Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Organic Farming Sector: Discussion
I again remind members, as well as those in the Visitors Gallery, to ensure their mobile phones are turned off completely as they interfere with the broadcasting of the proceedings.
I welcome from the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association Ms Gillian Westbrook, chief executive officer; Mr. Padraig Fahy, director; Mr. John Liston, director, and Ms Grace Maher, development officer; and from Organic Trust CLG Ms Helen Scully, chief executive officer; Mr. Patrick Lalor, member of the board of management, and Mr. Philip Roddy, member of the board of management. I thank them for coming before the joint committee to discuss the challenges facing the organic farming sector. The committee would also like to hear their views on the recommendations made in the report produced by the previous committee on the organic farming scheme.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they 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 understand Ms Westbrook will make the opening statement.
Mr. Padraig Fahy:
On behalf of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, IOFGA, I thank the Chairman and committee members for giving us the opportunity to comment on the recommendations made in the report of the previous joint committee and the challenges facing the organic farming sector. The IOFGA was established 35 years ago by a group of farmers who wanted to have certification of their organic production before the first EU regulations were even developed in 1992. The regulations have changed considerably since in line with consumer demand. However, to this day the IOFGA remains the largest organic certification body, owned by its members, with a democratically elected board of directors which is representative of the various sectors - farmers, growers, food and industrial processors, retailers and multiplies. A total of 70% of the board are active farmers, while the remaining 30% are processors or retailers, and all are organic licence holders. It is a not-for-profit company with a legal constitution. No one on the board is self-appointed; each member is elected at the annual general meeting for a duration of three years. That is what makes the IOFGA truly representative of the sector.
The IOFGA is one of two certification bodies that specialises in organic production, as well as organic processing. The certification of the farming system cannot be viewed in isolation from processing and retailing as it is interconnected and inspected as such. EU regulations and consumer confidence require that the entire organic food chain be certified, not just farms. That is what makes the organic certification system unique from any other system and that status is recognised internationally. It is governed by EU law and inspections must correlate what happens beyond the farm gate to ensure the integrity of the product is maintained. That is what the law and the consumer require. To provide for this level of certification, the IOFGA employs a professional, highly committed and specialised staff, from food and farm science to regulatory affairs and policy, as well as the valuable input from stakeholders such as the board and certification panel.
I have an 11 ha farm in Ballinasloe and employ 14 staff. I am also a participant in the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme which is very valuable as it is a private standard marketing tool with no legal basis, unlike the organic certification system which is exclusively based in law and covers the entire supply chain. Consumer confidence in organic certification is everything and it is essential that the integrity of organic systems be maintained.
Organic certification and the accompanying logo is of real value to my business. It is what puts my products on retail shelves, in Ireland and abroad. I will hand over to the chief executive officer of IOFGA, Gillian Westbrook.
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
There are approximately 2,300 organic operators in Ireland, of which 23% are processors and the remainder are farm operators. IOFGA certifies 1,300 members. We certify to EU organic regulations, and are an International Organization for Standardization, ISO, accredited regulatory certification body that inspects, samples products for analysis, investigates and reports non-conformities and statistical information under contract to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as required by the governing EU law. We also provide the Department with production statistics and details of our licence fees which are used to calculate the cost incurred and income forgone that determine the land area payment under Pillar 2 for the organic farming scheme.
It is important to have at least two certification bodies capable of inspecting at farm and processor level, as monopolies are never a good idea and it provides a balanced approach to discussion and interpretation of EU law for effective implementation in Ireland. Retaining the existing system of control allows for the complete follow through of the entire organic chain, from farm through to retailer and back again. The quality and information systems in place at IOFGA ensure this by cross-referencing organic product details picked up at inspection and follow-up investigations which can include other organic certification bodies, nationally and globally. This efficient yet complex system limits the consequences of potential breaches in organic integrity by nipping them in the bud and ensures free movement of Irish organic food in the EU and third countries.
In addition to running this complete service as required by law to certify organic produce, IOFGA also represents its members at EU level by working directly with the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movement, IFOAM, where all member states are represented in order to provide one voice for the organic sector. Complexities in regulation and policy are discussed and agreement is made for onward communication with the EU Commission, Parliament and Council, thus ensuring the interests of our Irish organic operators are represented and that trade, especially our valuable export market, is not interrupted.
We take a grounded approach to exchanging information on best practice to improve farm and processor trade and seek solutions to the common challenges facing the sector. Ideas and pioneering approaches are subsequently disseminated to our members using various communication tools. This requires extensive stakeholder engagement, but as a certification body we are in an ideal position to deliver.
IOFGA provided comprehensive responses to the public consultation for the latest rural development programme, and is represented at the national forum. We asked for, among other things, increased payment under the organic farming scheme, OFS, and provided sound evidence-based justification for increased supports, which were duly acted upon. We asked for and made specific recommendations in respect of actions under the agri-environment climate scheme, including priority access to the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and GLAS+ for organic farmers, and a list of actions that did not incur double funding. Organic farmers did get priority access into GLAS but some actions on the same land parcel may claim support from either the GLAS scheme or the OFS only, but not both, as detailed in measure 11 of the rural development programme.
There are challenges in the sector and IOFGA considers the national organic action plan an appropriate platform on which to address these issues of expansion and barriers to the sector. A coherent strategy is needed to address trade issues. The existing action plan requires adjustment in line with expansion and the growing consumer demand nationally and globally for organic food. With new markets opening and the possibility of existing markets closing, coupled with either deficit or surplus in some commodities, a targeted approach is urgently needed to ensure Irish organic farmers and processors are not left at a disadvantage.
On a more local level, IOFGA has been active in the promotion of organic food and improving farm performance. We have run a series of events and promotional activities with chefs and consumers to highlight the value of organics. We have a monthly column in a national farming paper, and provide a series of field talk events for farmers to exchange knowledge and discuss market opportunities, often bringing experts to discuss specific areas of interest. We ran a series of farm economy events for farmers considering organics so that they could make an informed decision as to whether it was the right move. Our quarterly magazine is packed with useful information on all aspects of farming and processing and updates on market opportunities. We provide regular updates in newsletters and text messages and act as a one-stop shop for everything organic. We are a small, member-owned association and are proud to be active and progressive in everything to do with organic trade.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
The Organic Trust appreciates the opportunity to make a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Organic Trust is an organic certification organisation approved by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in the United Kingdom and the EU. It is accredited to ISO 17065 by the Irish National Accreditation Board, INAB. We have been approved to operate as an organic certification body since 1992 and are now one of the leading organic certification organisations in Ireland. We employ a qualified organic inspectorate, a certification panel, a quality assurance manager and information technology administrator, in addition to administrative staff to service the needs of our members in complying with the prevailing organic regulations. We are included on the list of control bodies and authorities in the organic sector, published by the European Commission and operate under assigned competent authority control codes, IE-ORG-03 and GB-ORG-09. Our mission is to verify the integrity of organic produce certified by our organisation and sold under the Organic Trust and EU logos as satisfying the requirements of the organic regulations. This is our assurance to the customers that they are purchasing an organic product of integrity. We have provided the committee with a detailed written response to the 17 recommendations of the report on the 2015 organic farming scheme. Due, however, to time constraints, in today's presentation we will provide only a summary of our response to the most salient points. We hope the committee will take cognisance of the detail contained in our written submission during its subsequent deliberations. I will hand over to our chief executive officer, Ms Helen Scully.
