Feeding the future through Climate Smart Agriculture
Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide, writes from New York where he is part of the Irish delegation at the Sustainable Development Goals summit.

I have yet to find maize on a menu here in Ireland, but this may be set to change in the future. Scientists estimate that even a modest two degree centigrade increase could result in Ireland becoming a more suitable climate for maize production than much of Southern Africa. Is maize set to become an integral part of an Irish dinner?

Climate change is a controversial and oft-debated topic, but what we do know is that the world’s population is growing and is expected to reach nine billion by the year 2050.


Global food production will need to increase by a massive 70 per cent to keep pace with the predicted population growth, and yet fewer farms will exist to cultivate crops. Africa’s urbanisation is expected to increase by 150 per cent over the next decade, leaving more people in cities dependent on fewer farms for food.

And let’s remember, there are already some one billion people in the world without sufficient food to eat.

Climate Change

Climate change will have a significant impact on how much food can be produced and where crops can be grown. Changes in temperature will affect many aspects of food production.

In particular, the production of staple foods such as maize, wheat and rice will decline.

The World Bank has warned that without further measures to contain climate change, a four degree centigrade increase in the average global temperature may occur as early as 2060. This would threaten the livelihoods of billions of people as tensions rise over ever shrinking resources.

Without a significant investment in solutions, there simply won’t be enough food to go around. How will we manage to feed the future in these circumstances?

There’s a tendency to look for solutions through new science; identifying ways to produce more food on less land and increasing production through large-scale commercial farmers.


However, there are other smarter, more equitable and sustainable solutions available. The solution lies with the current network of 500,000 small farmers that produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.Our future depends on these small-scale farmers and yet they are too often overlooked and under-supported.

The assumption that small-scale farmers feed only themselves and large-scale farmers feed the world is not only being challenged - it is being turned on its head. Through the work of Irish organisations such as Concern and Gorta-Self Help Africa working in partnership with Irish Aid and Irish business, this army of food producers is at the forefront of a transformation in world agriculture.

Concern is working in 15 of the countries that have been listed as vulnerable to climate change by the Centre for Global Development including Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, South Sudan, and Rwanda. Throughout these countries we are promoting climate smart agriculture, focusing on the poorest, most marginalised farmers.

Increase productivity

Our goal is to significantly increase their agricultural productivity while simultaneously ensuring that the natural resources they depend upon are not exploited or depleted. Over many years of experience, we have learned five key principles that are critical to achieving the goal of increased, sustainable productivity:

  • Farming at any scale is a business, and smallholders and producers must be treated as entrepreneurs;
  • Businesses need clear linkages along the value chain, from production to processing, marketing and, ultimately, to consumption;
  • To increase crop production, farmers in the most marginalised areas need to adapt or adjust to expect changes brought about by climate change;
  • Increasing crop production is not the whole story. There must be clear links to improving nutrition, especially if we are to reduce malnutrition and stunting during the first critical 1,000 days of a child’s life;
  • Making women the focus of training delivers better results; they learn and adopt new ideas and techniques faster.
  • When these links are in place, wonderful things begin to happen and we see this every day in our work.


    I recently visited Western Province in Zambia where we are working in partnership with Accenture Ireland to promote the use of conversation agriculture. This has resulted in many farmers being able to more than double their yields in comparison to conventional approaches. One of the farmers we work with is Bwime, a 48-year-old, widowed mother of seven children. Before she was introduced to the conservation agriculture, Bwime never had enough food to see her family through the year. Now, she says: “My crop production has increased three-fold. I now have my own garden full of a variety of different vegetables”.

    Our research work with Trinity College Dublin demonstrated thatwomen farmers in Malawi who have adopted the conservation agriculture approach have been able to reduce their workload by 34 days per year.

    We are working with national research institutes and seed companies to help ensure farmers have access to the widest variety of high quality seeds, even in the remotest areas. Even working with the Somalia diaspora to track down pre-1990s seed research of the drought-resistant, nutritious filsan mung bean.

    In Chad and Sudan, we are we are testing Climate Analogue Software, which locates sites that currently experience the climate that farmers will experience in 2050.


