Address by Archbishop Dermot Clifford at the Lismullin Farming Seminar

01 Feb 2010

1 February 2010

Address by Archbishop Dermot Clifford at the Lismullin Farming Seminar

“The Importance of Farming in a Changing World”

Lismullin, Navan, Co Meath

“The cry of the earth calls for a local environmental audit”


  • The true meaning of God’s original command, as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility……..nature is not at our disposal as a “heap of scattered refuse”.
  • Failure to control climate change will lead to millions of environmental refugees, whose habitat has been destroyed, a rise in the number of conflicts within and between nations over scarce water, more frequent famines due to drought and an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes and floods.
  • Farmers will also continue to care for the countryside as they have been doing through REPS for many years now and in whatever comes to replace REPS. Our farmers are the custodians of rural Ireland. I sometimes think that they are the custodians of the common sense of the nation as well!
  • Irish farmers will face risks and challenges when they set about reversing climate change. They will have to make the same sacrifices as all of us.
  • The rights to sufficient and nutritious food and to clean water are universal human rights without distinction or discrimination as Pope Benedict told the World Food Summit some time ago.

I wish to thank you for inviting me to address your seminar this afternoon here in Lismullin Conference Centre.  By happy coincidence we meet on the Feast of St Brigid, famously described as a “woman of the land”.  Legend has it that when she approached a Kildare farmer for land for her monastery, he told her all he could give her was what her veil could cover.  She placed her veil in the middle of the field and it miraculously grew to cover the whole field!  In Donegal, there was a tradition on the Feast Day of St Brigid, that the head of the household threw a cake of bread against the door and proclaimed the following prayer, “Through the prayers of St Brigid I banish all hunger and famine from this house for a year and a day to the land of the Turks”.   What he meant was the ends of the earth, of which he thought Turkey was the last outpost!

Her feast is traditionally regarded as the beginning of Spring so it is fitting that we look forward with hope to better weather than we have been experiencing for the past two or three months if not the past two or three years.  Woody Allen once remarked that “everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”  More and more people talk about climate and climate change but what are we doing about it and, in particular, what are our farmers going to do about it?

Coming up to Christmas, climate change was very much in the news.  The Irish Bishops’ Conference published a Pastoral Reflection on the subject entitled The Cry of the Earth.   Since Bishops are not experts in the science of climatology, we asked the scientists to assist in that department and among them was Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban Missionary from Nenagh, Co Tipperary and Dalgan Park down the road.  Also, Professor John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth – one of the members of the Nobel Prize winning IPPC Team in 2007.

The Pastoral Reflection was published in the run-up to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in early December.  Prior to this, some sceptics got publicity when they published e-mails from East Anglia University.  It was claimed that the climate change researchers covered up results that were unfavourable to their cause. But when high powered representatives from 170 countries attended the Conference it was clear that climate change and global warming are being taken very seriously all across the world. Even the sceptics must hesitate before rejecting such overwhelming scientific consensus on the basis of prudence, at the very least.  The Bishops’ Pastoral called this the “Precautionary Principle”.

Then came the frost, snow and black ice at Christmas and for the weeks which followed. The faith of many in climate change was temporarily shaken!  When the Minister for the Environment was seeking to organise grit for the roads and clean water for people whose pipes had frozen or burst, he was asked about global warming.  “We won’t go there today” he said.

But, weather and climate are not the same thing, as I said earlier and we would need to have eighteen to twenty similar cold spells in a row to claim that the climate change was reversing.  The Irish Times editorial heading “Global Cooling” was soon contradicted by the news that Greenland had a milder winter than normal with a rise in temperature of 3.3°C – admittedly it was still -35°C! The world’s temperature has risen by 0.74°C in the past hundred years.  This might seem small but its effects are being felt already in many parts of the world especially in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Islands in the Pacific.  A further rise to 2°C could take us to tipping point where things might get out of control.