Ms Helen Scully:
We will deal with the salient points in the 2015 report on the organic farming scheme and the issues which seemed of prime importance to the group which presented its findings in respect of that report. The Organic Trust is of the view that a streamlined approach to payments ought to be adopted to ensure that organic farmers can realistically expect to be paid within predefined periods in each calendar year and that payments are accompanied by a detailed statement outlining the formula for payment in each case. This will facilitate properly informed checks being conducted by organic operators so that issues of under or overpayment can be readily identified. This will also promote significant efficiencies within the organic unit as it will considerably reduce the number of calls from organic operators who are in receipt of payment and endeavour to establish the accuracy or otherwise of their own payment. Currently, farmers are not presented with a detailed breakdown and this has resulted in a high degree of confusion for the organic operators.
In addition, we feel that where delays in payment are envisaged as a result, for example, of an inspection from the Department or issues relating to GLAS or other schemes, these should be communicated to the operators concerned and the likely anticipated delay in payment should be indicated.
We suggest that a payment tracking system be established for all organic farming scheme, OFS, participants. In common with all businesses, we feel that organic farmers must budget for their activities, and delays in payment can have a detrimental effect on their activities.
The Organic Trust has also expressed concern regarding IT difficulties that have been identified around payment provision for operators or participants in the OFS and GLAS. On behalf of our members we would like to emphasise the urgency of addressing those issues so that delays in the potential clawback of moneys paid is avoided. One of the recommendations we have made in respect of GLAS is that a consultation process be established around the synergy required between GLAS and the OFS, particularly around the double funding issue that primarily affects organic farmers under the 20 ha size farm. There are various suggestions for addressing this issue such as front-loading payments etc. This consultation process would take place between the organic certification bodies and strategic members of the Department to address those issues.
Another point raised by the report was a request that Bord Bia take over the organic certification process. Austria was used as a model of best practice. The legislation underpinning organic farming was first published in 1992. At that time, each member state was given a choice regarding the method of organic certification to prevail. Three choices were given, system A, B or C. System A was private organic certification bodies and the approval of those, system B was designated public control authorities, and system C was for a mix of both systems. Ireland chose system A, as did the majority of EU member states at that time. Three organic certification bodies were approved in 1992 - the Organic Trust, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association and Demeter. Since then two further bodies have been approved to operate in Ireland. It is important to note that system A, the private certification bodies system that prevails in Ireland, is also the system adopted by Austria, which was mentioned as having an organic certification system of best practice. It is important to state that there are eight such bodies operating in Austria at this time.
In common with the previous presentation, the Organic Trust agrees that creating a monopoly in any area has never resulted in a reduction in costs or the raising of standards. We believe it has had the opposite effect. The presence of more than one organic certification body ensures the maintenance of high standards of organic production on which the consumer depends. Most economists would agree that competition in the marketplace generally leads to higher standards and lower costs.
The role of the organic certification bodies is specifically stipulated in the organic regulations, in ISO 17065, to which organic certification bodies, OCBs, must be accredited, and in the service agreement between the organic certification bodies and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Changes to the organic standards are based on legislative change or as a result of clarifications of interpretation decided at meetings of the organic forum to which all the OCBs are party. Such issues of interpretation can also be challenged by auditors such as the European Commission's Directorate General for food and health safety, DG SANTE, which can determine that Ireland's interpretation does not match EU requirements. The OCBs have no discretion regarding the implementation of the subsequent legislative changes to the standards.
The organic certification fees charged by the Organic Trust are set by the board of management each year following an examination of the costs involved in providing the service. The fees charged in Ireland compare very favourably with fees in other member states. In some cases the fees charged are lower and in other cases fees are constructed differently. The two main organic certification bodies in Ireland are not-for-profit organisations, and this significantly benefits the members. We are of the view that the fees charged are very reasonable given the depth of service that must be provided. We do not link the schedule of fees to OFS payments because Government schemes come and go and the amount of Government aid can change at any given time. In the Organic Trust, every organic operator who is inspected incurs a fixed cost for the provision of the service. After that, the board of management examines the expenses that were incurred in providing the service and allocate the costs as evenly as possible across the membership. Any excess funds, after the payment of all expenses, is reinvested in the organisation and added to the prudent reserve. A detailed review of the fee schedules to prevail in every calendar year takes place.
Reference was made to the requirement to adopt a risk-based inspection regime in Ireland. It is important to state that this is already enshrined in organic sector legislation and is already taking place. It requires that every organic operator is subject to at least one annual scheduled inspection and there are legislative requirements for further prevention inspections over and above the current inspections. Organic licences are issued for a maximum 12-month calendar year period to comply with departmental and regulatory requirements.
On organic regulations, it has been suggested that the model of best practice in Austria was operating to a lower organic standard than that operated in Ireland. When organic livestock production was first legislated for on 24 August 2000, opportunities were available through communications with the organic development committee at that time to establish the level of service to be provided. On publication of that very comprehensive report, it was agreed that there would be five issues of difference where a higher standard would prevail in Ireland for a range of commercial reasons to do with the export market situation at that time, to which organic operators were trying to get access. It is important to note that now, in 2017, there is only one area of difference. This relates to the origin of livestock. In Ireland we do not allow non-organic livestock to convert to organic meat. It is very important to note that this standard alone has resulted in Ireland being offered overseas contracts for organic meat because it was considered best in class when considered through a tendering process in common with all the other organic operators throughout the Europe who had tendered for those contracts. It is important to know that it is just one area of difference now.
There were other issues indicated in the 2015 report on the organic farming scheme. Time precludes me from going into these in detail but we have submitted a written response.
