Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at Bloom 2022
Bloom, Phoenix Park, Thursday, 2nd June, 2022
Tá áthas an domhan orm a bheith anseo libh inniu agus muid ag chur tús oifigiúil le Bord Bia Bloom 2022.
May I say how delighted I am to be with you all today as we officially open Bord Bia Bloom 2022.
Bloom is always a joyous and uplifting occasion, but this year the excitement is heightened given its full return to the Phoenix Park, having been a virtual event for the past two years during the Covid-19 pandemic.
May I take this occasion to congratulate Bord Bia for the successful Bloom at Home events which they co-ordinated over the past two years in the conditions of Covid which ensured that the nation could continue to participate, even if it had to be virtually, enjoying by reflection and anticipation, if at a distance, the positive physical and mental health benefits of gardening. We must also acknowledge too, as it is so important, Bord Bia’s supporting the indigenous horticulture and food and drink sector during a time of unprecedented crisis.
I would also like to add my voice in support of those commercial producers who have stayed with the production of vegetables. Perhaps now less than 100 and declining. We should be doing all we can to address their needs which are unique, including in terms of how often damaging retail practices have the consequences of these producers’ produce being sold as loss leaders, below he cost of production. It is a shrinking community of producers, that are vital if we are to be serious about sustainable food production.
The work of Bord Bia, in promoting the best of Irish artisan food, not only to raise awareness, but secure commitment on important societal issues such as climate change and sustainable food production, cannot be overstated in terms of its importance.
This year we return to the beautiful surrounds of the Phoenix Park, and I understand that 11,000 visitors are expected to be welcomed to the event over the coming days. Having already viewed some of the wonderful showgardens, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those involved behind the scenes in preparing for Bloom 2022.
May I commend again Bord Bia’s tradition of facilitating and supporting some of Ireland’s well-known charities and not-for-profit organisations who will benefit from the attendance and activities over the course of the festival.
The pandemic, brutal and devastating as it has been for so many, reminded us all of the importance of nature in our lives as a great source of succour, connection and resonance with the world.
It has been, I hope also, a reminder of the great extent to which we are connected to, and depend on, healthy and vibrant ecosystems for our health, our food, our medicines, our shelter and the energy we use.
The pandemic has forced us all to interact with familiar surroundings in new ways. While bedrooms became offices, gardens and the areas within walking distance of home became wildlife-watching spots and locations for exercise. Nature has been a source of solace for many, as lockdowns heightened our appreciation for local parks and green spaces. It was easier for some more than others to achieve that valuable access.
I am quite concerned that our public spaces be available to all our citizens, irrespective of age or circumstances and that we plan, and provide facilities for that access. My attention has been drawn to how there has been, in some parts of our park, a reduction in older people making the walks, they find the distance they have to walk after parking, too far. We should facilitate the usage by all ages from our families to those in the evening of their lives. I believe it is a great pity if our parks become a space only for the fittest. There should be facilities for dropping people off.
We are now experiencing the consequences of Covid. Isolation, anxiety and lockdown fatigue contributed to a decline in mental health during the pandemic, with 57 percent of survey respondents reporting in a survey form the Central Statistics Office that the pandemic had impacted negatively on their mental health.
The good news is that there is evidence that the natural environment has helped many people to cope with negative feelings such as increased anxiety. Statistics tell us too that people spent more time outdoors in nature during the pandemic.
Use of parks and recreational areas, including forests, beaches and lakes, all increased. Green and outdoor spaces appear to have played an important role in allowing people to see their loved ones during periods of isolation.
New research has shown how, when it is made possible, the increase in recreational use of natural environments has resulted in improved health and wellbeing and a significantly decreased risk of lifestyle diseases.
Indeed, the pandemic has brought about changes in the lifestyle, norms and attitudes of people in many ways, some of which will remain over the longer term – such as the establishment of regular exercise habits in urban parks, and increased awareness of the importance of nature experiences.
However, not everyone has equal access to the green space they need to improve their personal wellbeing. There is a clear connection between how people have been using the outdoors under coronavirus restrictions and the distance between green spaces and their doorstep. Surveys reveal how those living closer to their nearest public green space were more likely to visit than those living further away.
This of course is such a fundamental and obvious truth which makes its absence from so many plans and planning decisions so utterly bizarre and regrettable. Such a finding underlines the importance of nature, of its crucial role in appropriate housing and spatial planning policies, of every citizen having access to green spaces and the natural world, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban settings.
We might well ask how many of the most dense planning applications refer to parks or shared amenity provision? The big difference between the new arrivals in planning applications for high-rise buildings in so many instances in Ireland, and the rest of Europe, is the absence of parks and other amenities, which is also, sadly in living terms, accompanied by limited spaces unsuitable for families.