A very significant moment in the UN Conference in Copenhagen was the speech delivered by the negotiator for the tiny island of Tuvalu, an island situated in the Pacific for the present at least.  He presented himself as “a humble servant” of his government who did not want to embarrass anybody but pleaded for his country whose fate was in the hands of the Governments represented there.  He praised the President of Denmark who was in the Chair for her travels across the world to canvass the support of as many Governments as possible.

“Unfortunately, you (Madam President) he said never made it to Tuvalu, though I think you tried.  If you had made it to Tuvalu you would realise why we are concerned about this issue.  The entire population of Tuvalu lives less than two metres above sea level.  The highest point above sea-level, in the entire nation of Tuvalu is only four metres.

Madam President, he continued, we are not naïve about the political difficulties that lie before us.  It appears that we are waiting for some senators in the US Congress to conclude (a Climate Bill) before we can consider this issue properly.  It is an irony of the modern world that the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the US Congress.  We note that President Obama recently went to Norway to pick up a Nobel Prize for Peace.  We can suggest that, for him to honour this Nobel Prize, he should address the threat to humanity that we have before us – climate change.  It is also the greatest threat to security.  So I make a strong plea to work for legally binding treaties here in Copenhagen.

Madam President, this is not merely an issue for Tuvalu.  Pacific Islands countries Kiribati and the Marshall Island, countries in the Caribbean – Haiti, Bahamas and Granada, in Africa – Sam Tome and poor countries, such as Mali, Uganda and millions of other people around the world, are affected enormously by climate change.  This is not just (an issue for) Tuvalu.  During the past two days I have received calls from all over the world, offering hope that we can come to a meaningful conclusion on these issues.

Madam President, this is not just an ego-trip for me.  I have refused to do media interviews.  I am just a humble and insignificant employee of the Ministry of the Environment in Tuvalu.  And as a humble servant of the government I have to make a strong plea to you that we can consider this matter properly.  I don’t want to cause embarrassment to you or the Danish government.  I clearly wish to put before the leaders a legally binding (agreement) which they can sign up this week. I make this as a strong and passionate plea.  We have had our proposal on the table for six months, not two days (as is being implied), I woke up this morning and I was crying and that is not easy for a grown man to admit.  The fate of my country rests in your hands. Thank you.
He broke down at the end of his speech.  Incidentally, Fr Sean McDonagh represented us there and I thank him for typing this moving speech and sending it to me by e-mail.

At the New Year, Pope Benedict XVI issued his annual message for World Day of Peace entitled, “If you want to cultivate peace protect Creation (the Environment)”.  He begins with the Book of Genesis. The Creator gave our first parents the command to fill the earth and have dominion over it. The exercise of dominion meant tilling and caring for the earth.  But human beings allowed themselves be mastered by selfishness….they exploited creation out of a desire to have absolute dominion over it”.

But the true meaning of God’s original command, as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility.  The wisdom of the ancients had recognised that nature is not at our disposal as “a heap of scattered refuse”.  Biblical Revelation made us see that nature is a gift of the Creator, who gave it an inbuilt order and enabled man to draw from it the principles needed to “till it and keep it” (cf. Gen. 2:15).  Everything that exists belongs to God, who has entrusted it to man, albeit not for his arbitrary use.  Once man, instead of acting as God’s co-worker, sets himself up in place of God, he ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, “which is more tyrannized than governed by him”.

The Pope praised scientific research and, in particular, studies into the use of solar energy.  He said attention must be given to the worldwide problem of water distribution and to the global water cycle system which is of prime importance for life on earth and whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change.  Suitable strategies for rural development centred on small farmers, and their families should be explored, as well as the implementation of appropriate policies for the management of forests, for waste disposal and for strengthening the linkage between combating climate change and overcoming poverty.  Ambitious national policies are required, together with a necessary international commitment which will offer important benefits especially in the medium and long term.  There is a need, in effect, to move beyond a purely consumerist mentality in order to promote forms of agricultural and industrial production capable of respecting creation and satisfying the primary needs of all.  The ecological problem must be dealt with not only because of the chilling prospects of environmental degradation on the horizon; the real motivation must be the quest for authentic world-wide solidarity inspired by the values of charity, justice and the common good.

