We’re proud of our dairy heritage, so why is our organic butter shipped in from Germany?

Game Changers: Transitioning to organic dairy could reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the average farm by 40%

Will you be having yourself an organic little Christmas? During this festive month, those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it will be splurging more on the food shop. But good luck finding an Irish organic butter. We are so proud of our dairy heritage, yet organic butter is either flown from Germany or shipped in small batches from the Ballymaloe jersey herd. It doesn’t get more niche.

Mainstreaming organic dairy production can help profitable farms fix our biggest challenges in the years ahead. A transition to organic dairy can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the average farm by 40 per cent. These are rough figures, Teagasc organic dairy expert Joe Kelleher said in a brilliant webinar recently.

He gave clear and compelling answers to the most common questions from dairy farmers. Less than 1 per cent of Irish dairy farmers are organic producers. The reasons are both cultural and financial. Big herds have big status and big milk cheques. Changing to an organic farm system means a dairy farmer stocks fewer animals per hectare of land compared to what’s called “conventional” farming.

Yet Bord Bia has found that nearly six in 10 consumers aged 18-44 are willing to pay a 15 per cent premium for organic food. The market has been growing by 9 per cent a year across Europe.


And those greenhouse gas reductions of 40 per cent? Half of them come from cutting out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, the other half from the reduction in stock numbers. Organic dairy is a less polluting system. Animal welfare is higher. Soil life thrives, biodiversity is enhanced and our waterways run cleaner. Add in agroforestry, planting wide-spaced trees into good dairy fields, and you have a system with a potential to be carbon neutral to negative. Now that will take the shine off those fancy plant “milks”.

But why should farmers be philanthropists and take a drop in their income to go organic? Here’s where organic farming keeps on giving. Kelleher has run the numbers on the average farm, and found that a farmer can earn €18,000 more a year by farming fewer cows organically. The milk cheque is smaller, but it is more than offset by the organic farm payment and the reduction in costs, not to mention the reduction in stress of the intensive dairy person’s lifestyle. Organic dairy is a system where taxpayers and consumers can subsidise a solution. It is the epitome of the “less but better” idea. Like André in the old butter ad, there is something we can do to help, if more of us could put a bit of organic butter on the spuds.