    Currently we are reaching 100,000 poor farm households with this new climate smart approach in some of the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the African continent and reach 600,000 by 2021.

    Ambitious, yes, but we are not alone. Concern is one of the founding members of thegroundbreaking partnership known as the African Climate-Smart Alliance. This partnership brings together five international NGOs with UN and African technical partners to pull together and share their expertise to reach 6 million small farmers by 2021.

    The launching ceremony for the Alliance was held two years ago as part of the AU Summit in Equatorial Guinea Malabo and now re-groups in New York in the week thatsees the ratification of the new development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Self-described “champion” of the Alliance, former President of Ghana and UN special envoy on Climate Change, John Kufor, has said that bringing the knowledge and reach of these international NGOs together has huge significance for African agriculture.

    Ending Poverty

    As we move to ending poverty and hunger by 2030, itis vital that the international community endorses and provides critically needed funds to support pioneering approaches like the new AfricanClimate SmartAlliance. Such initiatives are working towards empowering millions of smallholder farmers in order to unleash their potential to feed themselves, their communities and the world.

    This is surely the way we can feed the future.

    Home Farm: complications of modern farming
    I wonder are most tillage farmers like me and have handed over the interpretation of the nitrate regulations and the calculation of the phosphate allowances to an outside specialist?

    It’s this time of the year when the legislative complications of modern farming life hits me.

    Last autumn, I bought the bulk of this year’s fertiliser needs.

    I had forgotten the strict rules around N, and particularly phosphate application.

    Feeding a lot of grain at the finishing stages to the bulls means the phosphate content of the slurry has to be taken into account when doing the final sums on how much can be applied.

    This is also meant to take into account the latest soil test results as well as the highest of the individual crop yields in the last three years. Also, whether the straw was removed or chopped back into the field.

    With the daffodils about to bloom, we have begun grazing paddocks with high covers

    With the excellent conditions, I have been disappointed at how slow the glyphosate has been to show results in burning off the vegetation in the fields I have earmarked for the beans. With it now applied well over a fortnight, I would have expected to see greater dieback in the volunteer weeds.

    Meanwhile, with the daffodils about to bloom, we have begun grazing paddocks with high covers.

    While the ground after grazing has a brownish hue, I have been surprised at how little damage has been done.

    The eaten-down grass is in an ideal condition for slurry.

    As I expected, the young bulls in batches of 25 to 30 are quite happy to come in each evening to the slatted houses.

    The system is certainly adding to the workload but it’s also saving significantly on feed costs as well as controlling grass growth so we will stick with it as long as conditions allow.

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    Overruns and overspending
    It is now time to abandon whatever ‘long-established arrangements’ have been relied upon, especially where large once-off projects are concerned.

    Last February, the Government published the National Development Plan 2018-2027, a €116bn programme of capital projects to be implemented over the next decade. Sceptics about the scale and content of the plan were few but they would have been reassured by persisting to page 100 with the following: “All project and programme proposals will be subject to the detailed requirements of the public spending code. This includes robust and rigorous project appraisal in order to obtain funding under the National Development Plan. No change is proposed to long-established arrangements for oversight, monitoring and management of voted Exchequer resources. Exchequer funding will continue to be managed through the normal, robust systems for control of voted funds.”

    Two of the flagship projects for early implementation were the National Broadband Plan, meant to cost €500m and the National Children’s Hospital, for which the initial budget was €650m. Both projects are now expected to cost as much as treble these figures. Both have been progressed in compliance with the “long-established arrangements for the oversight, monitoring and management of voted Exchequer resources” as proudly proclaimed, and to which “no change is proposed”. Why change these “robust systems of control”?


    It is now time to abandon whatever long-established arrangements have been relied upon and to acknowledge that the public capital programme, especially where large once-off projects are concerned, is not subjected to effective oversight. The conduct of both the broadband plan and the children’s hospital provide persuasive evidence that the public spending code exists in a parallel universe of apparent common sense, quite unconnected to the dispiriting reality of politicised decision-making, meaningless cost estimates and vast cost overruns.

    The public spending code reads well. Projects should be fully costed and none should proceed until a full cost-benefit analysis has been conducted. Sadly, the code does not indicate the procedures to be followed should these injunctions be ignored. Cost-benefit studies have not been made available for the broadband plan or the hospital and they may not exist at all. In neither case were the cost estimates remotely adequate.

