonal and a category which relies more heavily on imports from overseas.
The second question was how much product is organic but is sold as conventional. I do not have a figure for that but I acknowledge there is an awareness and understanding at farmer level that this is perceived as something that needs to be looked at, especially how the farmers have their animals slaughtered and whether it could be more convenient and nearer to where they farm the land. This issue is looked at regularly by my colleagues on the organic focus steering group.
Horticulture, beef, dairy and seafood are the main sectors represented overall at farm level. The importance of seafood must not be forgotten. It is one of the key components of the organic sector. This relates to the next topic of exports. The main exports, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, do not necessarily follow the horticulture sector. Seafood is a very important sector, especially organic salmon. Ireland is the number one producer in Europe of farmed organic salmon. At events such as Biofach, at least three or four out of the eight producers we have there annually represent the seafood sector. Whether it is salmon or mussels, seafood is very important for organic exports. Beef is becoming more important and the committee can see these data as presented by my colleague, Mr. Mark Zieg.
With regard to the prepared foods sector, we see increasing exports to a variety of European markets and some world markets.
I wish to correct any potential misunderstanding around the issue of double certification. Organic produce in Ireland is not sold under any Bord Bia label. It would only be sold under labels of the Irish organic certification bodies, such as the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, IOFGA, the Organic Trust, the Soil Association or Demeter. Bord Bia would not double certify producers. Our Bord Bia quality scheme covers meat, some horticulture and poultry but it is very separate from the organic schemes. The way the system is operated in Ireland with the private certification bodies is quite similar to some other European markets. Deputy Ó Cuív made reference to hill lamb.
Mr. Declan Fennell:
The historical background of the sector is that hill lambs and light lambs were exported to markets such as Portugal, Spain and Italy. The lighter lamb was approximately 11 kg to 13 kg, where conventional lamb is around 22 kg. Those lambs were exported until 2008 when those markets hit a recession and the trade evaporated almost overnight which was more than a disappointment. With regard to opportunities for hill lamb producers, we work with these producers particularly in the west of Ireland, Kerry or Waterford and there is no doubt it is a fantastic product. However, one of the hallmarks of the success of the Irish sheep industry is in delivering a product to a customer specification. One of our challenges, and Deputy Ó Cuív referred to it, is to introduce a discipline of best practice in getting to sufficient weight and bringing these lighter carcasses up to a heavier carcass suitable for a market, whether it is exported as a full carcass or preferably sent out as a primal individual such as leg, loin or rack. That is where the real opportunities lie. Bord Bia has worked with a number of groups around the country, small groups of producers whether it is in Mayo, Kerry, and obviously our role is about informing them about opportunities in the market while delivering to a market specification.
The Deputy suggested using the Wild Atlantic Way branding. This has been discussed in terms of a unified story when promoting a branded proposition from the western parts of Ireland. Bord Bia is focused on working with individual producer groups and assisting them in the disciplines of market needs, consistency in product weight, year round availability, the marketing and promotion.
Mr. Declan Fennell:
I will now turn to the question of sheep farmers being aware if they have organic status or not. My understanding of the definition, or criteria for eligibility, for organic status is the criteria set by the Department of Agriculture specifications. It is the choice of farmers who wish to subscribe to those criteria.
Mr. Mark Zieg:
I want to clarify for members how much beef goes into the organic chain.
My understanding is that while leakage is a feature of these very specific schemes which come from the producer up and we experienced it in the growth of the Angus and Hereford schemes, it is closing. The more we can export - we are exporting - the less there is. We are not just going for the premium cuts as we now take a lot of forequarter beef from the organic stream and it is exported to some of the large producers of baby food throughout Europe. We have much better carcass distribution between various customers in various markets. We have other customers for round cuts in markets such as Holland. The level of leakage is very low. It is higher than that that in the mainstream sector, but there is pretty good coverage and it is getting better all the time. We have the drive to get organic products into more export markets such as China and the United States because we can improve on this figure.
On beef and lamb not being part of the leading sales, the figure is from this country and as a result of Irish consumers having high trust in the mainstream product produced here. They see very little wrong with mainstream production and are happy to buy it. Our consumer research has built up this line of thought in recent years. There are growing export markets for the product, which is why we export more of it.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
To address Deputy Martin Ferris's questions, by way of clarification, the figure of 1% referred to in the presentation represents the size of the retail food market, not total organic production. The Deputy is correct to state direct sales are not included. It is very difficult to quantify exactly how much is sold independently through food markets and one-to-one farm gate sales. The overall figure is higher than €110 million, but, having said that, almost 90% of the total is sold through retailers; therefore, the figure captures a very good proportion of it.
