Dáil debates

Thursday, 26 November 2009

4:00 pm

Photo of Paul GogartyPaul Gogarty (Dublin Mid West, Green Party)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the reason the levels of organic dairy conversion are low in view of the fact that the price of organic milk is 45 cent per litre; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43454/09]

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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The decision of whether to convert from conventional to organic dairy farming is a matter of decision for each dairy farmer, based on their circumstances and preferences. While there had been an increased interest in organic production early in this decade, the exceptionally high prices for conventional manufacturing milk in 2007 and early 2008 probably dampened this interest. Other reasons for the limited interest may include the fact that concentrate feed costs are less influential than they were, the fact that there is no premium on the product during the two-year conversion period when some additional costs may be incurred and the fact that farmers have their own preferences in relation to co-operative dealings and the use of veterinary medicinal products.

I can assure Deputies that the organic option is available for those who might wish to consider it. Anyone contemplating such a conversion can be guided through the process by my Department. Specifically in the milk area, there is a further incentive for those converting in the form of a special additional allocation of 45,000 litres of milk quota.

Last year, I announced the latter scheme and was facilitated by the 2% increase in milk quotas from 1 April 2008, that I helped to secure earlier. The scheme allows existing organic producers to expand and is also aimed at encouraging new entrants into the sector. It is in keeping with the Organic Action Plan 2008-2012, which is my Department's response to the target in the programme for Government for 5% of the agricultural land area to be under organic production by 2012. One of the specific actions in the plan is to facilitate the expansion of the organic dairy sector by allocating additional quota and I am pleased that I have been able to deliver upon this so soon.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I presume that due to climate change there are opportunities for organic milk producers to benefit in their pockets to a greater extent than those who practice conventional farming because they do not face the increased burden of inputs. Is the figure of an 11% increase in organic milk production the most up-to-date figure available? Do the rules make it easier for farmers to convert from conventional to organic farming? The transition timeframe is two years. How many farmers are in the conversion period?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for her question and her ongoing interest. The cost of conventional milk production is affected by the cost of inputs and the return, which has been rather disappointing in the recent past. I take this opportunity to urge farmers to consider the overall picture in terms of the cost of inputs and the return. They may be surprised to learn the return on the organic option is a good deal more attractive at present than conventional production. I can verify that the Deputy is correct to state the figure of 11% increase each year in spite of the recession. The sector is holding up and is healthier in terms of an increase in sales than the UK sector. An Bord Bia informs me the sector has bottomed out and is rising again despite the fact there is a recession in the UK as well. The opportunities and indicators point in the right direction for those who chose organic production.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Why is the vast bulk of the population not drinking organic milk if it is only priced at 45 cent per litre?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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There may be a misunderstanding on the part of the Deputy. The price referred to is the price received by the farmer from the creamery. At present there are two creameries-----

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Does it not refer to the current market price for a litre of milk in the shops?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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No. Obviously, the price is higher than the conventional price in the shops, but not much higher in my experience. However, the Deputy will agree it is a good return for the farmer to receive 45 cent per litre. It may be difficult to rationalise why more people do not choose the organic option, given the 45 cent price.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps the process is not as environmentally friendly as the Minister of State believes.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I do not want the Deputy throwing cold water on the option and it does not help anyone to rationalise the reasons in that way. Some farmers may be familiar with existing arrangements with their co-operatives. Only two dairies operate under the organic system, one of which is a good deal larger than the other. There are hopes for another operation closer to the Border. Ironically, this does not dissuade people in Northern Ireland from producing organically and selling milk to a creamery in the midlands. Clearly, it is not a disincentive in that regard. In addition, some farmers have invested in slatted units and other aspects of conventional production and may be reluctant to turn their back on it. There are many relevant factors.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I do not believe slatted units prevent the production of milk whether organically or otherwise. The key point is that it costs a good deal more in terms of carbon spent to produce a unit of food organically than to produce a unit of food non-organically.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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From where did the Deputy get that idea?

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is derived from multiple research. A lady in Dublin Castle at a conference entitled The Greening of Agriculture was adamant that organically produced food was less carbon efficient than conventionally produced food. This does not necessarily apply to intensively produced food but to conventionally produced food in a moderate way using the best available science and technology including, dare I say so, GM food technology and minimal or no till cultivation, which has developed organic soil. Dr. John Geraghty from Kilsheellan showed graphic slides according to which, flooding------

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Is the Deputy asking a supplementary question?

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I did not get to speak on the issue of flooding because Wicklow was not flooded. We are too high.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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This is Question Time.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Flooding issues can be dealt with and it is possible to have organic matter in the soil without it being farmed organically. The holistic approach must be taken in this regard.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I am surprised the Deputy is ignoring the people of Arklow when he refers to flooding.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I did not ignore the people of Arklow.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I ask the Minister of State not to be provocative.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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The Deputy may be referring to the fact that it might be better to grow organic food here rather than importing it from far away locations. The no-till method is quite in keeping with organic methods. If the Deputy is serious about the incomes and welfare of farmers, he should consider what the market wants. The fact that we are obliged to import 70% of the organic produce sold in this country indicates that major opportunities exist not only here, but also in the UK, which regards Ireland as a local market. I would have thought the Deputy, if he is serious about this matter, would want us to grab a piece of the UK market, which is valued at €2 billion.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I have been nice to the Minister of State so far.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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Organic farming has continually proven to be extremely efficient in respect of its carbon footprint. This is because it is based on working with nature, minimising inputs and taking advantage of the natural benefits that exist.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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We must proceed to Question No. 8.

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I put it to the Minister of State that if it organic farming is so profitable, then Kerry Group would be involved.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin North, Green Party)
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That company cannot get everything right.