Ms Helen Scully:
Absolutely. I shall quickly go through the challenges we perceive to the development of Ireland's organic sector. There is a blurring of the identity of organic products against the backdrop of perceived naturally produced food, chemical and fertiliser-free food etc. These are all unsubstantiated claims which have no basis whatsoever in law compared with organic production which is legislatively controlled from field to fork. Very significant opportunities are available to increase the sales of Irish organic produce at home and abroad. To avail of these opportunities, however, it is vital that the momentum in interest by those wishing to convert to organic production is nurtured and maintained. New operators are the lifeblood of any industry and must be encouraged and accommodated. The reopening of the organic farming scheme and the political will to allocate an additional budget to facilitate this is a prerequisite to this requirement. To sustain sectoral growth we suggest an additional budget of between €15 million and €20 million to be allocated to the end of the current rural development programme for organic production to fulfil the same. In other EU member states studies have indicated that there is a direct correlation between the amount of government support for the organic sector and the success of that sector, with Denmark, Holland, Germany and Italy being prime examples.
The Organic Trust fully supports the organic farming scheme, OFS, as a production-based scheme with the aim of increasing the amount of organic produce placed on the market. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has invested significantly in the development of the organic sector, particularly over the past number of years. However, if this investment is to be realised through world sales of organic produce, it is essential that the momentum be continued. A claim was made that a significant number of operators exit the scheme after an initial five-year contract. However, of those whose OFS contracts expired on 31 December 2016, more than 90% signed up to the contract extension.
We feel that Ireland must garner the environmental benefits of organic farming and realise its potential in terms of a reduction in CO2 emissions and other environmental obligations. Denmark in particular has used organics to address a range of environmental issues successfully and Ireland could benefit hugely from its expertise in this area. We feel that this is a win-win scenario. Ireland needs a critical mass of organic operators in order that it can compete on the world stage. A stop-start scenario to the progression of the sector does not imbue confidence either in the market or in the farming community. The organic sector requires ongoing support to achieve entry to new markets, particularly in light of Brexit, where alternative markets must be developed.
At no other time in the 25 years in which we have been involved in certification has there been such an appetite within the supermarket and retail communities to give store space to organic food. All of these entities are veering towards organic and healthy foods and are willing to place the store space at the disposal of the organic community. Retailers, both domestically and internationally, see the organic sector as an area of increased demand by consumers and we need to encourage and grow our base in a systematic and proportional way. Otherwise, foreign imports will snap up this space and fill the vacuum.
A new organic aid scheme has recently been launched in Northern Ireland and we need to be careful that they do not avail of the opportunities that organic producers in the Republic ought to be availing of. The main processors continue to look for additional supplies of home-produced food and we must support that. In other member states, it has been specifically proven that including even a small element of organic produce in public procurement contracts has been the single most significant driver in the development of the industry in those countries. Organics can be used as a main player in the revitalisation of rural communities through ongoing support for organic farming and processing by having a viable option available to bring people back to the communities they had to leave behind due to the economic downturn.
It is our view that the adverse publicity relating to payment delays to organic farmers could become a serious disincentive to potential operators to convert. Therefore, as we said earlier, it is something that we feel needs to be addressed urgently. As indicated earlier, the Organic Trust is requesting the establishment of a consultation process for all of these so that they can be progressed.
Ireland has an unrivalled reputation for the production of an excellent standard of organic food. It is vital that the high standards of organic production operated to date are not diluted for any perceived short-term gain. Analyses of Irish-produced organic produce has been the cornerstone in the awarding of lucrative contracts to Irish organic processors. It is vital to remember that the most important entity in all of this is the consumer. No consumer group has been seeking less regulation and no consumer group has been seeking a dilution of standards. All consumer groups are seeking ongoing assurances that the organic produce they purchase is worthy of the organic logo of integrity. We feel that an annual inspection is not an onerous obligation on organic operators and the consumer is comforted by the knowledge that such regular inspections take place. The comment was made that by and large, organic operators in Ireland are compliant and the Organic Trust is of the view that this is directly attributable to the system that exists.
I thank Ms Scully. We will now take questions from the members. Deputies Cahill and Penrose, Senator Daly and Deputy McConalogue have indicated in that order and will be the first four members with questions. I call Deputy Cahill.
I would like to start on the accreditation system and the fact that there are five different accreditation bodies. I raised on a couple of occasions at this committee that we have a Bord Bia quality assurance scheme under which farms are inspected at 18-month intervals. Why could organic accreditation not be incorporated into that scheme? The vast majority of cattle producers are in the quality assurance scheme. Farmers, by their nature, do not like inspections. At the moment, one could have a dairy and beef inspection done on a farm on a single day for quality assurance. There could be a third part of the form that people could tick to state they wished to be accredited for organic farming. For me, it would be a cost-saving measure because it would all come under the one body. Bord Bia needs to become more involved in the organic sector. This would be a step forward in that direction. I find it hard enough to comprehend how having five bodies carrying out accreditation does not cost the industry.
I ask the witnesses to elaborate on what market premia their organisations believe are needed to compensate for the extra cost of organic farming. We have talked about payments and supports. While they are important to get the organic industry off the ground, do the witnesses feel that the market is capable of returning a premium that will justify the extra cost of organic production? In the different sectors, what percentage of the market do they believe that organic farming could corner, whether in Ireland, the UK or Europe? Perhaps corner is the wrong word.
In parallel to organic farming, we have had schemes for Angus beef and Hereford beef. Farmers were incentivised to breed these cattle. They were getting a premium that varied at different times of the year for producing this beef, which we were told the market wanted and was the way it wanted to go. Now, with sufficient numbers in the system, the premium has been cut very significantly. While I know that is not organic beef, it is still what the processors were telling us the market was demanding. Do the witnesses think that we can get to a stage at which market premia will cover the extra cost of organic farming and make it economical? Do they have figures of what premium is needed and is that achievable from the marketplace?
I thank the witnesses for their attendance and presentations. Do I detect an annoyance at the level of negativity that has been focused on the tardiness of payments? That seemed to be a big issue. Do I detect an annoyance from both witnesses who spoke that there was too much focus on it and that such negative comment might impact negatively on people who might want to go into organic farming? People might feel there is going to be a big delay. What do the witnesses suggest for the payment structure and system because the Department can be very tardy? Notwithstanding that the witnesses are doing a good job of certification and various things and have a very high professional input into that whole area, the Department can certainly annoy people in the way it goes on. What way do the witnesses see that this could be effectively streamlined, as has been mentioned, so as to ensure that the positive aspects of organic farming can be promulgated?
One thing about organic farming is that it is not a cheap business. I note the presence of Mr. Pat Lalor, who is no stranger to this committee. He was here about 15 years ago as president of an organisation. I welcome him back. He has gone into organic farming. Perhaps he could give us the costs associated compared with the traditional enterprise he engaged in. He has produced oats and products like that. It has been well received across the country. If one is flying out of the airport, one will see it, thankfully. It is about trying to get the consumer to buy into it. There is a significant differential in the value of it. As I am not much use at shopping, I am not a great barometer but one would hear housewives say that. That is one point.