    Cost estimates

    There is still no definitive cost estimate for the broadband plan which has yet to commence the construction phase. Despite the absence of a cost figure, never mind an estimate of benefits, the Government has repeated its blindfold commitment to the scheme. The construction of the hospital is proceeding and expected to cost up to three times the figure for which Government approval was given a few short years ago. No sanctions have been applied to anybody and the political reaction is a kind of synchronised shrug, a weary resignation to a state of affairs to which the Government has become accustomed and with which the taxpaying public is presumed to be content.

    On any reasoned assessment the public spending code has not been complied with in either of these cases. They are not the first: there is a long record of major projects coming in well over budget, and of projects proceeding for which no cost-benefit appraisal was ever prepared. In other cases, shoddy and deceitful, pretend, cost-benefit “analyses” have been concocted by project promoters. In just one case, the Bertie Bowl plan to inflict a third, and totally unnecessary, large stadium on the city of Dublin, has an ill-advised major project been averted. Even in this case, the project was halted because of political disagreement in the then Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat coalition. It should have been halted because the thumbs-up economic appraisal, prepared by an impressive lineup of Dublin consultancy firms, was a hometown verdict for the project promoters.

    It is time to acknowledge that the public spending code is no longer fit for purpose, if indeed it ever was. A system of oversight for public capital projects which continues to enable disasters like the National Children’s Hospital is not working and will not suddenly splutter into life in time to prevent the next one.

    There are two immediate actions that need to be taken. The National Broadband Plan should be deferred until the requirements of the code, a definitive cost estimate and a proper, public, cost-benefit analysis, have been furnished to government. There should also be a judge-led sworn enquiry into the debacle of the National Children’s Hospital, for which angry meetings of Oireachtas committees are no substitute.

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    Dempsey at Large: time to dust off the files
    The EU has shown a capacity in the past to mount significant emergency rescue packages in the beef sector.

    No sector is more exposed to a no-deal Brexit than the Irish beef producer.

    With half the total Irish beef output sold to Britain – 250,000t, the possibilities for market chaos and a collapse in price are painfully clear.

    So what can and should be done? Lots, is the straightforward answer.

    In the event of the UK beef market descending into chaos because of sudden free access to beef from South America as the Irish Farmers Journal covered last week, the price consequences would be catastrophic for Irish beef farmers and, of course, the potential damage to the rest of Europe’s beef sector would be very significant.

    The EU has shown a capacity in the past to mount significant emergency rescue packages in the beef sector.

    How many remember the massive effort made in the autumn of 1974 following the awful summer of that year as well as the price collapse sparked by the re-imposition of duties on our beef going to continental EU markets? That was the first time beef intervention became available in Ireland and it was used massively.

    The lessons from that time should be studied now so that if they are needed they can be swiftly applied

    The Department of Agriculture did a magnificent job, though some sectors of the beef industry made fortunes out of the combination of the market collapse, the backlog of cattle waiting to be killed and the presence of a guaranteed price from Brussels.

    The EU came to the rescue again during the catastrophic waves of BSE crises during the 90s and during the foot-and-mouth disaster in the early 2000s.

    But alongside intervention during the years before the MacSharry and Fischler reforms that introduced the premium, as a direct payment, in compensation for an approximate 30% drop in the guaranteed price of beef, a system of export refunds operated which kept European beef competitive on international markets.

    An Irishman, Tom O’Dwyer, was the head of animal products in the Commission at the time and he oversaw the operation of a superb example of successful market management on an enormous scale.

    The lessons from that time should be studied now so that if they are needed they can be swiftly applied. The basics are clear. If the worst case happens, Irish beef is available to Britain. The market in Britain clearly has a need for it.

    There is a long precedent for setting export refunds at a level that makes the product competitive in individual markets and the level can and has varied by the type of cut involved, so sirloins would have a different level of support to flanks. All of this expertise and experience is available.


    Now is the time to prepare to implement it if it is needed. In the meantime let’s galvanise the forces necessary to avoid an Irish beef collapse.

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