Nature-friendly farming can improve our environmental credentials
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.