Sargent pledges support for organic sector

JUNIOR Minister Trevor Sargent has pledged to stand by organic farming in tough pre-budget negotiations.

“A commitment to organic farming is essential to government cohesion.” So said Sargent at the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association’s recent AGM event.

His statement was in response to a request from the floor for more money for the certification bodies, in light of an expected flood of applicants to convert to organic from January 1.

Minister Sargent clearly indicated his aim is to protect the commitments he currently has, in “eyeball-to-eyeball” budget negotiations. In other words, the organic movement shouldn’t expect too much more than what’s in the 64-point organic farming plan.

Tighter economic times, climate change and peak oil contextualise what’s going on in the world of organics at the moment.

Society faces economic and environmental challenges at present, and both are becoming more acute. While climate change is well known to most, the peak oil concept is a little more abstracted from the public consciousness. There was a presentation on the topic at the IOFGA event by Patrick Holden, director of the UK’s Soil Association.

The peak oil theory suggests that we are either at or very close to the point where fossil fuel reserves are smaller than what has already been extracted, and oil, coal and gas availability falls after the peak, as extraction costs will become more and more prohibitive.

Hard decisions will have to be made about what to do with the last of the oil.

As for globalisation, which involves the interconnectedness of people, products, business, international regulations and much more, it is inherently dependent upon availability of cheap fossil fuels.

In the agri-food area, cheap, globally sourced, out-of-season food is a case in point. But in a world with shrinking reserves of oil, business as usual won’t be possible, in agri-food or in other areas.

Holden, who was involved in organic certification in Ireland in the 1980s, said the Soil Association is integrally involved in developing strategies to mitigate the worst effects of peak oil. More than just an organic certification body, it is engaged in a range of sustainability initiatives — such as the transition towns movement, which prepares areas for what’s called “energy descent”.

Energy descent involves planning for ever reducing fossil fuel availability across all sectors of society. Interestingly, the concept was first developed and put into a coherent structure in the Kinsale Further Education College by Rob Hopkins and the second year students, in the Co Cork school’s permaculture course. Their energy descent action plan has been downloaded thousands of times across the world, and has been developed in dozens of places. In Kinsale it has received some local council support.

Food production should be central to any strategies to cope with less oil, according to Holden. After hearing about peak oil, he went back to his own farm to try to imagine coping without oil. He simply couldn’t.

However, he has started to change how his farm operates, with heat-pumps in place, and wind turbines on the way. Holden is also aiming to harness the energy potential of methane, and introduce solar panels.

In farming terms, he has started producing a hard long life cheese to sell regionally, rather than transport milk to a processor.

The Soil Association has taken on board this sort of thinking on a larger scale, with its One Planet Agriculture Campaign. Energy efficiencies and better management of waste and water are central starting points to the idea. So is food system localisation — working in food feet rather than food miles.

In the context of agriculture’s minor part in the British economy, the Soil Association’s one planet agriculture may receive a warm reception. It will be revealing to see what farmers, organic or otherwise, might think of the idea in Ireland, the largest net exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere.

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Karen Walsh

Karen Walsh

Law of the Land

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