Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Organic Farming: Discussion (Resumed)

Professor Gerry Boyle:

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to this afternoon's meeting. I also thank Senator Daly for his comprehensive question. I will not cover the areas that Mr. Brennan has addressed but rather focus in on the Senator's last three points. The first relates to the very interesting question of the link between organic credentials and sustainability. There is certainly a very strong link between the two. They are very much correlated. The committee will be aware of an initiative recently launched by Teagasc, the Signpost programme. This involves the establishment of 100 demonstration farms across the country. These will demonstrate sustainability in action on farms. We plan to have approximately five organic farms represented in that network. That will give us an opportunity to link the credentials associated with organic production and sustainability. From a marketing point of view, both types of credential should reinforce one another because clearly organic farms and organic produce will have a lower carbon footprint. It will also benefit biodiversity and improve water quality. Organic farming also leads to far lower ammonia emissions. I absolutely agree that organics and sustainability should reinforce each other and that this should be a marketing strength, particularly in export markets.

Senator Daly asked quite an interesting question in respect of education. Teagasc does not have a direct mandate as far as consumer education is concerned although many of our research programmes involve outreach to the wider community. There is certainly an opportunity for us to link with the likes of Agri Aware to reinforce the positive messages about organic consumption to potential consumers.

It is something we would very much like to be part of and, indeed, embrace.

A question in respect of underfunding of research on organics was also raised. I would not agree with that of course, but I understand where the question and issue are coming from. During the 2008-2009 recession, Teagasc, along with many other State organisations, had to greatly rationalise how we delivered services. We took a very long, hard look at the investment we had made in research demonstration farms. We came to the conclusion, not only in respect of organics, that it would be far better to work more closely with real commercial farms and implement research and demonstration programmes in that context. That is a path we have gone down in recent years and experience has borne out the wisdom of that change in direction, so to speak.

When it comes to organics, we work very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in developing research farms. We now have approximately 12 farms in total that are classified as organic demonstration farms. We use those farms to illustrate the latest developments in research. I should make the point, and I have said this on a number of occasions, that we are very fortunate in agriculture, particularly in our grassland systems, that we adhere to principles that are quite closely related to organic credentials. It is not difficult to extend the organic principle to, if you like, fully accredited organic farms. Our emphasis, for instance, on grassland management is at the core of any credible organic system when it comes to livestock production. We have an extensive amount of research under way on minimising the use of chemical nitrogen and, in fact, we have a programme on one of our research farms, Soloheadbeg, which focuses on zero chemical nitrogen application. That, of course, is replicated in the organic context. Similarly, we are now doing extensive work on multi-species swards on a number of our sites. Again, that can be carried over into the organic sphere.

There has been a change in emphasis regarding our past investment in research demonstration farms. We are now embracing, and have for a number of years, a closer involvement with commercial farms, because at the end of the day we have to convince farmers to adopt new technologies and systems. Farmers are much more receptive when they see other real-world farmers implementing change. That is the rationale behind that shift.