I feel that organic farming has a huge role to play in the promotion of its environmental benefits. I believe that is where a huge push can be made to make it significant. That is something that the organisations can do themselves. While I acknowledge the organisations have various leaflets and put out bulletins, trying to get that across to the public is extremely important. Trying to get policy makers to adopt it is another problem. If they did get policy makers to adopt it, they might get a greater share of money from the Department. They are talking about trying to get an extra €15 million or €20 million or thereabouts.
What have the organic producers done to highlight that they need that level of money? Organic product is excellent from a health and consumer viewpoint and also benefits the environment. There are several areas they could focus on to get that.
On beef, Bord Bia has been fastidious regarding quality assurance. I know the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association rightly has detailed levels of inspection, investigation, invigilation and certification. Can it not work with Bord Bia to complement its system? Most farmers would claim that Bord Bia has gone to the level of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association. I know the logo is very important as is the Bord Bia logo indicating quality assurance. There is nothing to be lost having that complementarity. I do not believe the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association logo will lose anything if we incorporate the Bord Bia certification and quality assurance process into it.
Earlier today we were speaking about Brazilian beef now coming in; Mr. Pat Lalor would be very much aware of it. We are the direct opposite of that. We have excellent quality beef with green image, including organic beef, going out. We are competing against that with our certification standards while they are destroying us on price and may well undercut us and destroy our market.
What is the level of exodus from the farm organic scheme at the end of each cycle? We were given to understand that things might be different, that there is a group of people who maybe get fed up of the whole thing and it is not as productive and not as worthwhile at the end of the cycle. Do the witnesses have any view as to what the level is?
We are all talking about the Austrian model where 15% of output is organic. How can we progress to beyond 1% or 1.1% up to that level? How could we even get to the 4% or 5% level? Let us leave the Austrian model to one side and leave that market as they have obviously a very focused area. Notwithstanding that, the witnesses said that they adopted the same certification model as we did. That was very interesting. They have eight bodies certifying. That is interesting as well. It is good information to have. How can we increase the level against all the naysayers? People are still price sensitive and it may well be a very important factor. How can organic producers be helped to address that at input level and all the work that has to go on at that level to continue the carbon reduction process that is also tied into the organic production system?
I welcome the members of the delegation and thank them for the very comprehensive report. In particular I welcome Mr. Pat Lalor, my fellow Kilbeggan man. He has put Kilbeggan on the map with his porridge. It is always a pleasure for me to walk into a shop or even pass through the airport and see my home town's name on the shelf. It would not be there without the great work of Mr. Lalor and his organisation. It is an organic product.
When witnesses in general are asked to outline challenges, they may see that as an opportunity to come in with a wish list. If we could grant the organic producers one wish, what is the one major challenge within the industry? I always like to see a priority rather than a long list. I know there are many challenges.
As Deputy Penrose has just said, we market our beef and most agricultural products coming from the island of Ireland on the green badge. It is grass-fed beef. We are an island on the edge of the Atlantic with considerable rainfall. Are the organic producers victims of that? There is a perception that the wider produce from the island is almost organic without anybody giving due consideration to the actual "organic" organic product, if people know what I mean. Are the organic producers victims of the wider image of Ireland as being marketed as green?
On the nitrates aspect, is there an issue with a reduction in the amount of slurry or farm manure that can be used? An organic farmer recently advised me of an issue he had with not being able to import the same amount of off-farm organic fertiliser. I only heard that from one person. I ask the witnesses to comment on that.
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
In response to Deputy Cahill, Bord Bia does an 18-month inspection rotation. However, current regulations require that organics be inspected once a year. The Bord Bia scheme is very good and very valuable, but it is very different with the two steps backwards and two steps forward. It does not have a legal basis, but the organic scheme has. In other words it actually follows food law. It does not just take in cross-compliance and other horizontal legislation; it takes in legislation specific to organics. That requires us to recruit people who are qualified for that. Our recruitment programme incorporates some onerous training.
We look at the input into the farm, the farm itself, where it goes from the farm and then back again. That is a very simplified approach. That is at import and export level. We also look at import information. Not meaning to be disrespectful to the Bord Bia quality scheme, there is much more to it. It is much more complex.
The traceability side is enormous. For example, during the horsemeat scandal we saw a huge increase in consumer purchasing of organic meat because consumers understand there is a lot more to that. A problem with a product going on to a farm can affect everything from there on in. There is a considerable amount of work to be done on that.
On the issue of the five bodies undertaking inspections, there are really two of us. One organisation specialises only in aquaculture. Another organisation has left Ireland because the cost of running a certification body is so prohibitive. The other one has only five or six clients; it covers a very specialist biodynamic area. Therefore there are only two actually working in Ireland.
The average market price of beef is €4.70 per kg. It has always averaged 20% to 27% more than conventional beef - it once reached 37% more. On the dairy side the premium is about 22.8%. There is a market. That is what makes it viable. At BIOFACH the EU Commissioner said the he supports organics because it is the rising star. The organic farming scheme is 75% co-funded because it is viable and they are trying to support that potential. Most organic farmers agree it is viable. For example, on a 21 ha suckler-to-finishing farm there is a gross margin of €1,775 per ha when the top conventional farm is just over €1,000 per ha. That is an excellent example to give. It is why it is so keen for them to add value by using the organic system and promoting a viable farming system and adding that value to it.
Costs will vary depending on the farm. As the Deputy will know, average fertiliser costs are critical, particularly for dairies. When that cost is removed, it starts to become more viable. If dry stock farmers look at the input costs and use the farming system as a closed system, which it is, that would make it viable. The Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association ran a series of economic events to demonstrate that. We showed it warts and all to try to demonstrate to farmers where the costs and potential savings are. There is a tillage farmer in Wexford who made more money on 25 ha of organic tillage than he did on the remaining 75 conventionally-farmed hectares. It is a viable system. Many of our farmers are making a comfortable living out of it. Mr. Liston has an 11 ha farm which employs 14 people and exports to markets such as Dubai and the UK. It is not all about beef and sheep. There is a lot of value in the horticultural sector.
May I respond to the remaining questions?
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
To answer Deputy Penrose, the Department have just processed the late payments. It is frustrating for everybody involved. Farmers that are not being paid by the Department phone us, often every day. We have been talking to the Department to try to solve this problem and to see if we could gather information for them into a database which could correlate to their needs. I do not understand the complexities of the database and I do not want to. I would like to help find a solution. This is not the first time this has happened. Historically, the payment has always been slightly late. This does cause issues. The Department has assured us it is working on it. We certainly believe that.
