Oliver Moore: Reflections on a decade of change

It’s a fact I find difficult to get my head around. This month marks my tenth anniversary contributing the column you are reading, says Oliver Moore.
Oliver Moore: Reflections on a decade of change

The then ‘Organic Diary’, written by the late David Storey, started in 2001. BSE and foot and mouth were in the news, and organic was expected to grow in prominence.

Since then, and since my own first column in February 2005, its amazing how slowly the sector has actually grown.

There have been times over the 10 years when it grew reasonably strongly, and the near future looks bright with better supports due. It’s certainly a better-organised sector than previously, but expansion really has been slow.

Indeed, these days, I’m often writing about the children of the people I wrote about 10 years ago, such as the Colchesters, the Mulhalls, and more.

I certainly didn’t expect to be offered the job when David Storey finished up writing it in 2005, a year before he passed.

He was an IOFGA inspector and farmer, whereas I am more an academic with rural sociology and some journalism on organics behind me.

This was reflected in the early years, when long paragraphs, three-part specials on the global pesticide problem, and the agro-ecological situation in Cuba seemed to me vital for the Irish readership.

The focus shifted over to a significant majority of more Irish-specific columns soon after.

The Teagasc organic farm walks, which began in 2004, were in full flight by 2006. Pat McCormack’s — better known as Fr Ted’s House — was the first one I attended in Clare, followed by Pat Lalor’s in Westmeath.

Early day optimism was reflected in features like “Glenisk wants 100 farmers”, while the sense of change was certainly palpable when Trevor Sargent joined the Department of Agriculture in 2007.

Likewise, the intellectual powerhouse that was Charles Merfield seemed to help people pull their metaphorical socks up.

Sargent innovated, from attending conferences from beginning to end — not just speechifying – to writing to farmers directly about organics, and not via the farming press or the IFA. He also professionalised joining the Organic Farming Scheme.

The recession seemed to take a while to bite into organic — it was 2009 before the market started to dive — but a media pounding also emerged as questionable research gave hurried and harried journalists enough fodder for flaming copy.

The glee with which people seemed to greet this research was noteworthy too: it’s as if daring to try to improve the environmental performance of farming and food was problematic in itself.

The organic recession never really hit the rest of the European market in the same way as it hit in Ireland and UK.

The UK organic sector suffered excessively from an association with celebrity and wealth, as one of the 2009 features pointed out.

Meanwhile, organics in the rest of Europe seemed to go from strength to strength, infuriatingly from an Irish perspective, though good for exports.

The certification bodies appointed development officers, first IOFGA and then the Organic Trust.

This, and an increase in the farm walks have been beneficial. And after some years of inertia and a lack of ambition, it seems the department and Bord Bia are pushing organics at production and consumption levels again.

Much recent academic research has been supportive of organics, from yield to nutrition to environment.

Maybe I’m an optimist but it does seem like 2015 and 2016 will see significant growth in numbers joining the Organic Farming Scheme.

The fractured relationship between the two certification bodies, and the concurrent lack of a unified voice for the organic sector, remain problematic though.

Here’s to that resolving itself in the upcoming years of this column.

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Karen Walsh

Karen Walsh

Law of the Land

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