With regard to the economic profile of consumers, price is the number one barrier to buying organic produce. From as far back as 2006 our research has consistently shown that it is always raised as the number one issue for consumers. It is why they will not buy organic products or do not buy more of them. There are communication issues which we are working to overcome. This concerns education on the benefits of organic products and how best to convey the perceived consumer benefits in terms of health, nutrition, flavour and taste. Through the campaign of advertorials we have run in recent years, we have tried to communicate to consumers directly the benefits of organic products and how to identify and find organic products on shelves. A total of 50% of consumers do not buy organic products and have no intention of buying them; therefore, our focus is very much on the 50% who are engaged to try to convince them to increase their spend and purchase more.
To answer Senator Darragh O'Brien, the consensus between my colleagues and I is that the percentage gain for producers selling to retailers is somewhere between 10% and 20% in some categories. It very much depends on the category involved. The situation in Austria could be due to a combination of factors in terms of what is done differently there. We have had discussions on this issue among ourselves.
As it is a more mountainous country, the pasture open for organic grazing is higher than here and more farms naturally fall into it. We chose to follow one set of organic certification standards and the Austrians chose another. Perhaps the net of farmers who are considered to be organic is wider in Austria because it applies different organic standards. It could also be a market-driven approach in terms of public procurement opportunities. I am not sure, but is there a level in public procurement contracts at which a certain amount of purchases must be organic? That would help to stimulate and drive demand.
I thank the delegates for the presentation. Organic farmers deal with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Bord Bia and the certification bodies. Do the delegates believe Bord Bia could kill two birds with the one shot and eliminate the fact that so many people visit the farmer? As Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív mentioned, the lamb produced on the hills of counties Mayo, Wicklow, Dublin and Kerry is organic. It has been traded to other countries, but according to some farmers, some of this trade is gone. What is Bord Bia doing to help it?
I know of an instance where a farmer genuinely forgot to include information on a medicine and was struck off for six months. This is a heavy-handed way to deal with the matter. With the best will in the world, every one of us makes mistakes. We should show leniency in the case of a first or second offence and not just exclude people for six months. Organic certification means extra money for an animal and it is lost if a farmer is excluded. We should consider introducing a graduated system rather than knocking people out with the stroke of a biro.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
On whether Bord Bia could certify, there is not much of an overlap as regards who is certified through our quality scheme and by the organic certification bodies. I hope duplication and double payments are at the absolute minimum. The criteria applied to organic produce are very different from the quality mark criteria applied by Bord Bia. Whether they could be easily assimilated into the quality mark is a bigger question.
Private subcontractors are paid to certify somebody and Bord Bia is also paid to certify. Can we not have joined-up thinking to ensure we do not pay two people in two cars if it could all be covered by one person?
Mr. Mark Zieg:
In theory, that is something we can do, and the quality schemes have been able to bring that on. There are certain things that are taken on for individual groups or suppliers that are added onto the quality assurance inspection, so technically it is possible. However, there are three different organic groups in Ireland and they all have their own auditors. That is the structure at present, so it would take agreement from those bodies for that to happen. I am not sure what the situation would be in that regard.
They are being paid €150 by the State every time they go out to a farmer. Mr. Zieg's organisation is also being paid by the State for going out to farmers. Surely it is not too complicated to add a few more elements to the work of Bord Bia so that it can certify the farm rather than paying two bodies to do so.
We had a meeting with organic farmers seven or eight weeks ago. We are all on the same page but we need a few more elephants to join us here. I have read about the system in Austria and they seem to have it all streamlined, under one roof and one brand. I am the biggest fan of all time of Bord Bia and I do not bear any ill will towards the four or five certification bodies currently operating. Having spoken to a few organic farmers, however, I realise that the system is very complex at present. It would be wonderful if we could improve the situation. The Austrians seem to be on a different page to us. It sounds as though it is easier to be organic in Austria than in Ireland. I would love to give our farmers a level playing field with their brothers in Austria, so that if they want to be organic the same rules would apply. If they want to go to Biofac and get 10% or 15% more for their produce, they should be on the same pitch, with one unified body.
Mr. Mark Zieg:
My understanding is that, at the time, the Austrians chose to take the European organic standard, which the organic bodies here would consider to be a lower standard. It is easier to comply with the Austrian standard and therefore the net is wider. Obviously the topography and the nature of agriculture in Austria is also different. There is a lot less intensive farming there so it is also easier to comply from that perspective. Aside from that, if one took organic farmers from Austria and put them into the Irish situation, they would not comply with the schemes here. That is a decision that was made at a national level by the bodies here. The bodies themselves have decided which way to run on this.