Yes, the pandemic has allowed many of us to develop a new appreciation of the great outdoors, but this renewed engagement with nature comes at a time when our natural world is facing an unparalleled climate crisis delivered by a dysfunctional connection between economics, social cohesion and ecology.
Becoming more conscious of the ways in which humans and the natural world are inextricably connected is now more vital than ever. As a society, we must regain our resonance with the world – with nature and each other – if we have any hope of avoiding the bequeathment to the next generations of a hostile and volatile Planet Earth. At the moment we are not winning. We must all co-operate to do better.
Our basic human morality surely suggests that it is indefensible that another 100 million people be doomed to extreme poverty by 2030 should we fail to honour the commitments we have made to tackle climate change as expressed through the United Nations 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement, and the consensus, limited as it is, agreed at COP26 in Glasgow last year.
The need for collective action addressing the climate crisis becomes more evident every month. Reports from the international scientific community produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are piling up year after year, all steering us to the inescapable fact that we are in dire circumstances with regard to our planetary ecological imbalance.
Our planet burns. The position in which we find ourselves is a damning indictment of failed climate leadership at the global level.
Biodiversity, too, has been rapidly declining and is contributing to ecosystem collapse. What an extraordinary statistic it is that wild animals have declined by 85 percent since the rise of humans. More than a million species (a quarter of all living things) are believed to be on the verge of extinction, with an average 60 percent decline in animal populations since 1970 – including 40 percent of amphibians, 26 percent of mammals and 33 percent of corals. The current rate of biodiversity loss is 1,000 times higher than the historical rate.
The human race inherited the planet at the most diverse it has ever been. Yet, from the arrival of the Anthropocene and the hegemony of insatiable expansion and greed in the name of progress for the benefit of the few, we seem to be locked into a path to destruction. There is a moral and ethical perspective from which we should respect the rights of those species, with which we share the planet, to co-exist with humans and to flourish.
While it is undeniable that nature has as much of a right to be here as we do, and that we should protect it for its own sake, it is simultaneously true that saving the planet is not only about saving nature, it is about saving humanity. The timeframe in which we must transform our world into one that makes space for a recovered respect for nature is perilously short, and every opportunity to affect the needed changes must be seized.
The urgency of the crisis demands it, and the time for action is now.
When I look around the audience today, I see engaged citizens still full of wonder who are biodiversity’s greatest allies. As gardeners, horticulturalists and lovers of plants, you have an expertise we need, one that should be given more attention. It is you who will have witnessed how climate change and biodiversity loss are happening at an alarming rate.
You have observed the phenomenon of ‘season creep’ – how plants are flowering earlier, how trees open their leaves earlier, how plants and trees are more vulnerable to disease from elongated growing seasons, how extreme drought and increased frequency and severity of storms are impacting your gardens and fields.
You have been telling us, and I agree with you, that there is an urgent need to elevate the agenda for biodiversity conservation as well as that for climate change, both in Ireland and in the international context.
Reversing biodiversity loss requires all of us to be leaders within our own spheres of influence – in our homes, our places of work, our circles of friends, our schools and universities, in our communities of place and of faith – to demonstrate the message that our biodiversity, our natural heritage, is our right, but also our responsibility.
Simple actions can make a huge difference. For example, the way we lay out gardens, take care with appropriate landscape management, can, through a suitable selection of plants and trees, contribute to supporting wildlife and enhancing biodiversity in our immediate surroundings. Retaining and protecting our native hedgerows plays a hugely important role in biodiversity and in the mitigation of climate change.
Use of natural surfaces over hard landscaping also has tremendous benefits for biodiversity. Cutting the grass less frequently, or not at all, is also so advantageous for wildlife. Responsible use of nitrogen-based fertiliser, too, is so important.
Since I published a biodiversity audit of the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin in 2021, I requested the Office for Public Works to undertake a number of measures to improve and restore species-rich grasslands, creating habitats for insects, pollinators, birds and mammals to nest in. Swift boxes have been installed and new beehives are now in the vegetable garden.
Wildlife-friendly gardening focuses on native flowers, and I am heartened to see that a focus of Bloom continues to be on indigenously grown flowers and trees, and that climate change and sustainability is a focus for some of Ireland’s top gardeners showcasing their talents at Bloom this year.
Mar fhocal scor is mian liom samhradh glaíntiúil a ghuí oraibh go léir, in bhur ngairdíní, bhur ngoirt, agus ar bhur mbalcóiní, agus sibhse ag ceiliúradh aoibhneas agus pléisiúr an nádúir, ag mothú cré sna lámha, agus ag glacadh páirt i dtodhchaí níos éiceolaíche, níos inbhuanaithe.
May I conclude by wishing you all a most enjoyable summer in your gardens, in your fields, on your balconies, celebrating the joys of nature and the feel of the soil in your hands, playing your part in the achievement of an ecological, sustainable future.