Organic farming: More processor competition key

Customers shop in the organic food department of a Carrefour outlet in France.

Over a number of weeks, many stakeholders in organic farming in Ireland have expressed their opinions on how well or otherwise the sector is performing. 

The Oireachtas joint committee has seen a farmers’ representative body, the Organic Certification Bodies (OCBs), the department’s organic unit and politicians who are members of the joint committee all give views and ask questions of each other.

Here are some of my own observations.

While their name might suggest otherwise, the Irish Organic Representative Body represent a small number of farmers in the Roscommon area in particular. 

It’s interesting to note that other farmer groups and organisations (including the OCBs) take a different approach to their dealings with the State. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

The other organisations can seem more positive, dynamic and market focused.

However, they can also seem too polite to fight for their farmers’ best interests. I am reminded of my own PhD research on organics some years back, and a memory by a participant of the first meetings between a particular OCB, the IFA and the department.

The Cert body rep, having had polite meetings with the department previously, was shocked at the aggression of the IFA at this meeting, held in the early 1990s. 

The first thing the IFA did, the source revealed, was noisily rearrange the furniture in the room to suit themselves. Then they started shouting and banging on the tables.

There is a balance between repeating the same core points — even ones refuted repeatedly — to fight your corner, and being a supposed partner of a department with many other competing, more powerful interests.

The elephant in the living room of growth in organics is the lack of processor competition. Indeed, this problem is getting more pronounced. 

While the processors do a great job of reaching export markets, they inevitably can control price if there are few if any real competitors. 

That said, a lack of adequate state investment means a lack of growth in organics. As the OCBs said at committee: Ring-fenced — not wishy washy — public procurement and rural development supports would help grow organics; and if there is a 5% target for growth and yet much less than 5% of the department’s budget is spent on organics, there is little chance of real and sustained growth.

In marketing terms, nothing has replaced, including in budget terms, National Organic Week. 

The organic market reports which Bord Bia commissions are not detailed enough, focusing too much on irrelevancies like own-brand supermarket biscuits (hardly made with Irish organic wheat) and not even counting local farmers’ market sales, for example. For farmers, price monitoring and specialised training need to improved radically.

In any case, after the conventional milk price debacle, organic farmers worry about new entrants without new markets, fearing a price collapse. 

While it makes sense for the OCBs to argue for opening the organic farming scheme to new entrants, from a PR perspective, in reality a range of supports need to be put in place to make this work without causing resentment or price collapse.

The robustness of the organic certification scheme is an obvious

strength,

but is a barrier to better

support  from Bord Bia and others. Indeed, organic certification makes Bord Bia Quality Assured seem, from a consumer perspective, very weak.

The organic sector needs to pull together to tell the world about these credentials — especially its more robust standards. However, the OCBs find it very difficult to work together constructively, in part for historical reasons — though these have been compounded over time.

There is no overarching promotional or representative body, despite the fact that the OCBs themselves are tied up with certification in large part. Efforts to form either national promotional or representative bodies have failed here — unlike other countries. Without either or both, the sector will flounder.

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