2011 cucumber scare failed to dent organic sector

FROM an organic farming perspective, the year just passed was an eventful one.

Remember the organic cucumber scare? First, Spanish organic cucumbers were blamed, then, as upwards of 3,000 people were infected, and over a dozen had passed away due to a new, virulent strain of E Coli, German organic beansprouts got the blame. A farm was detected with the strain in its produce, and has been shut down.

In the end it seems that Egyptian fenugreek seeds used to produce sprouts were the likely source. Their import into the EU is currently banned, though the Egyptians claim that it isn’t their fenugreek that caused the problem. That brings little consolation for organic farmers and growers; however, the lack of a dip in sales for organic produce during and after this scare was probably heartening for the sector. Consumers seem more stable these days, and less likely to flip-flop the purchases due to food scares.

Markets for organic food in 2011 grew in the EU, but were stable in Ireland, and weaker in Britain.

The two big Irish processors in meat and milk, Good Herdsman and Glenisk, both achieved significant new export markets. The former finalised a German babyfood contract, while the latter opened up new markets in Spain and Portugal, with plans to export to Germany in 2012.

Nationally, it was organic horticulture’s year. The arrangement with SuperValu, whereby individual growers are promoted and supported with in-store ‘islands’ and various marketing aids, was part of it. The work of and in particular events held by the Organic Growers of Ireland and the announcement of the new MSc course in organic horticultural crop production also pointed to a turn towards horticulture.

Organic dairy seems to be stagnant, as regards new entrants, though there will hopefully be an Irish Organic Milk Producers’ organic cheese for export soon. Individual organic dairy farmers who do their own thing, like Kate Carmody (of Beal), Gerry and Mary Kelly (of Moonshine), and Ralph Haslan (of Mossfield), are all doing well. The problem is, these are the same people organic dairy has had to look to for years.

And yet, even when they want to expand, as Carmody currently does, she cannot find enough organic milk to do so.

Consumer sentiment towards organic dairy products is strong, as these producers and the performance of Glenisk suggest. Here’s hoping for growth for all of them.

The organic beef and lamb sectors seem to be operating somewhat under the shadow of the extraordinary performance of their conventional counterparts.

IOFGA gained a new general manager in Gillian Westbrook, coming from the ICSA farmers organisation. Her background and experience should serve IOFGA well into 2012.

More changing of the guard occurred in the spring, when a new minister arrived with the new government. While organic does not have the same pride of place it had with Green ministers, the relatively favourable treatment in the 2011 budget was certainly to be commended. The lack of an organic trade board, however, after much effort was put into establishing the feasibility of it, has been a disappointment.

All told, the jury is still out on the Department of Agriculture’s new organic regime. Their announcement of organic farming scheme details for 2012 will certainly be a defining moment.

A more recent and strangely under-reported occurrence was the massive organic fraud uncovered in Italy a few weeks back, alleging 700,000 tonnes of organic animal feed over a few years, according to the Italian police, who made seven arrests.

With every new EU directive, with a very pro-organic CAP reform proposal, with rising costs for conventional inputs, and with strong EU markets available, the case for organic farming seems strong. And yet, the immediate future seems to be one of consolidation rather than growth for organics. I would, however, be delighted to be proven wrong on that.

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