Failure to control climate change will lead to millions of environmental refugees, whose habitat has been destroyed, a rise in the number of conflicts within and between nations over scarce water, more frequent famines due to drought and an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes and floods. All these will be caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. This increase is due largely to human activity.  Fossil fuels are the main culprit producing carbon dioxide but methane and nitrous oxide emissions are down to agriculture and are in serious need of being controlled.

As I said, the average temperature of the world has increased by 0.74°C in the past hundred years or so.  Unless urgent action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases it will increase to 2°C and in the next thirty to forty years we will be experiencing the effects of global warming here in Ireland.  The Irish Bishops listed the likely consequences of such a rise.

(a)  Heat Waves

Many scientists now predict that there will be an increase in temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius in Ireland by the middle of this century.  By 2050, the south and west coasts of Ireland may have an average January temperature of 8°C.  This means we will experience more heat waves. Do you remember the heat waves in Europe in August 2005 which caused thousands of deaths especially in Paris!

(b)  Rainfall

It is also predicted that there will be an overall increase in rainfall, especially in winter months.  The greatest increases are expected in the north-west of Ireland.  The eastern part of the country, where the majority of the population lives, will be drier.  This will put huge pressure on public authorities, especially in terms of providing drinking water for Dublin and other cities and towns situated in the eastern part of the country.  There will be a conflict between Shannonsiders and Liffeysiders and it will not be in the fields of sport!

(c)   Agriculture

Scientists say that the uneven rainfall will have an impact on our agriculture, making it difficult to grow potatoes.  The west will be too wet and the east too dry.  Up to 20% of Ireland’s native species of plants will be vulnerable to extinction as a result of the projected rise of temperature.

These predictions, as I stated, are based on an expected 2 degree Celsius rise in the average global temperature.  We are already almost halfway to reaching this critical point – 1.3°C to go.

On the other hand, it would be possible to grow maize and even vines perhaps.  Con Houlihan, the doyen of sports journalists, once wrote a send-up of meals in up-market restaurants in which a beautiful American female student, researching the works of Joyce, wined and dined him in an exclusive restaurant near Dublin.  They began with a Pouilly Fumé ’76 which was “tart and lean”.  For the main course, Con chose a Knocknagoshel ’78 which was “bold without being brazen”!  Con woke up at that point and found it was all a dream and he was late for the League game in Croke Park!  However, it may not be too fantastic to imagine a Knocknagoshel 2038 if global warming continues apace.  The good people of Kerry’s only hill village may find themselves sleeping in mosquito nets on summer nights if this comes to pass.

The Bishops’ Pastoral Reflection The Cry of the Earth of 10 November last received good reviews generally. For example, The Irish Times commentator wrote: “The document has much to recommend it….It scores well in social justice particularly between rich (polluting) countries and the poor who must bear its costs.  Ireland’s disastrous 130 per cent increase in transport sector emission between 1990 and 2008 is rightly chided.  So too are the lax building planning regulations…”

But the Bishops failed to mention meat consumption, the commentator complained.  This is difficult to explain.  Why did it not occur to the Bishops?  Perhaps it is because the majority of them, like myself, come from farming backgrounds? I am afraid I can’t dodge the issue here today.  Indeed, the agricultural scientists and Teagasc especially are taking on the challenge and conducting studies.  Their next challenge will be to bring the farmers of Ireland up to speed so as to face the challenge of global warming.

I must now draw on a lecture given by Professor Gerry Boyle on 9 November last in Dublin Castle entitled “The Greening of Irish Agriculture – Responding to the Challenge of Climate Change”.

Agriculture accounted for 26.8% of total greenhouse emissions in 2007.  But, this has been reducing from a figure of 35% of total emissions in 1990 due to a decrease in cattle numbers.  In comparison to rest of the developed world only New Zealand has a higher proportion of emissions from agriculture.  The EU average is substantially below our level.  This is due to the importance of agriculture to our economy.  Ireland is also unusual in the share of agricultural emissions coming from livestock castle and sheep.  Over 50% of agricultural emissions is methane from enteric fermentation and most of the remainder is nitrous oxide released from soils. 