As I said, the costs associated with the farming system concern this 75% co-funding. It is quite a viable system and there are people making money at it. They are not millionaires but they are very viable. In terms of the consumer aspect to sales, price is relevant. However, discount stores in Ireland are selling 48% of all organic meat sold at retail level in Ireland. The discount supermarkets are upping their game all the time with the range of promotions they offer. It is difficult to say that price would be prohibitive, not that the Deputy suggested it was, but organic food is now more accessible to everybody.
In terms of the rural development programme, RDP, there is an existing target of 5% yet the Department only ring-fences enough money for 2%. In view of that, no one should be surprised that we do not reach 5%. Countries which are more successful in that regard, such as Denmark, allocate about 38% of funding for rural development. More is allocated in the budget than drawn down. They are topping up the funding in order to increase rural development. It is for the Department to say whether that would be viable in Ireland. If we are going to meet those targets, we need more than a slight increase.
I understand what is being said about the Bord Bia logo and inspection system but we are back to the issue about it being based in law. Beef processors and many beef farmers will have Bord Bia approval, as will many people in horticulture and similar areas. However, that logo is not what sells the product. The logo indicates that a product meets the very good Bord Bia traceability system. That is in place for its own purposes but not for the purposes of organic legislation. It is different. The consumer is aware of that.
Export sales are very good. We estimate there has been around €300 million in sales to export markets. Irish sales alone are around €142 million, which is a 23% increase in the year to date. Admittedly, that is from a relatively low base. Horticulture and vegetables, which are always forgotten when talking about organics but are really its grassroots, are up 32% or €6 million. Eggs are up €2.6 million, dairy is up €2.2 million and meat is up €2.2 million. Vegetables, yoghurt and fruit make up 53% of retail sales in Ireland. There is potential in the export market.
About 3.1% of farmers leave the scheme each year. That is a natural fallout which we have seen year on year. Statistics indicate that the farm size of those who leave varies. It is a voluntary scheme. It is not going to suit everybody. If people are not viable then they will leave. I would like to see it at zero, but 3% is relatively acceptable.
In terms of progression, we have a national organic action plan. Every country in Europe with a strong, vibrant organic sector is using a national action plan. It is not a mandatory requirement here but it is a requirement at EU level to have an action plan. There is a European one. Each country then develops their own national action plan. We have an action plan which is a good basis on which to start but it is only a start. We need to build on it. We need to not have a race to the bottom by trying to lower prices and sell to different markets. We need a coherent strategy. Under that strategy, we need to address issues such as bottlenecks in supply, the lack of continuity of supply and Brexit, which we have not begun looking at. A lot of our imported input is coming from the UK. If that is not going to be available there will be a sustainability issue. We hope a sensible agreement will be reached to avoid that scenario. Although there is a requirement within organic regulations that 60% of feed comes from one's own farm , the remaining 40% still has to be sourced. For non-ruminant feeds, there is going to be a much heavier demand on cereal production, which is coming in from the UK. Sustainability requirements are only ever going to increase. That will be a major issue and needs to be looked at. The action plan needs to address that and we need to look at resolving the deficit in supply.
To answer Senator Paul Daly, Brexit is the major challenge. Continuity of supply is going to be a big issue. We regularly address this with our EU farmers' group. A lot of countries have addressed it by removing the cap on organics. The Department may not like that recommendation. If continuity of supply is desired, the 60 ha cap should be taken away so that larger farmers could apply. That approach has been very successful in many countries.
Some of our clients would say that we are victims of products being marketed as "green". There is a lack of understanding of what products are truly organic. That is down to us as well. As certification bodies, we need to enhance understanding among consumers of what organics is about. We intend to do that. We have a marketing launch planned for later this year. It will be a very positive launch which will address some of those issues. Fortunately, we are a big export market and mainland European consumers know what organic means. We can support more and supply more. We fully intend to. We need an action plan. We need a rural development policy that is not capped at 2%. While the 2% is welcome, if that is the limit to our ambition, we need to push for more.
On the nitrates, it is 170 kg with no derogation.
Ms Helen Scully:
I refer to marketing organic produce under the Bord Bia logo. The Bord Bia quality assurance schemes are voluntary and they are not underpinned by legislation, unlike the system of organic certification. That is one major difference between them. While the Bord Bia scheme is accredited, one of the requirements of such a scheme is that it is not permissible to subcontract the inspection process to another entity and vice versa. For example, the approved organic certification bodies in Ireland could not subcontract their inspection process to Bord Bia or vice versa. It is important in respect of how organic produce is marketed. This is enshrined in law. The EU organic leaf logo is a compulsory addition to all certified organic produce; the Bord Bia logo is a voluntary measure. No organic product can be placed on the market in the absence of the EU logo, which is an important point. It is enshrined in law and cannot be replaced.
With regard to payment delays, we have made a suggestion about how the various blockages could be assisted by giving our members a detailed breakdown of payments. That is one aspect which is causing problems. The more time that the organic unit has to spend answering queries on delayed payments, the less time it has available for other work. All this contributes to delays in payment.
Ms Helen Scully:
There is a minimum of 5%, but in excess of that percentage of re-inspections probably takes place. When we consider this, the consumer is prepared to pay for organic produce. It is the most highly regulated method of food production in Europe and it is important that the standard we have be maintained. The Organic Trust believes we are on the cusp of something great.
Senator Daly asked what is the greatest challenge in the context of our wish list. It is for Government to recognise the opportunities that are available in Ireland for the organic sector. We could fulfil our environmental obligations via the organic farming scheme in respect of CO2 emissions. We can draw on lots of experience; we do not have to reinvent the wheel. In our 25 years in operation, we have never witnessed such an appetite in supermarkets and other retail outlets for organic produce. They cannot get enough of it and the vacuum will be filled by exports unless we take advantage of the opportunities that are there.
There was a question about whether the overall perception is that Ireland is a green island and that we produce an excellent product. Consumers who choose to buy organic tend to know what they are buying. They are buying a quality product and they are educated in respect of the food they buy. When the product has the EU organic logo, the Organic Trust logo and is accompanied by the mandatory control code, they know they are buying a product of integrity. The problem is the blurring of lines. Consumers who are not as knowledgeable about organic production and all that it entails could think that chemical or fertiliser free products, which are unsubstantiated claims, are the same as organic. We need an education process and we need support for the sector to explain the difference between organic and non-organic products and explain that those unsubstantiated claims have no basis in law. That would go a long way towards us becoming less of a victim of the point made earlier.
