Address by Most Rev Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel & Emly, to the Thurles Chamber of Commerce

14 Dec 2005






“I do not believe that the two objectives of assisting poor farmers of the
developing world and maintaining a strong farming force in vibrant rural communities
in Ireland … are incompatible” – Archbishop Clifford

This week the sixth ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)
takes place in Hong Kong. The Ministers for Agriculture and Development from a
record number of 148 countries have come together to negotiate new terms of
international trade with a view to opening up world markets to the developing
countries. This time there is a higher representation of developing countries
and they intend to fight their corner against the EU and the US who have tended
to dominate these talks in the past.

The Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs issued a position paper entitled,
“Promoting Fairness of Trade: The Challenge to Eliminate Poverty” in the run up to
the Hong Kong Conference. This Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference is
comprised of five bishops and a number of eminent and very committed lay people,
two religious sisters and a priest secretary. Their position paper shows a depth
of reflection and experience of poverty in less developed countries (LDCs). They
very naturally make the elimination of such extreme poverty their main priority.
They wish to give the poorest people in the world, 1.2 billion of whom earn only
a dollar a day now, access to world markets. They see agricultural subsidies and
tariffs, generally, as impacting negatively on the economies of the world’s LDCs.

I agree with almost everything which this Commission has said in its statement and
I thank the members for the work that they are doing on behalf of the Bishops’
Conference and the Irish Church. I share their concern for the poor farmers of
Africa. I have been to Uganda and to Malawi with Bóthar and have seen, at first
hand, the poverty of the small holders but also their desire to improve their lot,
given the opportunity to do so.

All I wish is to add to the views of the Commission for Justice and Social Affairs
is how its proposals, if fully accepted in Hong Kong, would impact negatively on
Irish farmers and on rural Ireland and indeed on rural Europe particularly if they
were introduced within a short timeframe.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the target of much criticism from many quarters
for years now, was set up originally to encourage food production when food was scarce
in Europe. It became of victim of its own success. By the late 1970’s there
were butter-mountains and wine lakes. But the CAP has been reformed a number of times
since then, most recently in 2003 AD with the introduction of decoupled support
payments which are no longer linked to current production. The Single Farm Payment
means that it is no longer necessary for farmers to produce a particular product.
But there is a cross-compliance requirement that land must be kept in good agricultural
condition and the environmental and animal welfare conditions must be respected.
Farmers’ production choices will, for the future, be determined by what the market
wants rather than by the range of subsidies on offer. Farmers received their first
payment only very recently.

Irish farmers must be forgiven for looking on the future with some trepidation.
Their incomes have been falling behind since the mid-nineties when compared with
other sectors. Farmers sons and daughters are not willing in many cases to take
up farming. They prefer to take jobs in the town or city where the hours are shorter
and the pay and social life are better. Many farmers now take up part-time jobs to
supplement their incomes. While this helps, the experience tends to be that the children
of part-time farmers tend not to follow in their parents’ footsteps as part-time farmers
but tend rather to use farming merely as a leisure pursuit or sell off most of the
land to larger land holders.

If proposals for the removal of all farm subsidies were to take effect immediately it
would accelerate the flight from the land and decimate the rural population. At present,
there are officially 120,000 farmers with a further 40,000 working in the food industry.
Following the “rule of thumb” that each job in the production sector supports another
job in the services sector, the agri-food sector accounts for a total of 320,000 people,
16% of national employment and about 30% of employment outside cities and major urban
centres. Provincial towns like Thurles rely on the rural hinterland for much of their
business. But the number of farmers is declining at the rate of 1.5% per annum. More
alarming statistics have been advanced but I would be hopeful the decline in numbers
will remain at the present rate, barring sudden or drastic changes in world trade.

Agriculture must always be seen in a broader context than food production. It goes way
beyond the economics, it makes an essential contribution not only to the economic but
also to the social viability of rural communities. Farming is the backbone of our rural communities.
If farmers do not conserve the environment and tend to the landscape who will?
Therefore, agriculture should not be treated like any other sector. It must continue
to receive public support in one form or another into the future.

I do not believe that the two objectives of assisting poor farmers of the developing
world and maintaining a strong farming force in vibrant rural communities in Ireland
and in Europe are incompatible. It is a question of giving both time and space to find
their equilibrium in the global economy.

Changes in world trade could be made gradually so that farmers in developing countries
could join world markets at their own pace, allowing our farmers comparative time to
adjust to the changes. It would be a serious error to see all developing countries as
a single bloc all having the same degree of poverty. There are two very distinct groups
of countries here: there are the very impoverished countries of Africa called ‘less
developed countries’; and, the much wealthier group such as Brazil and Argentine and
others. China is an interesting case. It has made massive inroads into the world
textile markets to the detriment of less developed countries such as Lesotho in
southern Africa. Considering its record in human rights, China’s dominance of the
textile market might well deserve as much scrutiny as farm subsidies.

LDCs should be given preferential treatment. The wealthier countries however, which
can produce food much cheaper than we can without environmental, traceability or
disease controls must not gain equal freedom of access to world markets. For example,
Irish farmers need a beef price of 2.60/kg (and their income is a direct payment)
whereas beef can be produced in Brazil for 1.30/kg. The Brazilian farmers are largely
composed of ranchers and industrial farmers. One would like to know whether their
workers receive a fair wage.

A homely example would be the housewife putting food out for birds during frost or snow.
Placed in the open, the larger birds take all the food and leave the little birds to starve.
The birdfeeder was invented to ensure fair-trade between the birds! I believe that we would
all be in agreement with the proposals to give preferential access to the least
developed countries while access to the wealthier countries should be a different story.

But, it is just as important for the WTO to ensure that the benefits of free trade
are distributed fairly down to the small farmers or the workers as it is to give
the developing countries access to free trade. The Fairtrade movement has shown
the way in this regard. The small extra money paid by consumers for Fairtrade
coffee or tea reaches the poor farmer or his co-operative at the place of origin.
Thurles has just recently been awarded Fairtrade status. I congratulate the Town
Council and the Thurles Fairtrade Committee and all the business premises and
individuals who helped to bring this honour to Thurles.

If time and space are given and free trade and fair trade are introduced worldwide,
farmers in both the developing countries and our own Irish and European farmers will
both be enabled to make the necessary transition to their fair share of the income
needed for personal, family and community development. A delicate global balancing
act on the part of the WTO is called for here.

New opportunities will certainly come to farmers in the near future. For example,
rising oil prices may hasten the change to bio fuels. Rape seed oil could be the
crop of the future. The removal of excise duty from bio fuels in the recent budget
could be a sign of things to come. Biomass fuels come under the same heading. So
could a greater use of wood become a means of generating recyclable energy. Ireland
can grow trees twice as fast as in Sweden and we are under-forested. Wind energy is
another environmentally friendly resource which is growing in popularity. These
are just a few examples, I leave others to the inventive powers of our rural people.
But, such initiatives will only become economically viable if they receive financial
strong backing from Governments.

The sudden removal of all EU supports from Agriculture overnight would certainly be
a disaster, not only for farmers but for rural communities generally. But, if the
process is managed carefully over a period, the transition to new methods of farming
will be successful. But it is essential that Irish farmers maintain a strong food
producing capacity. Global trade assumes a global environment free from major conflicts.
There is no guarantee that future conflicts will not leave us to rely on our own food
production again at some future date.

The future of rural Ireland depends on the presence of a confident, self-reliant
farming population on into the future. Oliver Goldsmith’s warning in the
“Deserted Village” is still valid:
“But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
when once destroyed, can never be supplied”.

Further information:
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm Communications Officer (087 233 7797)