Ireland ideal for organic food growth

IT’S the season for overeating and the time of year when minds are most focused on food.

We hear plenty about organic food, but only a fraction of what’s being consumed could be labelled truly organic.

While organic turkeys, geese and other meats are available, the amount of organic food we eat in Ireland is still very low. The organic sector is really tiny in relation to overall food production, but it is growing by about 11% per year.

At the end of 2008 there were 1,450 organic operators in Ireland with 44,751 hectares of land in conversion or under organic production. That’s just over 1% of the land area. Although less than the 5% EU average, this is a substantial increase on the previous few years.

One of the welcome outcomes of the recession is that more people are growing their own vegetables and those without their own land are seeking allotments to rent in towns and cities. No doubt, this practice will be among many people’s new year resolutions. I, for one, will be returning the garden patch after an absence of a number of years – a personal resolution that’s going to be fulfilled.

It’s amazing how much you can grow in even a small piece of ground. Many people that grew up in an era when most people had their own kitchen gardens, with plenty of vegetables, have again returned to the tradition, which is something we lost with the advent of changing lifestyles and prosperity.

It is always hard to understand how farmers who once grew all their own produce can be seen buying basics such as potatoes, cabbage and other ‘greens’ in their local shops – food that is often imported.

There was a time when farmers took pride in their pits of spuds and drills of turnips, kale and other healthy goods which always seemed to taste better when rooted in familiar ground.

People in other countries still grow their own. It’s always a joy to go to France, for example, in early summer and see potato stalks flowering in little green patches and corners around houses in small towns and villages.

A welcome phenomenon here is the expansion in farmers’ markets in recent years, though it should not always be assumed the food in these markets is organic and grown without pesticides or other chemicals.

The Government says it is committed to developing the organic food sector, with a four-year plan launched in 2008. The target is to convert a minimum 5% of acreage to organic farmland by 2012. This is an ambitious target, but by no means an impossible one, according to Minister of State for Agriculture Trevor Sargent.

Organic food production and processing is one of the few areas showing steady growth both here and in the countries to which we already send most of our conventional produce.

Ireland is suitable for organic farming. We are a food producing island and different to some of the continental European countries, or the US, with their heavily industrialised food production sectors.

That “clean, green” image is still hugely important to us overseas.

The chemicals and pesticides used in intensive farming have become more and more expensive and their use has been restricted throughout the EU. At the same time, farmers’ incomes are under pressure from cheap imports and the relentless pressure from the retail multiples to accept less for their produce.

Farmers, however, are adaptable and well capable of changing with the times. As intensive conventional farming becomes less profitable, farmers are looking for alternative ways to make a living.

Mr Sargent says an obvious one must be organic farming and the related activity it generates in the food processing and retail sectors, while admitting, at the same time, that we have a long way to go.

’The paradox in organic farming in Ireland is that we are self-sufficient in organic red meat, though there is a huge export market waiting to be exploited, but we have to import much of the organic fruit and vegetables that we eat. We could certainly replace many of those imports with Irish produce, ‘ he stresses.

Consumers are becoming increasingly health-conscious consumer, demanding quality, convenience and value. As most of organic produce sold in Ireland is imported, it is clear that there are opportunities for producers to fill that gap.

Most of us like to know where the food we buy comes from and it can be assumed the general preference is for Irish-produced food. So, locally produced organic food should have an extra appeal to consumers.

With the growth in direct selling, via farm shops and farmers’ markets, there is an outlet there for organic producers to market their products locally. These direct routes to market are all the more important now as producers find their margins cut or eliminated by large retailers.


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