A new Masters course in organic and biological agriculture has been launched at Waterford Institute of Technology.

The course has been described as the first of its kind in Ireland and was developed in partnership with the National Organic Training Skillnet (NOTS).

September of this year will see the first intake of graduates to the MSc in organic and biological agriculture but another 10 new flexible courses have also been put together by WIT's Department of Science.

These are designed to help farmers, producers and growers with organic and biological practices.

The courses were launched today by Senator Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity, who said WIT is one of the largest providers of land sciences education in Ireland and already has undergraduate degrees in agriculture, agricultural science, food science, forestry, horticulture and land management.

"Farmers, advisors and policy-makers need an increased level of knowledge and understanding of soil health and organic farming, so I am delighted to see this Masters in Organic and Biological Agriculture becoming available," she said.

"I am sure the breadth of flexible study options will be very attractive and will help hugely in our drive towards developing organic agriculture here to levels experienced across Europe."

The Government's targets for organic farming are "sizeable," according to the minister.

At the moment 2% of our land is used for organic production and the aim is to increase that from 90,000 hectares to 350,000 hectares, or 7.5% of land.

"It's a big task but a very worthwhile one, as it is also an important step in helping us reach our commitments to climate action through a reduction in greenhouse gases, and improved biodiversity and water quality."

Other courses developed at WIT include certificates in soil health and water management, crop management, livestock management, food health and nutrition, agroforestry and landscape biodiversity, project management and marketing, and research methods in biological agriculture.

Professor Peter McLoughlin, Head of the School of Science and Computing, said these programmes were based on a needs assessment carried out in conjunction with NOTS, farmers, growers, and producers on the ground.

"Course content has been developed by staff with expertise in key areas, with many actively engaged in research and farming. The programme will also be informed by organic growers and producers in Ireland."

Sean McGloin, Manager of NOTS, said they had identified an increased demand for, and interest in, "specific areas including soil biology and health, more integrated approaches to livestock management and the strategic use of agro-forestry to enhance on-farm biodiversity".

New programmes like this "will help growers and producers to enhance their knowledge and skills," he said.

The programme leader is John Geraghty who said the new courses are suited to farmers not already implementing organic or biological agriculture on the ground.

"The skills and knowledge will help conventional farmers change methods and practices. That's where the real change will happen.

"It will give a scientific foundation to implementing practical changes farmers on the ground can use to deliver productive and profitable crop and livestock production.

"Many farmers are looking to transition to low input systems.

"As well as the climate imperative there are very practical reasons such as cost reduction for farmers to upskill in organic and biological agriculture practices."