New operators are the lifeblood of any industry and we need the political will at Government level to reopen the organic farming scheme to encourage new entrants. This must be seen by farmers not as a stop-start scheme but as a system that is continuous and that they can buy into it. The decision to buy into organic farming is not made on a whim; it is not for everybody. People look at the long game and envisage what kind of a legacy they can leave their children in respect of the management of the land and so on. The issue is getting that message across to everybody. We seek the reopening of the organic farming scheme and the additional budget necessary to achieve that.
A small percentage of growers exit the scheme. When organic aid was first provided under Government schemes in 1994 through supplementary measure 6 of REPS, there was no requirement for people to attend a mandatory organic production course, which there is now. There were no organic demonstration farms but there is a raft of those now. A conventional farmer can, therefore, see at first hand how organic production operates on the ground. There were no supports and organic farming was not supported at Government level other than by this scheme, which offered a small amount for people to convert. Then the organic sector developed a reputation for people going in and out of the scheme but that has all changed in recent years because people are now making decisions based on their wallets and on the value added products they can achieve on their farms such as oats and biscuits. It is important to set the record straight that the revolving door is no longer our experience.
Ms Helen Scully:
The system of organic inspection and certification in Austria is exactly the same as that which applies in Ireland because it is enshrined in the legislation and it is further enshrined in the requirements of ISO 17065. There is no difference whatsoever in this regard. I do not have details of the organic aid scheme in Austria but the per hectare payment available in Ireland is better than in most European countries and we have to compliment the Department on that.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
Deputies Cahill and Penrose raised a question about premia. I am speaking as a practitioner in this regard. For beef cattle, the premium is between 20% and 25% higher than a conventional premium. At the end of the day, however, it is about supply and demand.
The operators that are buying our cattle or whatever else we have to sell are in it to make as much money as they can, just like those who are involved in conventional farming. They buy cattle as cheaply as they can. That is economics. The cost of producing organic beef cattle is a good bit higher than that of producing conventional beef cattle. Much more covered space is needed for use as winter accommodation. Straw is needed to bed the cattle because it is not permissible to have them lying down on slats or concrete. That is a big expense. The cost of organic feed is double that of conventional feed. To be quite honest, the premium of 20% to 25% is not a lot when straw and feed are taken into consideration. I will mention oats as an example. I also want to make this point from an environmental point of view. At harvest time Flahavan's pays €350 a tonne for oats for milling. It is a fantastic price. I have no doubt that it is way more profitable for a cereal grower to produce organic oats at €350 a tonne than it is to produce conventional oats for between €100 and €200 a tonne. I do not know why more of the big cereal operators are not starting to grow organic oats. Flahavan's has held a public meeting to try to encourage more people to grow organic oats, but I do not know whether that approach will work. Deputy Willie Penrose referred to the environment end of it. I am no different from any other grower when I am growing organic oats. After I sow the seed into the ground in the month of October, I close the gate and come back with the combine harvester the following August. I use no sprays or chemical fertilisers.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
The yield is between 2.25 tonnes and 2.75 tonnes per acre, but it can be up to 3 tonnes. If it is very bad, it can be as low as 2 tonnes, but I have never averaged that figure. I aim for an average of 2.5 tonnes per acre. From an environmental point of view, it is totally clean. Even the seed sown is undressed. The totally clean seed comes from the previous year. It is a no-brainer in terms of the environment. Senator Paul Daly asked-----
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
In one way it is very simple and very complicated in another. If the soil is right, it will protect the crop. Getting the soil right is a lifetime's work. There is no blueprint that enables it to be done over a five-year period. It is known in science that if one pushes a crop by using soluble nitrogen, potassium and other industrial phosphates because one wants to get the maximum yield, one's crop will grow faster than nature intends and is then unable to withstand diseases. If the crop is grown organically, it grows at its own speed as nature intended and does not get the diseases. It is not that our crops get diseases and that we have a problem with them but that they do not get them. If one manages this right, one will not have problems with weeds. It sounds simple and it is. It is down to day-to-day management, as well as management of the soil on a long-term basis. Long-term soil management involves looking at the biology rather than the chemistry of the soil. We look at things ordinary farmers do not even think about such as bacteria and fungi. This is not about people with long hair, Aran sweaters and sandals who were associated with organic farming many years ago but serious commercial farming. If one gets the soil right, one can do without all of these things.
I will respond to the question asked by Senator Paul Daly by saying the biggest single challenge we face is to have more critical mass. I will explain what is stopping more people from getting involved in production in the industry. The Department does not have the funds, or is not allocating them. There is a waiting list of people who want to get into the organic scheme. I do not doubt that if it was opened, many more people would get involved in organic farming.
Ms Grace Maher:
The issue of co-operation between the organic certification bodies and Bord Bia was mentioned in the recommendations of the previous committee and has been raised again today. We work quite closely with Bord Bia, particularly in marketing. We run many schemes, including the national organic food awards. We are involved in various other initiatives with Bord Bia to try to market organic food to consumers. Ms Westbrook has outlined some of the statistics gathered from Bord Bia. Last year's increase of 23% in sales of organic food in Ireland was driven by consumer awareness of health and well-being. Consumers are aware of the benefits of organic food. My colleague, Mr. Fahy, is involved in horticulture. We import 70% of the organic fruit and vegetables sold in this country to meet the demand for organic horticultural products. At a time of market challenges like Brexit, surely there are opportunities for organic farmers. Mr. Lalor has outlined the position in the tillage sector. It seems ridiculous that we could be in a position where imports are needed in that sector. We need to grasp such opportunities for those involved in organic farming in Ireland.
I thank the representatives of the two organisations for making presentations to us. Ms Maher has mentioned that significant imports of fruit and vegetables are required in the horticulture sector to meet domestic demand. Across which product lines is demand meeting supply? I understand there has been an issue with ensuring a sufficient supply to meet the market for lamb. I ask the delegates to elaborate on this point.
What do the delegates believe could be done differently as the organic sector works with Bord Bia? Could additional support be given to assist in marketing? How big an issue do they consider it to be?
I would also like to ask about a number of the measures under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, including the inability to make double payments. What are the key changes the delegates would like to see in that regard? What are the mistakes they would like to see corrected?
I thank both groups for their presentations. Most people who buy organic products are health-conscious and looking to have a healthier lifestyle. Reports show nutritional differences between organic and conventional products. Fewer pesticides are used on organic products, of which people want the benefits.