Efficiency and emissions reduction go hand in hand

It has become increasingly clear that reductions in greenhouse gases can be brought about by more efficient production systems.  Nitrogen lost to the atmosphere is also nitrogen lost to the farmer.  In other words an emissions reduction strategy can lead to “win-win” outcomes.  There is a range of agronomic practices that can also result in a reduction of greenhouse gases e.g.:

1.      Changing the timing of slurry spreading and changing the methodology of spreading can lead to a greater capture of nitrogen by grass.  This means less fertiliser use by farmers and also less gaseous emissions.

2.      Matching nitrogen usage to soil type which is a new area of research will lead to significantly lower nitrogen usage which in turn will lead to reduced emissions.

3.      A greater use of clover on farms will lead to less nitrogen used and therefore less emissions of greenhouse gases.

4.      Use of nitrate inhibitors will slow down the transformation of nitrogen in soils, which ultimately lead to less reductions in greenhouse gases.

5.      Extending the grazing season helps reduce costs on farms and reduces greenhouse gases.

6.      Increasing growth rates of cattle to enable slaughtering at a younger age helps to reduce methane production.
Through the intensive promotion  of these technologies it is expected that on dairy farms, for example, that it is feasible to reduce the greenhouse emissions per litre of milk produced by somewhere between 20% and 50% over a relatively short time period. As an aside, I recall that on our own farm in 1950, my father was invited to take part in an experiment by the local agricultural instructor.  We had a field covered with white clover and a large sign erected in the middle proclaiming, “Wild White Clover”.  We were very proud of this as we felt we were at the cutting edge of progressive farming!

Enteric fermentation

Methane is the main agricultural greenhouse gas produced in Ireland, mainly from enteric fermentation or digestion in the forestomachs of cattle and sheep.  It is a natural by-product of the digestion of feeds, particularly fibrous ones.  Teagasc is looking at abatement strategies to reduce these emissions.  These strategies include dietary modifications, additives or probiotics to reduce methane production, breed selection, increasing the length of the grazing season as grazed grass gives rise to less emissions than silage based diets, and improved pasture quality.  The breeding of more efficient animals producing more product from given amount of feed, and thus have less emissions per kg of milk or meat produced is very important.  This requires a lot of basic science to understand the physiological and genetic factors controlling digestion and microbial processes, and emissions of methane from the rumen.

Indeed significant progress has been made over the past number of years in reducing greenhouse emissions from agriculture.  Technological advances in dairy production, for example, have led to a drop of 12.4% in the amount of methane produced per kg of milk between 1990 and 2006 thereby demonstrating the relationship between greater efficiency and reduced emissions.  Efficient rearing of cattle leads to earlier slaughter and lower lifetime greenhouse gas emissions.  Over the period since 1990, the age of slaughter of beef cattle has been significantly reduced.  In 1990, 44% of male cattle were over 30 months of age at time of slaughter, this has now reduced to 15% in 2006 resulting in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Reductions in the emissions of nitrous oxide

Nitrous oxide is produced from soils as part of the nitrogen cycle and is a significant source of greenhouse gases.  Progress is being made on reducing amounts of nitrous oxide emissions e.g. improved nutrient management has led to a 35% reduction in fertiliser use in the last 10 years, equivalent to a reduction of over 0.5 million tonnes of CO2.

Technology is being researched by Teagasc to further minimise nitrous oxide losses from soils. This research includes optimising the application of organic and inorganic source of fertilisers to reduce nitrogen fertiliser usage and emissions.  Other techniques being researched include the application of nitrification inhibitors and the more efficient use of clover as a nitrogen source.

Carbon Sequestration

If more carbon can be sequestered by Irish soils, this will help to offset other greenhouse gas emissions.  Teagasc is examining the effects of differing agronomic practices (grass and tillage) on soil organic carbon stocks.  In addition, there are projects examining the effects of land use change and tillage management on carbon sink activity.