This committee should take the opportunity at this stage to try to bring it all in under one roof. We cannot have the bodies deciding what happens nationally. If 5,000 farmers want to become organic and we can make it easier for them by having it governed by one body, we should do so. It is good that-----
It is something to highlight and send on further afield, obviously. This is a big issue for farmers. I seek another clarification from the witnesses. Is there a European standard that everyone must meet?
Mr. Mark Zieg:
By "we" I do not mean Bord Bia but the organic bodies. The people involved, who are members of those organisations, have decided to go this way.
Bord Bia does not currently have a role on that side of things. However, in terms of quality assurance, we are now over a number of different sectors at a number of different levels. We have demonstrated that we are quite prepared to add on and to look at that aspect, if the bodies want us to do that.
Mr. Zieg has said that we produce large quantities of organic farmed salmon. It fascinates me to think that a hill lamb which might only be given a fluke or worm dose and otherwise allowed to ramble the hill is not considered organic while a fish that is put in a cage, a totally unnatural environment, is considered organic. No one can try to tell me that organic fish farmers do not use chemicals to control for various diseases or lice. Fish produced on such farms can be labelled as organic but I would take the hill lamb over such a fish any day, in terms of it being a natural product. I will not touch farmed salmon because it is a totally unnatural product. Farmed salmon is kept in a totally confined space and has lots of chemicals thrown in on top of it to enable it to survive. I am really fascinated about how these standards are worked out. What is the definition of an organic salmon? A poached salmon from the west of Ireland is fine but-----
I wish to return to the issue of Bord Bia inspectors. Let us say a farmer has left something out at the back of a book. In such cases, the attitude seems to be that if there is one thing missing, then the whole lot falls. A biro is put through the whole lot and the farmer is out of action for six months. Why do we not introduce a system whereby we work with farmers? This is bread and butter for a lot of farmers. Why do we not introduce a system where, if something is done incorrectly, there is one mark against the farmer and it is only if the farmer accumulates four marks that he or she is gone for six months? We need to bring people with us. If we want farmers to continue to operate under the Bord Bia scheme and the various organic schemes, we must work with them rather than behaving like Hitler and making them afraid. We must make sure there is a good working relationship so that farmers are not afraid when they see a car pulling into their yard. Bord Bia should look at this issue carefully. Farmers should not be penalised straight away if they make a mistake, particularly if the mistake is minor. I have no problem with them being penalised for six months if they are guilty of three or four offences. In that context they would have had several warnings, but they should not be penalised for a first offence. Some of the people that Bord Bia deals with did not go to Trinity College. They started farming at a very young age and are doing their best.
We seem to be very harsh on them. We need to bring in a system where a farmer welcomes someone into the yard rather than being petrified of them.
Ms Eileen Bentley:
It would be very disappointing if that were the general reaction of all farmers when they see the quality mark auditors. I would not be aware first-hand of those experiences from a large number of farmers. The auditors are doing a job in terms of protecting what the consumer expects. When the consumer picks up a packet of rashers or beef, they are expecting that the farm and the whole process has been audited to a consistent standard. If they are being heavy-handed, it is because they are doing it in the best interests of the consumer. I will take that back to the quality team in Bord Bia. I am not aware that the penalty for a first offence would be a six-month ban. We are only as strong as our weakest link in terms of the quality mark, so ensuring from the consumer perspective that this mark maintains its position in terms of trust and integrity is the guiding principle for us in Bord Bia.
I heard with interest what Mr Fennell said about the weight of sheep. I agree that Bord Bia has to try to satisfy the market, but on the other hand we have to recognise that there are physical limitations to what can be done. It is easy enough to get the sheep on the margins of the hills, in hill farms with kinder hills and better lowland up to what we call French weights, but further into the hills, in places like Recess, the sheep get smaller. I know from personal experience that trying to get them up to the required weight is nearly impossible. A farmer could put a lot of meal into a sheep and it would not really be the same animal at all by the time it was finished. Over the years it has been a major challenge that some farmers in places like the Chairman comes from buy sheep, put them into a green field and think these lovely mountain sheep are going to fatten. There are two problems. They are very slow to fatten on grass and they end up in every dris and every hedge they can find for five miles around and will not stay in the middle of the lush green field. Then the farmers will not come back again because they figure these are impossible animals, that they are like the Deputies from that part of the world - difficult enough.
