Media Library


Speech at National Ploughing Championships

Ratheniska, Co. Laois, 19 September 2023

Mo bhuíochas le cairde eagraithe an Comórtais Treabhdóireachta Náisiúnta as ucht an cuireadh bheith libh do’n ‘Ploughing’ mar a tugtar ar go coitianta.

Is mór an onóir dom filleadh ar Ráth an Uisce, agus muid ag ceiliúradh an ócáid rí-speisialta seo, tús Comórtais Náisiúnta Treabhdóireachta 2023.

(May I say how delighted I am to return here today to Ratheniska, as we celebrate this very special occasion, the start of the National Ploughing Championships 2023.)

As President of Ireland, may I extend a warm welcome to all of the participants and visitors from both Ireland and abroad and my hope is that you enjoy your time here.

May I take the opportunity of extending my congratulations to the entire organizing team of the National Ploughing Association. I do so with a special mention for Anna May McHugh, who, having first taken up the post in 1973, this year is celebrating 50 years of contributing to what has become known to all as ‘The Ploughing’, a remarkable achievement.

May I pay tribute to the people of Ratheniska, neighbouring farmers who generously provided acres of farmland for ploughing, exhibitions, and parking, to the entire infrastructure that makes ‘the Ploughing’ possible, An Garda Síochána, Laois County Council, and the numerous volunteers from all over the country who serve as judges, supervisors, and stewards. May I pay tribute to all the clubs and organizations that collaborated to create this joyful and inspiring event.

On a sad note, may I also pay tribute to Carrie Acheson, who passed away in January at the age of 88. Carrie played a central role in these championships as the public address announcer for almost 40 years. Her warm, engaging personality will be greatly missed this year.

While the core of The Ploughing is an international ploughing contest, it has evolved into a diverse event showcasing livestock, machinery, crafts, and more, reflecting all that is engaging with our modern, rural Ireland.

Over the next three days, we will have the chance to take part in this celebration of Irish rural life in the fullest sense, to connect with those close to nature, who care for it, opportunities too to explore the advice and innovations on offer for the achievement of the ecological, social and economic goals to which we are committed. 

New measures and the resources to achieve them are not just important, but now urgent for all of us and future generations. Life in rural Ireland is not just a zone of production, continually intentioned to meet ever-changing market conditions. It is a space of living, composed of diverse communities. People in rural Ireland are well aware of the balances required for healthy living, clean water and a sustainable lifestyle.

Such balance is vital for our farming communities, who are, in a proximate sense, the custodians of our land and our natural environment. The State, all of its agencies and all of us must be co-operating partners in responding to the devastating loss, and in some cases destruction, of biodiversity, and of ensuring the possibility of handing on a habitable planet

The Secretary-General of the United Nations has, with explicit language, told us that the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is moving away from us. We are failing. The darkest period has begun, with those who have least contributed to the consequences of evident change paying the highest price.

The annual deficit in pledged funding for achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals has increased from $2.5 trillion before the pandemic to $4.2 trillion today. 800 million of the world’s population are facing hunger and up to 52 economies are facing a default position in relation to debt.

As I speak, the United Nations is reviewing the halfway point in the achievement of what I have often described as one of the greatest human achievements in diplomacy. That is the Sustainable Development Goals agreed in New York in 2015, for achievement by 2030.

From its inception, the challenge in relation to the SDGs was as to whether we would go for a deep change in the relationship between economy, ecology and social justice, or whether we would seek to adjust an existing model of correction that a great body of the scholarship was telling us was failing to achieve any balance and was destructive in ecological, economic, social and political terms.

Adjustment has failed, deeper change is necessary, and is now accepted that we need to refocus at every level, including reforms to the international financial architecture, as is acknowledged in ‘Our Common Agenda Policy Brief 6: Reforms to the International Financial Architecture’, published by the United Nations in May 2023.

We are at a point of multiple crises. We are, all of us, as citizens, producers, consumers, farmers, asked to play a critical role in combating some of our greatest challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Change is not easy, but it is unavoidable for survival itself, and I applaud all of the efforts that are being made towards creating a sustainable future. I encourage our farmers to continue on the path of change, transcend difficulties by designing strategies of implementation, and lead the way in adopting sustainable practices that can be demonstrated as successes to the farming community, ones that safeguard our environment. 

