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Speech by Professor Gerry Boyle at the National Organic Conference 2012

12 September 2012

I am delighted to welcome you to our National Organic Conference. Before I address the themes of today's conference I feel I should first deal with 'the elephant in the room'. I know that many of you are concerned about Teagasc's GM potato trial. I don't propose to deal with the various points that have been made about the project, although I'm happy to deal with any questions at the end of my presentation. I guess there is little point in discussing the menu if you don't like the restaurant! I would like however that you understand where we're coming from even though I don't expect all or any of you to agree with me.

We are not advocates for any production system. We conduct a diversity of research of actual and potential relevance to Ireland's Agri-food sector as long as it's legal, conducted ethically and consistent with government policy. In so far as we are advocates, we are advocates for knowledge. Knowledge is not only the lever of riches but it is armour in a world of uncertainty.

In our commitment to conduct a diversity of research, there is no contradiction in doing research on seemingly contradictory production systems, e.g. organic versus conventional agriculture, sustainable versus conventional production systems, TMR versus grass-fed livestock systems, etc.

It is important to understand that research activity does not have predetermined outcomes. We are not like the consultants that produce the outcome that the client wants. We have to enter into all research activity with an open mind. All good research is predicated on testing the null hypothesis - is there a significant different between option A or B? The current trial is no different in this regard.

We in Teagasc hugely value our independence. I want to underline that we are not beholden in any of our research, including the current trial, to any corporate entity either financially or in kind.

Finally I what to say that Teagasc welcomes an open debate on GM technology, where science is centre stage. Indeed, an important subsidiary aim of the potato project is to facilitate such debate. I would like to invite any interested party to visit our research site and see the project for themselves and discuss the project with our scientists. We need a "grown up" debate on the costs and benefits of GM and I welcome everyone that has constructively contributed to that debate so far.

We have organised a selection of speakers today with a broad knowledge of the organic sector, both from home and abroad. I hope that you will leave here this evening with a greater understanding of the challenges but also the opportunities, facing the organic sector in Ireland today.

The Food Harvest 2020 report states “An increase in organic land use to 5% from the current level of just over 1% is ambitious and will require actions in a number of areas including promotion, marketing, innovation, research and product development”. We in Teagasc are committed to working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Marine and Food (DAMF) to develop the organic sector. I welcome to the conference Minister for State, Mr. Shane McEntee who will address you later in the day. We look forward to working together with his Department, Bord Bia and the various industry representatives involved in “Organic Focus”, the new group recently established by the Minister, which aims to develop a new Action Plan for organic farming with a realistic focus on development within the resources currently available.

There are several challenges facing development of the organic sector in Ireland. Improved market prices in recent years for agricultural goods, has lead to an improved farm family incomes on Irish farms. I believe that the low cost economic model of organic farming coupled with the possibility of favourable EU support in the future, coupled with the market opportunities which exist for organic produce presents a bright future for the sector. I refer to a paper presented at last year’s National Organic Conference in Co. Tipperary, by Dan Clavin and Brian Moran of Teagasc Athenry, which demonstrated that organic cattle farmers earned higher farm family income compared to conventional cattle farmers in 2010. This was mainly due to the lower direct (variable) costs associated with the organic production system.

While we have seen great changes in our economic landscape, the importance of our indigenous agriculture and food industry has never been as high. It is widely recognised as being fundamental to our export lead economic recovery. The organic sector can play a role in this development, especially in the beef sector. Opportunities also exist for the import substitution of many organic agricultural goods in which we are under-producing at present. To that end, best knowledge on soil quality, nutrient management and clover management are key to producing food of the highest organic standards and production levels to meet market demands. As you can see from today’s programme, particular attention is being paid to these issues.

CAP policy: We are approaching a cross-roads with regard to the future of EU and CAP organic policy. I welcome Mr. Christopher Stopes, president of IFOAM EU Group (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements) to the conference who will give his views on the future of CAP and EU organic policy and the opportunities this may bring to Irish organic farmers and in particular the greening provision and how this can support our plans for smart, green growth in Irish agriculture.

Teagasc research of relevance to organic farming: Teagasc, as the national body with responsibility for research in the agriculture and agri-food sectors carry out innovative research across a broad range of areas. Much of this work is directly relevant to the organic farming sector. A number of our scientists will present their findings today including:

Dr. Rachel Creamer, Johnstown Castle, - soil quality and nutrition in the context of organic farming.

Dr. Michael Gaffney, Kinsealy, who will present key research findings on his work on composting.

Dr. Patrick Conaghan, Oakpark, who will present latest updates on clover research currently being carried out at Oakpark and,

Dr. Kim Reilly, Teagasc, Kinsealy, who will present key research findings on the phytochemical content of organic v’s convetional food crops.

Discussion Groups and Producer Groups: We in Teagasc believe that significant benefits accrue from farmers working together in discussion groups and producer groups. I am delighted that in Session 3 you will hear a number of organic farmer speakers today who will talk about the challenges and opportunities which exist from farmers collaborating with each other.

Teagasc has been dealt a tough hand in the aftermath of the Croke Park Agreement. In the context of staff reductions, there has been a reduction of half our specialists in the Rural Development Unit which includes our Organic Specialist staff. This has meant that we have had to restructure the way we do business.

With the aim to work smarter and to provide enhanced geographical spread for the organic farming programme, this year we have appointed 13 local advisors on a part-time basis to support to support our 2 specialist organic staff - Dan Clavin and Elaine Leavy. The local advisors provide support to the specialists at FETAC organic courses and at organic demo farm walks as well as answering the day to day organic queries which come into our offices from conventional farmers. This frees up more time for our specialists to carry out more technical duties.

Teagasc works with organic farmers from conception to consumption – our dedicated organic specialists provide support to advisors and organic farmers at farm level. In addition, our artisan food and business specialists provide support to those who wish to add value to their produce.

The FM/Teagasc Organic Demonstration Farm Program continues to be a great success – this year the events have so far been attended by over 600 farmers who saw organic farming in practise. The programme has given conventional farmers the opportunity to question markets, production systems and scheme/ grant supports. Even for successful, established producers there is always still plenty to learn and new ideas out there to help improve your enterprise. We acknowledge the continued co-operation and support of the farmers involved as well as DAMF Organic Unit and the Organic Certification Bodies in the running of this successful programme.

One of the requirements of applicants to the Organic Farming Scheme is to complete a 25 hour FETAC accredited course – this ensures that farmers are fully aware of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead when they convert to organic farming methods. This will without doubt make for better prepared organic farmers and ensure that the high standards of production expected by the consumer are maintained. Over 800 farmers have completed such courses with Teagasc and we will be offering these courses again nationwide over the coming months.

In an acknowledgement of the expertise of the Teagasc organic specialist staff, as part of the recently established U.C.D./Teagasc alliance, both will participate in lecturing the organic production degree course to final year B. Agr. Sc students at U.C.D. this Autumn.

I would like in particular to thank the staff in the Rural Development Unit for helping to organise today’s conference for all their hard work.

To conclude I wish you all every success. I hope that you will leave here this evening with a greater understanding of the challenges but also the opportunities, facing the organic sector in Ireland today. Go raibh maith agaibh.