The way things have been going, the guys on the margins are getting in on what Bord Bia is doing, but it is the people on the real hills who have the real problem. I have heard different suggestions, such as that since the lambs are not born until April, they would be defined as lambs until September of the following year because it is nearly impossible to get them on the winter trade. That would allow them two summers on the hills. What many other people would define as a hogget would be described as a lamb, because lowland lambs are born in February and have a much longer season. There is a need for the people who are trying to produce the article, because in many cases they will not be able to produce economically what Bord Bia is talking about. We must try to find a market for that in some improved state, but not in the kind of state Mr. Fennell is talking about and at the weights he is talking about.
There is a need for a forum to be put together involving farming organisations, if there are any of them left after the present debacle, and Bord Bia. All the members of farming organisations on the forum should be producing hill lamb on difficult hills because it is not a problem in the marginal hills. Maybe this forum could see whether we could match the product to the market but also to match the market to the product.
The Wild Atlantic Way has been a brilliant idea. At last, after many years trying to sellsunshine on the west coast of Ireland, we said the wilder it is, the better it is. It has been fantastic over the past two weeks, if one likes wildness. That became its attraction. We tailored the marketing to the reality rather than to something one would like to have. I would like if the sun shone on the west coast every summer but it does not. There is a product that could be marketable but we need a much more concerted effort in this regard. We also need to market it on what it is. I think it would pass the Austrian organic standards. Maybe we need an Austrian organic label in this country that does not conform to the higher standards that some other people want. It seems a pity that all this fantastic natural product is sold as if it were the same as something coming out of a feedlot.
Mr. Declan Fennell:
In terms of these light lambs and what was mentioned earlier, those markets in Portugal and Spain were traditional markets. We still are exporting these light lambs to markets like Tunisia. In 2014, 600 tonnes of light lambs were exported to the Tunisian market. We are in a marketplace where we are competing against the UK and New Zealand. While Ireland exports 43,000 tonnes, we are competing against the UK, which is putting in more than 100,000 tonnes of exports, or New Zealand, with more than 360,000 tonnes. The resounding signal we are getting back from the marketplace is that it is looking for a very clear, tight specification. If that is traced back from a retail pack to the actual lamb carcass specification, the target is between 18 kg and 21 kg.
We have a challenge in terms of hill lamb and I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that in some cases, it will be a very difficult challenge. There are areas we can try to develop. There are examples in the west of Ireland where groups are looking at breeding programmes and at how they can get a better-framed animal up to a French weight. There is no magic-----
This is the point I am trying to make. I would know Connemara a bit better than I know Mayo. If I go to Tourmakeady, which is in south Mayo on the border, they have always been able to produce them. The further north one goes, the more they can get the French weight because they have a lot of good lowland and they have kinder hills. If I go to Joyce country, to places like Glantrague and to the Maam Valley, they begin to get smaller but when I go up to Recess, they get even smaller still. The same would be the case for the Twelve Bens. If I go to Roundstone or Oughterard, I am back into good-size lambs again. It is the many lambs in the middle that are causing the problem, not the ones around the edge. I would say the same thing happens in Donegal in that on what we call the kinder hills and where there is a better proportion of lowland. They can crossbreed and do all sorts of things and get them on the market near the French weight or at a weight that makes it no problem for the upper Italian market and so on.
It is the core blackface. Putting a soft sheep on a hard mountain is something so many people have tried to do. Michael O'Toole, God rest his soul, was an expert on this for years. He was a soil scientist and worked for Teagasc but he was also a hill sheep farmer from Inishturk. He was my mentor and we often discussed this problem over the years. It is not so easy to make what Mr. Fennell is talking about out of the hills I am talking about. These people cannot get the price and in many years find it is very hard to sell wether lambs. They have no problems with ewe lambs as they will crossbreed those into other flocks. It has been a perennial problem since I started in 1974. We are now in 2015, so it has been going on 41 years and no one has found a sustainable solution.
It is a question of getting the market to suit the product as well as the product to suit the market because it is impossible to produce the kind of product that Mr. Fennell is talking about on some of these hills.
Mr. Declan Fennell:
I agree with what the Deputy said but we have to give leadership or a signal about what markets hill farmers are looking for. If there are incremental increases in getting to a better carcass weight and a better finish, we will be in a better position to be a price negotiator and to get a better price rather than being a price taker. We will find customers for light lambs but, invariably, farmers will get a token price rather than an ideal price.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation and their attendance. We have had a number of meetings on this topic over the past number of weeks. We will compile the evidence and send it to the appropriate Minister with our views on the matter. Hopefully, progress will be made as a result of that.