I want to focus on the environment and food security. The issue of carbon emissions in the farming sector is often raised by people outside it who point the finger at farmers because they do not understand what is being done and how efficiently it is being done. Notwithstanding what Mr. Lalor said - I appreciate that he was speaking from his own experience - I understand there is a body of research which shows that, in many ways, more energy is used in organic farming which consequently causes more greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report published by the University of British Columbia acknowledges the health benefits of organic food while questioning it in terms of energy use. I wonder about the reality. I like to buy organic products such as garlic and meat, to which I am drawn, but I am not sure when I see the word "organic" on the label that I think anything other than that it looks good. Is it possible that we will find in the context of the Paris agreement, etc., that organic farming is contributing more to greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming? Mr. Lalor might want to dispute this with me, which is fine.
While it is good for biodiversity, it needs more land and it is more difficult to scale up production because one is not using pesticides and so forth. These are challenges in terms of scale. Similar to what Deputy Cahill said, I also understand that with certain crops there could be up to 40% failure. Perhaps the people are not as attuned to the land and to what is required as the witnesses are. I do not doubt what the witnesses are saying, but some of this has been studied and recorded. In the global picture of what we are generally being asked to do, even though we defend farming and organic farming and want it to grow, to what extent are the witnesses concerned about this from an environmental point of view? Also, as countries are faced with the challenge of food security, there is a push against organic farming because one is looking at more intensive farming which is supported by the conventional methods which, perhaps, are not as beneficial for human health.
Finally, there is the issue of farmers' markets. Is it very ad hocaround the country? One can visit a farmers' market where some people are certified, others are not, there is a question mark over some people and some people might give the impression that their produce is something that it is not. People who visit farmers' markets sometimes think the produce is organic, whereas we know it is not. To what extent do the witnesses work alongside the markets or what connections are there to them? One of the great benefits of farmers' markets is that usually people are getting their produce locally. That helps the environment and also means one is getting produce from land that is nearby. There is a philosophy that the land near where one is from should supply sufficient nutrients to sustain one's health. That is the theory. Perhaps Mr. Lalor wishes to respond.
Mr. Philip Roddy:
That is fine. I just wished to make the point that I believe I represent a large number of organic farmers in that I have a small farm in the west with difficult land. Organic farming has amazing potential in my situation. To be truthful, the land is not really capable of high production even though the organics scheme is production linked. We accept that. Politically, it should be explored further. To refer to Senator Mulherin's point regarding local markets and the like, there is fantastic potential there in the west, to take one example, and on marginal land regardless of where it is. It would be nice to see more emphasis on encouraging that from the perspective of both the environment and sustainability. We are all well aware of the mass exodus from the land and of vast areas becoming depopulated. Something that would add value to what is being produced there would be of fantastic importance and would have several potential knock-on effects on the environment, tourism and so forth.
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
I will respond to Senator Mulherin. Organic farming would be seen as something of a shining light in terms of its carbon sequestration potential because the basis of the system works on improving the carbon soil organic matter which obviously has big potential and is a huge mitigation strategy. With regard to greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of the nitrous oxide emissions come from the use of synthetic fertilisers, which we do not use, and some come from manure management techniques. Nitrous oxide has 314 times more global warming impact, so it is the key one to examine. When one looks at that in terms of groundwater pollution and groundwater quality, there is also a huge issue with nitrification, de-nitrification and acidification, which is becoming more populated and will be picked up with the marine framework strategy as well. Obviously, there is a huge issue in that regard. It is one of the main reasons the regional approach is used in the Paris Agreement. The regional approach to rural development is to increase the level of organic operators and to reduce this environmental impact, not because-----
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
Certainly the Paris Agreement was very active. It is one of the main reasons that it is considering more organic farmers. Without meaning to sound derogatory to Denmark, probably one of the reasons that Denmark was seeking to clean up its act by using a great deal of organic farming was because of the issues it had with more industrialised farming methods. It is doing a great job with organics, but it was in response to a problem it had there in terms of nitrates and the water framework.
No synthetic fertilisers, the tight nutrient cycles and the lower stocking rates all improve the performance of the greenhouse gas emissions. It also depends on how one looks at it, whether one looks at the life cycle analysis or the national inventories and so forth and if one looks at it on a per hectare or a per kilogram basis. That is an ongoing argument at present. The EU is looking at all food production and what is statistically significant. In terms of the Irish use, there is 48% from enteric fermentation, 14% from manure management and 38% coming from basically manure and bagged synthetic fertilisers. With regard to synthetic fertilisers alone, it takes 108 tonnes of water, it will make 7 tonnes of CO2 and it uses 1 tonne of oil. It is probably one of the key reasons that organics is recognised for its valuable environmental contribution.
In terms of biodiversity, many biodiversity studies have been carried out, including one some years ago in Teagasc. I do not have the figure with me. I probably have everything else but I do not have that one. There has been a massive increase in biodiversity. Across the EU on average there is a 48% increase in biodiversity on organic farms compared with non-organic farms. Again, that is taking a very broad look at it. It was not as high in Ireland in the biodiversity study, but it was still significant. It was significant enough to have a major impact on the value for money report that we fed into a couple of years ago.
Ms Maher will respond on the farmers' markets.
Ms Grace Maher:
Padraig Fahy and I have sold produce on farmers' markets. Yes, it can be confusing when consumers go to the markets and expect everything to be organic. That is the perception among the public. Again, however, it is back to the issue of being bound by law. If somebody is selling a product in a farmers' market as organic, he or she must show their certification. It must be on display for people to make that distinction. All of our members would have their IOFGA licences on display to clarify it. However, there is confusion when somebody says, "We do not use chemicals but we just do not get certified". Our producers do a great deal of work on informing customers and that is why they get repeat sales at farmers' markets.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
That is important. There can be different levels of CO2 emissions or measures to reduce them in different parts of the world. I have no doubt about the comparison between growing organic cereals in Ireland and growing conventional cereals in Ireland. My conventional neighbours, and this is no criticism of them as it is what they do, after sowing their crop of seed dressed with a chemical, will then go onto that crop eight or ten times, depending on the year and the pressure of disease, either spreading fertiliser or with sprays for fungicide, herbicide, insecticide, Roundup and so forth. I do not go into my crop at all. Think of the energy used by the tractor to do that and of the energy used in manufacturing those products, probably in Germany or elsewhere. They are brought over to Ireland and there is transport involved in that. I am not aware if that research has been carried out in Ireland. It really depends on what one is measuring when looking at carbon levels. Is one just measuring what happens on the farm or is one taking into account the inputs that are coming onto the farm and the amount of CO2 it costs to manufacture them?
There must be a holistic approach to that, looking at the CO2 involved in the inputs as well as what is being used on the farm.
The EU is currently asking conventional farmers to check their organic matter levels in the soil because it has become so depleted with the system of conventional farming. I do not want to get too technical but I will give a comparative figure. Some of them could be down to 2.5% of organic matter in the soil.