I acknowledge that change is difficult.  Responsible, ecological agricultural production is not the same as the ever more intensive, market responsive production, as has been advocated and promoted over the years by bodies such as the European Commission. I am convinced, however, that not only in Ireland but in Europe, farming in its real sense will have to be supported by direct payments. That farm families’ futures will not be secured if left to be determined solely by the market. Farming, as a life and a culture, has an intrinsic bonding value between nature, the lived environment itself and communal life.

The bond between farming, soil, nature’s renewal, food production and the environment is inseparable. Farmers, through the generations, have possessed unparalleled insights into the connection between climate and the repercussions of unpredictable seasons, droughts, shifting seasonal patterns, and intense storms, all of which have now become a lived experienced brought about by climate change with the attendant decline in biodiversity that is increasingly apparent.

Those actively engaged in land cultivation, intimately connected with the soil, the hedgerows, the fields, can appreciate the evidence before them. They hold a profound understanding of the rapid decline in both plant and animal species. As such, the residents of rural Ireland constitute vital participants in the pressing mission to reform practices, fostering our pursuit of survival and sustainability.

I am delighted to see that sustainability plays a central role once again on the Stands at this year's championships. Numerous eco-friendly initiatives are in place, including here as is exemplified by the NPA's endorsement of recyclable products, the conversion of food waste into energy via anaerobic digestion, the installation of solar-powered lighting towers, and the introduction of waste separation operations on-site.

Rural Europe has to recover farming as a sustainable set of practices.  Sole reliance on market targets, ever prone to fluctuation, has produced the uncertainties that threaten those involved in agriculture in Europe. If farming as a way of life is to be sustainable in practice, it will require the security of better socially designed supports. 

We debated such issues a long time ago, long before U.S. style agriculture production became such an influence on European Union agricultural policies at Commission level.

Indeed, I think it is timely, as we move toward the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Agricultural Commission next year, to consider the significance of the Minority Report of that Commission, written by Tom Johnson and Michael Duffy, which convincingly made the case for the achieving of food security and the jobs associated with it as part of a social policy. Their proposal was for an agriculture that included, indeed privileged, tillage, local markets and that avoided dependency.

Tom Johnson and Michael Duffy highlighted in their Minority Report to the 1924 Agricultural Commission the value of tillage in creating jobs and eliminating food dependency, while providing a produce which could primarily be sold locally rather than for export. In this way, they proposed a form of farming that could foster strong local communities, creating both sustainable jobs and ensuring a dependable local food supply which could benefit farmers and agricultural labourers alike.

That was a proposal for its time.  It was socially based.  Their proposal was rejected by supporters of the Majority Report, who favoured what was seen as the unstoppable march of the cattle economy.

One hundred years later, there remains the lessons of farsightedness which can be taken for creating a sustainable food supply both in Ireland and in those countries throughout the world which continue to suffer from deeply concerning levels of food insecurity.

Feeding our planet’s people with necessary nutritious food has to be achieved in a new way, one that allows for sustainability. This is made difficult by the fractured nature of the institutional architecture dealing with food security. There is not one forum where the diverse, often contradictory, aims can be discussed. We have a set of silos, often divided within, that represent not only different policies, but reflect different interests.

As I stand before you today, I am mindful not only of the discussions taking place at the United Nations in New York, but also of the upcoming U.N. Food Summit in Rome next month. Earlier this year in Senegal, at the invitation of the President of the African Development Bank Dr Akinwumi Adesina and the President of Senegal and then Chairperson of the African Union Macky Sall, I presented papers on food security at the second Dakar summit on food sovereignty and sustainability. I will be participating in the further discussion of this topic next month in Rome.

Food security regained global attention after projections indicating a planetary population of 10 billion by 2050. The challenge is to provide appropriate food in terms of nutrition to our fellow global citizens and to do so without jeopardizing further the ecological balance of the planet, in short to achieve the most basic of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – Number 2, the goal to end hunger and achieve food security.

The scale of the current global hunger and malnutrition crisis is enormous. What an urgent challenge it is today that across the planet over 800 million people are affected by hunger. Ever more new and urgent work needs to be undertaken to achieve the aims of Goal Number 2. To achieve Goal Number 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals requires making new models that have regional and national agency. Adjusting existing models is clearly insufficient, be it in production, transport or storage. The migration of science and technology to areas of dense population has not only to be made possible, but resourced.

In Somalia, some of the world’s most vulnerable people are once again threatened with famine, sourced in the worst drought in 40 years, having experienced five consecutive failed rainy seasons since 2020.  Seven million people, more than a third of the country’s population, are facing crisis levels of hunger or worse this year. Approximately 1.8 million Somali children under the age of five are suffering from acute hunger due to this predictable and preventable famine crisis.