In this context, it is of course also important to remember that the most obvious means of allowing agriculture to better meet its GHG targets is to include forestry and renewable energy crops as an agricultural land use.

When you hear the challenges which face Irish farmers in the coming years – in reducing emissions by 20% by 2020 and in the present state of agriculture – the recession, the fall in farmers income, the low price of milk, the three consecutive wet summers, the disappearance of off-farm jobs in construction since 2008 and the difficulty of borrowing from the banks, you hesitate to make life more difficult by imposing further controls on greenhouse gasses. However, the EU will certainly impose new directives to curb emissions whether we like it or not.

For example, Professor Detlef Schulze, of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, German, said in November 2009, “If the European landscape is to contribute to mitigating global warming, we need a new different emphasis on land management.  Methane and nitrous oxide are such powerful greenhouse gases we must manage the landscape to decrease their emissions.”  Professor Shulze led a team from seventeen European countries in the five-year, EU-funded CarboEurope project.

Irish farmers are well accustomed to the ups and downs – wet summers, late springs, and falls in the price of milk and cattle and sheep.  The older among them got through previous recessions.  They are able to adapt.  They have many skills in husbandry, in management and the ability to think outside the box.  The annual Positive Farmers’ Conference held in the South Court Hotel in Limerick recently had over 300 farmers, many of them young men and women.  Con Hurley, a Kilkenny farmer has just published a book entitled, “Yes, I can”.  The young Irish farmers of today are able to combine brains with brawn!

The use of technology and advances in science will improve food production if farmers get their fair share of the “value chain” as they call it.  Pope Benedict mentioned the use of technology in his New Year message, “Technology… is a response to God’s command to till the land”. 

Of course, we may have moved too far from traditional farming which was self sufficient in milk, butter, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots – every farmer had a garden.  Now as John Feehan observed in his masterly book, “Farming in Ireland History, Heritage and Environmental” – “There are young farmers today who do not know how to use a spade”.

John Feehan is sad to see the fall in the number of farmers.  He writes of a decline in the dignity and social standing of the farmer. There is a progressive downgrading of the farming way of life not only among the public but among the farmers themselves especially among the young.  It is seen as unglamorous, unattractive to many of the young.  A certain idealism has been lost he says.  But that said, he agrees that, “the farming of the future will have to be more, not less scientific, but the science must be applied in a more intelligent, holistic, ethical and sustainable way. Pollution and environmental degradation will no longer be tolerated.  The highly intensive and large-scale agribusiness sector may come to depend increasingly on sophisticated precision agriculture systems to minimise inputs and control environmental impact.  However, the ever more complex technology and science behind these systems will move them further and further beyond the farmer’s control (in the same way car engines have moved beyond our repair and maintenance abilities, only more so).

Above all, he says, we must not go down the road to giant concentrated agro industrial complexes close to the major urban centres leaving the countryside increasingly marginalised in terms of the traditional core function of food production.

There are however reasons beyond all considerations of autonomy and serendipity for the retention of a farming modelled in certain essential ways on traditional patterns which operate in harmony with the natural world.  Farming has the capacity to provide deeper satisfaction than any other way of life.  Farming to traditional patterns is essential to the maintenance of a countryside that enables others to retain contact with nature.  And we now see clearly that such contact is not a luxury or simple recreation but something we need as individuals and as a society.  But it must be a way of life that provides an adequate standard of living.  It will never be an easy way of life, but it must remain divorced from the drudgery which was almost inseparable from it in the past, and which allowed the view to prevail that only brute strength was important.  A new revolution is needed if farming is to recover the dignity many farmers feel it has lost, allowing it to put the production of quality food back at the centre of what it does.

The Chinese word for “crisis” translates as “danger and opportunity”.  The Irish farmers will face risks and challenges when they set about reversing climate change.  They will have to make the same sacrifices as all of us in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from tractors and land rovers.  The added challenge of reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions will be met, I have no doubt, using the best methods known to modern science.  We still have a wonderful climate, if not the best weather always.  We also have some of the best of grassland in the world and abundant rainfall, so far.  We can produce cattle, sheep and race horses to compare with the best anywhere.  The population of the world, which approaches 8 billion, is going to need more food. The Irish farmer will be ready and willing to supply it.