In my own situation, it is almost 7%. It takes years to bring organic matter in soil up. It comes from having a natural system of reapplying farmyard manure and not taking off huge amounts of crops. In addition, the use of sprays and fertilisers loads the pH of the soil, which is detrimental. It also damages the biology in the soil. Soil is a carbon sink and farmers, particularly organic ones, are using it as a carbon sink, and that is why our carbon soil levels are so high.
One year I had a 50% failure rate, but so did every other cereal farmer. That was the winter of 2010-11 which wiped out a lot of cereal crops, but it had nothing to do with organic farming. I do not know where that 40% failure figure for cereal crops came from. That would not be my experience at all.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
Perhaps but I am certainly not aware of it. My final point, which was raised earlier, concerns biodiversity. Last year somebody from BirdWatch Ireland came down to do a survey of the amount of birds they could identify on my farm. They counted over 30 different species of songbirds in the month of June. I asked whether that figure was good, bad or indifferent. He said that it was not a Guinness Book of Records statistic, but was about three times the number he would expect to get on a conventional farm.
I wish to clarify something because I may have been taken up wrongly. I acknowledge the strengths of organic farming in biodiversity. My point was that more land is required. Nobody has taken up the question of food security, which I also raised. It is a challenge.
Mr. Patrick Lalor:
Yes, food security is a huge challenge. I am not an expert on it at all, but it goes way beyond the system of farming that we are using. It also goes into what we are doing with the food we produce. In other words, for example, if one decided not to have any more beef, there will be an awful lot of grain available in the world to feed people who are hungry. One would therefore solve the problem of world hunger very quickly if that was done.
It is a huge debate but, in fairness, people have to get protein from somewhere and we predominantly get it from meats in this country. I know there are other options as well. If we are talking about the food crops that provide protein, I do not know to what extent they are grown here, but they are generally grown in the tropics, so we would be taking them from areas where people need food to begin with. One cannot just say that if we stopped feeding cattle it would solve the problem of world hunger, because that could cause chaos if Mr. Lalor does not mind me saying so.
Mr. Padraig Fahy:
When I was in school I liked accountancy, so I will give the committee some facts on the farm. Fruit and vegetable growing and supplying was mentioned. Fruit and vegetables is an entry point for many consumers. It is the first thing they go to in the shop when try to buy organics. We get a market premium for horticultural crops of between 50% to 100%. The cost of production is about 25% to 50% greater depending on the scale of the farm, and our yields are between 20% and 30% less. As our farm expanded this year we have five other farmers around Ireland who are growing crops, and are contracted to supply into our farm.
We are on the edge of the Suck Valley and in 2002 we brought in 14% of organic matter. When one starts with really good soil, one can build up the organic matter. That is the key to getting it right. It is important that when farmers come into conversion, they do a lot of work in the preceding years.
Ms Gillian Westbrook:
I wish to respond to Deputy McConalogue in terms of supports and self-sufficiency for the sector. Tillage is something that we have to import. We currently have a 2,000-tonne deficit just for oats for breakfast cereals. Other businesses are seeking to come on board to produce animal feeds here, but we are importing a lot from the UK or via the UK. The product often comes into the UK for onward distribution into Ireland.
Horticulture is the main sector where there is a major deficit. We cannot grow certain fruit products, including citrus fruit, here but quite a lot is being imported. That is about continuity and getting people to work together. I know that "farmer collaboration" is a buzz term but it is very important. If farmers start to work together they can examine some of these markets. Both our directors here are a fantastic example of what can be done. Our other director is working with farmers to export a dairy product to New York and Asian markets as well. It is phenomenal what can be done when ten dairy farmers get together and take it all on.
Mr. Fahy is working with an agronomy group to try to up production. There is some work to be done with that, including educational things on agronomy. There is a slight barrier in education but more could be done.
As regards assistance from Bord Bia, it would be good if the board could do an organic origin green. An Bord Bia has a fantastic marketing strategy, however, it would be beneficial for it to have a specific strategy for organic products. That is what our members have been seeking.
Double funding under the GLAS scheme was referred to. We have given a series of different recommendations on what could be done under GLAS. We did not consider that it would attract double funding. That issue applies across the EU and is not just in Ireland. One would hope that we can revisit that in the mid-term review and the CAP 2020. The Department has been helpful and flexible about this. It is keen to examine the various actions one can do. Therefore instead of saying, "This is double funding, and we don't want it", the idea is to come up with an action and give it to the Department to examine. We would like to see areas such as agri-forestry and other climate change mitigation strategies being put in place for organic farmers as well.
The circular economy and waste reduction will play a major part in food security. We appreciate what the committee is saying about organics raising that bar. If it is all right with the Chairman, I would like to provide a document on which we have been working with our European counterparts, which summarises that better than I can do here at 100 mph. It is not that meaty but really summarises it and is a really interesting piece of work.
Before we conclude I will ask Mr. Lalor to comment. I am very interested in his idea of sowing the crop in October, closing the gate and coming back at harvest time. It sounds like an attractive proposition for many farmers. In doing that, however, is there a need for a strong rotation system?
Mr. John Liston:
I am one of ten organic dairy farmers who farm collaboratively to add value to our product. Being organically certified with IOFGA has allowed us to make product and export to America, Germany, France, the Far East and the Middle East.
Some years ago, four of our farmers undertook biodiversity studies with Dr. Jane Stout of Trinity College, Dublin. Biodiversity levels on those farms were significantly higher than on conventional neighbouring farms.
Ms Helen Scully:
Yes. I will sum up on what we can do to progress matters for the organic farming sector in Ireland. In terms of the reopening of the organic farming scheme, Bord Bia has been a member of the Organic Marketing Group, which was previously called Organic Focus, and a new committee is due to be set up this year. We believe a series of measures could be adopted by the newly formed group, whatever title it will be given, which could progress the suggestions we made today on developing the sector and which could also address the specific challenges.
On the issue of self-sufficiency, the domestic market is self-sufficient for beef and there are opportunities in that respect for just about every other product. There is also an opportunity for import substitution by having another feed compounder in the country. We need to properly harness the suggestions made today into a workable plan that could be adopted by Government and that would start with the allocation of an additional budget.
I thank Ms Scully for that.
Are there any further questions? I thank the delegates for coming before us today. The presentations from both groups has been very informative. The discussion has brought us up to speed on the current position. We will do a report on a summary of presentations at today's meeting in the next period, which may be helpful. Ms. Westbrook might forward us details of the research she mentioned which would be useful. I thank the groups for their presentations and I also thank members' for their contributions.
That concludes today's meeting. The meeting is adjourned until 4 p.m. next Tuesday, 4 April 2017.