Decisively confronting the pressing issues of global hunger and food insecurity is imperative. Together, we must continue to build on efforts to allocate the necessary attention and resources to the transformation of agri-food systems that is required, ensuring they are suited, by regulation if necessary, to meet the demands of our modern world’s population, thus making a meaningful contribution to the crisis of global migration.

We need to see what is an emerging global consciousness reflected in innovative models of food sufficiency. Existing trade structures, and struggles for hegemony, exacerbate rather than assist. The Sustainable Development Goals have gained in global consciousness, but the international banking system, trade and debt arrangements are ploughing a different furrow.

By fostering new inclusive, resilient, efficient, and sustainable agri-food systems, we have the potential to simultaneously combat climate change, enhance biodiversity, and restore ecosystems. Alongside the environmental benefits, such systems can serve as a foundation for food security in diverse settings, promote better nutrition through the adoption of better more localised practices that will include as part of a new system agro-ecological practices, thus paving the way for a more equitable future, benefiting people from all walks of life.

Beyond the present crises, this approach is being promoted by new African scholarship. Ireland, which is acceptable as a source of innovation in Africa, can give valuable assistance in these projects.

Globally, the challenges we face call for innovative solutions. Food security, in Africa for example, currently is based on a set of limited resources that have to be secured on the global market, that are prone to speculative markets or in the control of monopolies, be it in terms of goods transportation or storage. Many in Africa are caught in a deepening food dependency, compounded by debt. Debt service, already deflecting resources from public education, makes a local or national response to climate change near impossible.

New models in the future such as agro-ecology, a marriage of ecological principles and agricultural practice, have the potential to reshape our relationship with the land, offering sustainable pathways, but it is not a sufficient immediate response. Food aid is required now, but such humanitarian responses, however, are not sufficient.  We need to stop ignoring the structural sources of food insecurity, address issues of monopoly in seeds, access to land rights by women, input costs and unfair subsidies driving dependency.

Our nation's commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Agreement, which constitutes some of the great foundations for international action and cooperation on climate change, demands that we champion sustainable farming practices that conserve our natural resources, reduce emissions, and promote biodiversity. By embracing innovation and supporting sustainable initiatives, we can lead the way in responsible agricultural practices, reduce our carbon footprint and improve the quality of our soil, water, and air.

To do this, however, we must agree how to justly manage transactions, be willing to pay for the transition to sustainability.  We all have to change and the rewards are not just about our survival. They acknowledge the moral basis for intergenerational justice.

However, the recent Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report reveals weak or insufficient progress on over 50% of targets, with 30% stalled or regressing, including critical objectives related to poverty, hunger, and climate. It is crucial to unite, to work together and achieve these Goals of which ensuring food sufficiency for a growing population is a necessary part.

Some of the worst aspects of climate change are, sadly and regrettably, already occurring.  Farmers know this and they know that like all of us, they will need to adapt to ensure that they can continue to make a livelihood from the land. Drought-tolerant variety cultivation, shorter duration variety cultivation, adjustments to farming calendars, adjustments to irrigation frequency and levels, changing fertiliser inputs, and in some case shifting towards different crops as well as undertaking off-farm activities are all strategies that will be examined. Farmers are already involved in much of this agenda.

Nothing, may I suggest, would be more damaging than a false dichotomy of rural versus urban, or of sustainability versus a clinging to an antipathy to change.

I know that I am not alone in recognising the invaluable contributions of our farming sector and their anxiety for and commitment to ensuring that rural Ireland not only survives but thrives in the face of the challenges that lie ahead. Our rural producers of food, which includes those who farm as a way of life, are playing a vital role in shaping the very fabric of our nation in providing us with sustenance and nourishment.

Farming and the family farm in particular is at the very core of rural life.  Industrial-style agricultural production is what the European Commission in many sectors promoted without a consideration of its social impact.  Change is now necessary and urgent.  If it is too slow the ecological consequences are grave.

Agriculture remains a significant component of our economy. The statistics speak volumes. It sustains over 170,000 jobs across Ireland.  Agri-food exports account for 9.5% of total Irish exports, with an annual value of €15 billion. 

We have products with an excellent reputation, but our challenge now is to retain that value and reputation in the conditions of sustainability. We must avoid the trap of following the example of those countries who not only avoid sustainability but continue with damaging practices. We must give leadership and we will be respected for it.

