Faith Perspectives on Agriculture, Food and the Environment
The Church and people of faith believe they have a role and responsibility to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters. Church leaders do so in order to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, so that social, political and economic actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.
In respect to the ethical and human dimensions of agriculture, food and the environment, a set of criteria can be drawn out of Gospel and faith-based teachings.
As a prime example, a faith-based working group* developed “Principles for a Faithful Farm Bill” as part of church advocacy work leading up to reauthorization of the 2008 and 2013 farm bills:
Principles for a Faithful Farm Bill
“From God’s initial command to care for creation to the prophets’ call for justice among governments and nations, people of faith in every age are called together to work for the common good. Inspired by our faith traditions’ commands to care for poor and vulnerable people, we join together to support policies that promote local food security in the U.S. and around the world, strengthen rural communities, and care for the land as God’s creation.
“Our nation’s food and farm policies as embodied in the Farm Bill impact people and communities from rural America to developing countries. In the current budget climate, the Farm Bill’s limited resources must be effectively targeted where need is greatest. Programs and policies that curb hunger and malnutrition, support vibrant agricultural economies in rural communities, and promote the sustainable use of natural resources must be prioritized.
“Together, we will urge Congress to take the opportunity presented by the reauthorization of the Farm Bill to reduce hunger and poverty in the U.S. and around the world and encourage sustainable stewardship of our resources. To this end, we support the following principles for the Farm Bill:
- Protect and strengthen programs that reduce hunger and improve nutrition in the United States.
- Promote investments and policies that strengthen rural communities and combat rural poverty.
- Provide a fair and effective farmer safety net that allows farmers in the U.S. and around the world to earn economically sustainable livelihoods.
- Strengthen policies and programs that promote conservation and protect creation from environmental degradation.
- Protect the dignity, health, and safety, of those responsible for working the land.
- Promote research related to alternative, clean, and renewable forms of energy that do not negatively impact food prices or the environment.
- Safeguard and improve international food aid in ways that encourage local food security and improve the nutritional quality of food aid.”
*Signers of the group’s resolution: Bread for the World, Catholic Rural Life, Church World Service, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, National Council of Churches USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Purpose of Moral Standards
The faith-based criteria as identified by the farm bill working group above are not necessarily comprehensive, nor do they suggest obvious positions or practices on critical farm and food issues. Therefore, people of faith and those recipient to the moral standards can differ on specific application of these criteria.
Some may well argue that production (or industrial) agriculture has positive effects: incredible production of grain, food, fiber and consumer goods; technological innovations and reduction of physical drudgery in farming; lucrative enterprise in the concentration of human and natural resources; and the elevation of U.S. agriculture as a dominant global food supplier.
At the same time, others can rightfully argue that this highly industrialized and highly capitalized system of agri-food production has caused the following: bias towards monocultural production and mega-farm operations; ecological degradation and loss of healthy soils and biodiversity; disruption and depopulation of rural communities; and the dominance of powerful agribusiness conglomerates.
In response, a faith-based perspective sets its judgment on agricultural matters according to an abiding respect for human life and dignity and a basic commitment to the common good. Moral standards can help civil society to explore, discuss and advocate for agricultural policies that sustain human life, preserve our inherent dignity and protect the well-being of all God’s creation.
Christian Denominational Perspectives & Statements
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identify these criteria as a guide for agricultural and food policies:
- Overcoming hunger and poverty.
- Providing a safe, affordable and sustainable food supply for all.
- Ensuring a decent life for farmers, farmworkers and food process workers.
- Sustaining and strengthening rural communities.
- Protecting God’s creation through environmental stewardship
- Expanding civic participation in agricultural policies.
Selected Catholic Statements:
- For I was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Jan. 2003.
In this document, the U.S. Catholic bishops focus on the ethics of how food and fiber are produced, how land is protected, and how agriculture is structured, compensated, and regulated to serve the common good. As a faith-based reflection, this document outlines some signs of the times, lifts up principles from Catholic social teaching, and suggests elements of an agenda for action. The bishops also highlight the global dimensions of agriculture today and how they contribute to the growing gap between rich and poor at home and abroad.
- IV World Congress on Rural Life – Facing Challenges of Globalization; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and International Catholic Rural Association; Rome, June 26-28, 2012.
“The hunger and insecurity which recent Popes have denounced is a scandal, an offence against our generous Creator and his poor sons and daughters. Even those who live on the land have to struggle for their daily bread.” Speaking at the IV World Congress on Rural Life, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, says we must do more to meet the challenges posed by the modern world.
- Building a New Culture: Central Themes in Recent Church Teaching on the Environment. Episcopal Commission for Justice & Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jan. 2013.
The Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace offers this “modest outline” of eight central themes found in recent Church teachings on the environment. A brief description is given of each theme, along with some example citations from recent papal documents. These reflect on how a Catholic approach to economic questions, social justice, and environmental questions are necessarily viewed in relation to each other. The Commission’s intention is that these themes will serve as a guide to discussion, reflection, and decision-making on the very real environmental problems we face today.
United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church in the concluding section of their statement on “Land, People & Justice” (2008) makes the case for a “preferred agriculture” that has these three attributes:
- It must be just. A just society and a just agriculture provides the means whereby people can share in the inheritance of the earth so that all life can fully be maintained in freedom and community. The purpose of a just agriculture should be for the maintenance and renewal of the necessary resources for food, clothing and shelter, for now and for the future.
- It must be participatory. Participation in society and in the ongoing process of creation is the necessary condition for justice. Participation requires a recognition of everyone’s right to be consulted and understood, regardless of that person’s economic, political, or social status.
- It must be sustainable. A sustainable agriculture is one where the idea of permanent carrying capacity is maintained, where yields (agriculture, energy production, forestry, water use, industrial activity) are measured by whether or not they are sustainable, rather than by the criteria of yields per acre or profits.
“A just, participatory and sustainable agriculture would meet basic human needs for food and fiber, regenerate and protect ecosystems, be economically viable, enhance the quality of life for farm families, be supportive of rural communities, be socially just, and be compatible with spiritual teachings that recognize the earth as a common heritage and responsibility. For Christians, the idea of sustainability flows directly from the biblical call to human beings to be stewards of God’s creation.”
Selected United Methodist Church Statement:
- Land, People & Justice. General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church; Book of Resolutions, 2008.
The United Methodist Church has long witnessed to rural peoples and their concerns. Each General Conference since 1940 has suggested responses for improving rural church and community life, and the economic and environmental well-being of rural peoples. The 1988 General Conference accepted a study on U.S. Agriculture and Rural Communities in Crisis. Twenty years later, the 2008 resolution reaffirms that study and calls the United Methodist Church to continue its commitment to rural church ministry and its advocacy for agricultural and rural community concerns.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has also commented on the vocation of farming, notably in their 1999 statement on Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All: “Agriculture is basic to the survival and security of people throughout the world. Through the calling of agriculture, farmers produce the grain for our daily bread and the rest of our food supply.”
The ELCA and the Farm Bill. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2002.
The social statements of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America express support for an agricultural policy that: Helps farms and farmers in the U.S. and around the globe; Sustains rural communities; Protects God’s creation from degradation; and Ensures an abundant supply of food for all.
Selected ELCA Statement:
- A Social Statement on Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope & Justice. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1993.
This social statement lays the foundation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s deep concerned about the environment, locally and globally. ELCA offers a vision of God’s intention for creation and for humanity as creation’s caregivers; acknowledges humanity’s separation from God and from the rest of creation as the central cause of the environmental crisis; recognizes the severity of the crisis; and expresses hope and heeds the call to justice and commitment.
The Food and Faith web section of the Presbyterian Church (USA) provides an extensive source of information about food and agricultural issues from a justice perspective. Besides statements and reflections, this site offers viewers a number of study guides, blog posts, newsletters and publications – many available for download.
Selected Works by Individuals
- Birkenfeld, Darryl. From Colonization to Holism: Reconstructing an Ethical Method for U.S. Agricultural Ethics. Doctoral dissertation, Graduate Theological Union; Berkeley, Calif. April 2002.
In this dissertation, Birkenfeld explores the ethical methods applied to U.S. agriculture; he argues that policymakers and thought-leaders are failing to address the mainstream orientation of U.S. agriculture, described by Birkenfeld as “colonization”. This has led to a crisis in our agricultural system, both in a practical and theoretical sense. His solution calls for a new orientation based on a holistic approach and “responsibility ethics” that gets beyond the purely utilitarian and mainstream economics of the current agricultural system.
- Graham, Mark E. Sustainable Agriculture: A Christian Ethic of Gratitude. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
The author weighs in on the substantive discussion about the moral issues in American agriculture. He seeks to reveal what is going on in current agricultural practices and analyzes them in light of morality and sustainability. His constructive proposal for change is based on a moral vision that identifies a group of core values around which our agricultural system should be developed, including (a) a consistent, safe food supply; (b) vital, sustainable communities; and (c) personal and environmental health. At the time of publication, Mark Graham was assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
- Field, Tony & Bell, Beverly. Harvesting Justice: Transforming Food, Land and Agricultural Systems in the Americas. Other Worlds, 2013
This 132-page publication presents stories about some of the actions and changes happening by local groups reclaiming and transforming their food systems. The editors seek to illuminate the connections between different initiatives and how these efforts overlap and create interdependence. The movement they describe addresses environmental concerns, healthy foods, human rights & fair wages, protection of small farms and local food systems, preservation of local cultures, food security and food sovereignty, and an end to corporate control over food and agriculture.