Go­ing or­ganic

Na­ture-friendly farm­ing can im­prove our en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials

Irish Examiner - Farming - - COMMENT - Oliver Moore

With the launch of an or­ganic sec­tor strat­egy group last week, the ground­work is be­ing laid by the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture for even­tual re-open­ing of the Or­ganic Farm­ing Scheme.

The scheme was opened in 2015, used up im­me­di­ately, and was closed to new en­trants since. While there are no clear in­di­ca­tions as to when ex­actly it will re-open, the stages in­volved will fol­low the se­quence of es­tab­lish group, de­velop ac­tion plan, and open scheme.

If the next scheme suc­ceeds, what would it mean for Ir­ish agri­cul­ture in gen­eral to have a big­ger, more vi­brant or­ganic sec­tor?

Wrongly viewed by some in Ire­land as a threat to con­ven­tional farm­ing, a rea­son­ably sized or­ganic sec­tor is seen in some “savvy” EU coun­tries as im­prov­ing their over­all agri­food sec­tor’s en­vi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance.

In other words, or­ganic far­ing im­proves the over­all score of farm­ing in a num­ber of the ar­eas called pub­lic goods, in EU-speak. Ac­cord­ing to our De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the over­all ob­jec­tive of Ir­ish or­ganic schemes is to “de­liver en­hanced en­vi­ron­men­tal and animal wel­fare ben­e­fits”. These are the pub­lic goods all farm­ers are urged to sup­ply, in CAP re­form after CAP re­form. More specif­i­cally, or­ganic farm­ing is funded for: Restor­ing, pre­serv­ing and en­hanc­ing bio­di­ver­sity; Im­prov­ing wa­ter man­age­ment, in­clud­ing fer­tiliser and pes­ti­cide man­age­ment; Pre­vent­ing soil ero­sion and im­prov­ing soil man­age­ment; Re­source ef­fi­ciency; tran­si­tion to­wards a low car­bon, cli­mate re­silient econ­omy; Car­bon con­ser­va­tion and se­ques­tra­tion;

Air qual­ity is also cited, and lower use of an­tibi­otics in or­ganic farm­ing may help with man­ag­ing an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance.

A coun­try’s over­all farm­ing score in these ar­eas can be im­proved, thus avoid­ing pos­si­ble na­tional fines for breach of the many EU di­rec­tives cov­er­ing such en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters, if there is a larger land area ded­i­cated to or­ganic farm­ing.

How is Ire­land do­ing in these ar­eas? Does it need the help of more or­ganic farm­ing, for bet­ter over­all na­tional per­for­mance in these ar­eas? Take the first two above — bio­di­ver­sity and wa­ter qual­ity.

The EU has di­rec­tives on bio­di­ver­sity loss, which is hap­pen­ing all over the EU, in­clud­ing Ire­land, at an alarm­ing rate, with 75% of fly­ing in­sects lost in Ger­many in the last 25 years, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study.

“Over 90% of EU-pro­tected habi­tats in Ire­land [are] re­ported to be in poor sta­tus” said Min­is­ter Heather Humphreys last year, launch­ing a bio­di­ver­sity re­port. Farm­ing is one of the sec­tors im­pli­cated in bio­di­ver­sity loss. A 2008 over­view (O’Brien et al) found that in 15 out of 21 stud­ies an­a­lysed, con­ven­tional crop cultivation had a neg­a­tive im­pact on bio­di­ver­sity. But a far greater abun­dance and di­ver­sity of the bio­di­ver­sity stud­ied (bee­tles, in this par­tic­u­lar case) was found on or­ganic farms. Work on dairy farms by Eileen Power and Jane Stout from TCD showed that the bio­di­ver­sity per­for­mance is higher on or­ganic dairy than on con­ven­tional dairy farms. The au­thors said: “Or­ganic farm­ing was found to pro­vide in­creased flo­ral re­sources that at­tract more pol­li­nat­ing in­sects, and pol­li­na­tion suc­cess was higher on farms un­der or­ganic man­age­ment”. Or­ganic farms can be a wildlife haven in the midst of con­ven­tional farms, ac­cord­ing to re­search in Devon and Cormwall which showed that even a small num­ber of or­ganic farms [es­pe­cially if they are clus­tered] have an over­all very pos­i­tive im­pact on bio­di­ver­sity in a re­gion. But or­ganic farm­ing is not the panacea to bio­di­ver­sity prob­lems. Some even ar­gue that the greater land area needed for the lower yield­ing or­ganic farm­land leaves less room for na­ture. Min­eral fer­tiliser can­not be used on or­ganic farms, and stock­ing rates are lower. There­fore, more farms go­ing or­ganic can off­set the el­e­vated con­cen­tra­tions of phos­pho­rus and ni­tro­gen in wa­ter, and help Ire­land stay within EU Wa­ter Frame­work Di­rec­tive qual­ity stan­dards.

That would ease wor­ries for 7,000 farm­ers here who de­pend on an EU ni­trates dero­ga­tion al­low­ing their higher stock­ing rates. Sim­i­lar dero­ga­tions are un­der threat from the EU in Den­mark and the Nether­lands. The Dutch dairy sec­tor has to cull 160,000 cows to com­ply with EU phos­phate lim­its.

In Ire­land, stricter new ni­trates reg­u­la­tions came into ef­fect on De­cem­ber 20, 2017 after agree­ment with the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion on the 2018–2021 re­newal of our ni­trates dero­ga­tion for more heav­ily stocked farms. An­other or­ganic farm­ing caveat must be added: it still gen­er­ates ma­nure, and clover (which or­ganic farm­ers use to re­place min­eral fer­tilis­ers) if man­aged in­cor­rectly can still lead to ni­tro­gen leach­ing. Nev­er­the­less, more or­ganic farm­ing should never be seen as a threat to the con­ven­tional sec­tor; it should be seen more as a pro­tec­tive rel­a­tive. Oliver Moore’s weekly or­ganic farm­ing col­umn is on page 16

“Wrongly viewed by some in Ire­land as a threat to con­ven­tional farm­ing, a rea­son­ably sized or­ganic sec­tor is seen in some ‘savvy’ EU coun­tries as im­prov­ing their over­all agri-food sec­tor’s per­for­mance” en­vi­ron­men­tal

More farms go­ing or­ganic can off­set the el­e­vated con­cen­tra­tions of phos­pho­rus and ni­tro­gen in wa­ter, and help Ire­land stay within EU Wa­ter Frame­work Di­rec­tive qual­ity stan­dards.

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