In achieving our goals, it may be useful to revisit the strong case for regionalism. The region, as a concept, recognises diversity and it may be more effective as a base.

We have to move past any uncritical acceptance of existing structures that allow, on one side, rural decay and on the other urban diseconomies with ever-unplanned expansion.  We need to allow regionalism a place in our planning discourse.

To truly harness our potential, we must seize the opportunity to recognise the potential of rural Ireland in our strategies for sustainability, and invest in our communities to achieve this. I share the concerns we are aware of over the closure of essential services in rural areas, be it Post offices, Garda stations, or banking services. Credit Unions are giving an example by staying with their communities. They, and other vital institutions, are the lifeblood of our communities.  They must be given, by legislation if necessary, the necessary space and opportunities for redesign and expansion.

There is a huge difference between recognizing farming, as a way of life, and any narrow alternative such as mass production for an unregulated market. Farming as a way of life will need protection in terms of transfers. Consumers will need to recognize too that such price and market adjustments as are necessary to achieve sustainability of rural life will require adjustments in consumer behaviour.

It is imperative that we continue investing in rural areas by retaining and enhancing services and by developing new facilities, infrastructure and public amenities to make rural living ever more appealing. Investment in rural communities is absolutely necessary for the achievement of equality of citizenship, democratic participation and a “Just Transition” to a sustainable economy.

Respect for farming and food production as essential parts of our capacity for living together is paramount.  May I repeat the concerns I have for the vulnerability of primary producers in an increasingly concentrated retail environment dominated by a few players who employ unfair practices, exploit producers and distort the producer-consumer relationship, hindering sustainability.

At Bloom last year I spoke of how the declining prices of fresh horticultural produce have squeezed primary food producers' margins, already exacerbated by the current high-inflation environment, thus posing a grave threat to Ireland's primary food production viability.

We must put an end to the destructive practice of below-cost retail. In these challenging times, consumers should support those who sustainably produce our food. Fair prices are not just good business practice, they are a matter of justice. Our food producers, hardworking farmers deserve equitable compensation, to be rewarded fairly for their hard work and dedication, and I continue to advocate for efforts to support farmers in their calls for fair prices for their produce.

May I conclude by recognizing agriculture's invaluable contribution to Irish society, especially in rural areas. Throughout our history, our farming communities and families have consistently demonstrated their resilience in overcoming challenges.

We can, and we will, together, if we turn a global consciousness of our perilous position into national practical and transparent actions that are collective and sustainable, meet the challenges of the future – address hunger, global food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss, thus feeding, with nutritious food, the planet’s expanding population. In doing this, we can, in the process, safeguard our farm families and rural communities, and advance the achievement of an inclusive and just Republic.

I am well aware that those who live in rural Ireland, our farming communities, are both locally and internationally minded.  Just consider how they respond to humanitarian appeals. They will, I know, respond to a foreign policy that identifies in their name with the work of transformation that is under way in so many parts of our planet, affected by a climate change for which they made such little contribution to its causes. Africa, for example is responsible for 4 percent of emissions yet bears the consequences through desertification, loss of livelihood, forced migration, poverty and hunger.

Wherever we live in Ireland, I am sure we will want to respond to not only our own agenda for sustainability, but to be partners also with those who are fighting for survival in the most populated continents.

Tá ról lárnach ag feirmeoirí, a dteaghlaigh, agus gach duine atá páirteach san earnáil feirmeoireachta san iarracht seo. Is mór agam an tiomantas leanúnach, agus an tsolúbthacht a léiríonn sibh agus muid ag tabhairt faoi athrú cóir chuig geilleagar agus sochaí inbhuanaithe.

(Farmers, their families, and all involved in the farming sector play a pivotal role in this endeavour. I appreciate their ongoing dedication and the flexibility they show, and are willing to show, as we move toward a just transition to a sustainable economy and society.)

As we face a world of uncertainties, let us remember the strength that lies within the feeling of togetherness, of shared vulnerability of a recovered respect for nature, for our soil and our people. By investing, ensuring sustainability, and fostering innovation, we can create a future where rural and urban Ireland flourishes and interacts with mutual respect, responsibility and an energising strategy for fulfilment and hope in the future.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir, agus tá súil agam go mbeidh am iontach sásuil agus consparadúil agaibh ag an gComórtas Náisiúnta Treabhdóireachta 2023.

Thank you, and I wish you all an enjoyable and fulfilling experience at the National Ploughing Championships 2023.