The right to sufficient and nutritious food and to clean water are universal human rights without distinction or discrimination as Pope Benedict XVI told the World Food summit sometime ago.  Incidentally, the motto for the FAO is FIAT PANIS – “let there be bread”.  He tells us that there is sufficient food to feed all the people of the world.  It is the lack of willingness to share which is leaving millions hungry in under developed countries.  The development of food security must be a priority.  I am confident that the Irish farmers will develop methods to produce in a way which will protect the environment, guaranteeing a harmonious form of development, respectful of the design of God the Creator and therefore capable of safeguarding the planet. There are no more generous people anywhere in the world than the Irish farmers when it comes to assisting poor people in the Third World.  My participation with the charity Bóthar and my visits to Uganda and Malawi leave me in admiration of the part which our farmers play by donating livestock free of charge, year in, year out. 

Farmers will also continue to care for the countryside as they have been doing through REPS for many years now and in whatever comes to replace REPS. Our farmers are the custodians of rural Ireland. I sometimes think that they are the custodians of the common sense of the nation as well! 

In conclusion, I should like to recall the words which Pope John Paul II said to me in a private audience in 1999: “You are very fortunate to be bishop of a rural diocese. Your people are close to nature and close to God”.

Thank you

Notes for Editors

  • Archbishop Dermot Clifford is Archbishop of Cashel and Emly and Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Cloyne.  Archbishop Clifford is chair of the Department of Planning and Communications of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.  On 10 November last, in the St Francis of Assisi Primary School in Belmayne, Dublin, Archbishop Clifford launched the pastoral reflection The Cry of the Earth on behalf of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.  The Cry of the Earth addresses our Christian responsibility to care for the environment.  St Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint of the Environment.  The launch took place beside the Fr Collins Park in Belmayne, Dublin.  Fr Collins Park is Ireland’s first wholly sustainable park which is sustained using renewable energy.
  • The aim of the Lismullin Farming Seminar is to create a forum where interesting and practical ideas can be put forward to provide encouragement and hope for those working in the industry, especially for young farmers.  Inspired by the spirit Opus Dei, Lismullin Institute promotes a variety of activities, including conferences and seminars, lectures and publications, which reflect a Christian outlook on life and culture.
  • “The Importance of Farming in a Changing World” is the title of this year’s Lismullin Institute’s Farming Seminar which takes place today in Lismullin, Navan, Co Meath.  A panel of experts will present papers and debate issues which are of vital interest to all farmers and to the rural economy as a whole. The seminar will address issues such as cooperation with supermarkets, the Single Farm Payment post 2012, responsibility towards the environment, and farm debt.  Timetable:

10:00 — Registration & refreshments
10:30 — ‘Brussels: Pre- and Post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy & Changes to Single Farm Payment’ [Chair: Tom Clinton – Presentation: Michael Tracey]12:00 — ‘Co-operation between Farmers, Suppliers and Supermarkets’ [Chair: Matt Dempsey – Presentation: Grace McCullen]
1:15 — Lunch
2:30 — ‘The Cry of the Earth Calls for a Local Environmental Audit’ [Chair: Fr Sean McDonagh – Presentation: Archbishop Dermot Clifford]
3.30 — Refreshments
4:00 — ‘Farm Debt’ [Chair: John Boylan – Presentation: Philip Maher]
5:00 — Conclusion
See below for two related video interviews and special web features on
    – Archbishop Dermot Clifford discussing the responsibility that the Church has to teach its people about caring for the environment. He also talks about our Christian responsibility to care for the environment, and to hand on a planet that is not polluted for generations to come.–archbishop-dermot-clifford-talks-about-our-christian-responsibility-to-care-for-the-environment
    – Professor John Sweeney, Director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units at NUI Maynooth, is interviewed about global warming, its consequences, and our responsibility to act.–professor-john-sweeney-is-interviewed-about-global-warming

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 310 4444