Workshops Underway on the Vocation of Agriculture

Farmers face challenges that the rest of us hardly consider at all: the timing and amount of rain, the natural elements in their many forms, a changing climate, global competition in agricultural commodities & goods, constant pressure to make a viable living while also serving as good stewards of the land, and passing on the farm to the next generation. There is a great need for ethical leadership in addressing these challenges.

The Faith, Food & the Environment project calls for those involved in agricultural production to go beyond mere “bottom line” business decisions and examine a higher ethical approach to food production. This requires entering into a dialogue with the various stakeholders in farming, food production, environmental conservation and even nutrition standards.

This dedicated website about faith, farms and ethical food production, and the recent publication of The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader reflection, are part of a collaborative effort to push for a public dialogue. The specific objectives are:

  1. To affirm the noble and dignified vocation of farming.
  2. To retrieve the notion of vocation — that farming is not just an occupation, but a calling from our Creator to a relationship of “tilling and keeping the earth” (Gen. 2).
  3. To inspire the next generation of farmers and ranchers to see how their faith informs both their work in agriculture and their stewardship of God’s creation.

Workshops and Presentations

Catholic Rural Life has begun conducting workshops around the country on this important document and the challenges it seeks to address.

Here’s a news article about a Faith, Food & Environment workshop that took place in the Catholic Diocese of Salina, Kansas, earlier this year.

At this year’s National Farmers Union Convention, taking place this month in San Diego, CA, Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, is presenting “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” reflection to interested NFU members.

While also on the West Coast, Ennis will join the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, CA, in a meeting with farmers and agricultural leaders. These occasions need to be repeated around the country with other faith denominations and the many kinds of agricultural leaders who wrestle with the contentious issues surrounding sustainable and ethical food production.

In late April, Ennis will travel to Texas for a workshop at a local church in the town of Big Spring. The Catholic Diocese of San Angelo is hosting this event; learn more here.

Contact Jim Ennis ( if you would like him to present a talk or conduct a workshop at your event or for your group. He also welcomes your comments and reactions to “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” reflection, as well as other material found at this Faith, Food & Environment website.

Hard copies of The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader are available for purchase at the online store of Catholic Rural Life.


Ag & food advocacy groups call for new way on NAFTA

Urgent call for policies in support of family farms, rural economies

As the new Congress and new Administration continue to shake up “business as usual” in the nation’s capital, policies will begin to take shape on trade relationships. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is on the top of the list — and paying close attention will be farmers, ranchers and agribusiness corporations.

Indeed, family farm and sustainable ag groups have stepped forward and are calling for prioritizing fair and just policies in support of sustainable rural economies. In fact, they have prescribed a set of principles for any new policies with major U.S. trade partners, Canada and Mexico. These leading groups are:

The common concern of these groups remains steadfast: to ensure the economic viability of family farms and restore the vitality of rural economies. Vigilance to protect against corporate giveaways in trade agreements is still necessary under the new leadership in our government.

Getting it right by making it fair

NAFTA has been controversial since its inception for promoting the interest of agribusiness and other multinational corporations over those of family farmers.

Any renegotiation should start with an open assessment of NAFTA that includes both rural and urban communities, followed by a transparent negotiating process that eliminates the secrecy and backroom deals that has plagued past trade negotiations.

In a statement of principles for NAFTA renegotiation, the groups asserted that U.S. trade deals “have contributed to the economic and social erosion of rural communities in the U.S. and oftentimes devastation of its trading partners and fail to address very real problems of price volatility and environmental sustainability.”

Protecting farmers and farmworkers

The advocacy groups called for rules that respect the ability of local and national governments to set policies that support their farmers, support local food systems and regulate pesticides.

Farmers in all three NAFTA countries are facing three consecutive years of price drops and farm debt. The groups called for countries to “have the right to and ability to protect their farmers from unfair imports that distort the domestic market” and apply existing laws to prevent agribusiness dumping of commodities below their cost of production. Additionally, NAFTA should protect, not undermine, the rights of farmworkers to decent wages and working conditions in all three countries.


New report makes the cases for multifunctional family farms

North American farm families today face a number of major challenges — some inherent in the nature of farming and others new. In a new report produced by agriculture economist John Ikerd, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, he takes a thorough look at the state of family farms in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“Perhaps the most important challenges in all three countries of North America,” he writes, “are government farm policies that increasingly support the industrialization of farming in a quest for economic efficiency.” This leads to highly specialized “monofunctional” farm operations and makes it difficult for diverse family farms to survive economically while maintaining their social and ethical commitments to multifunctionality.

Ikerd argues that sustainability may well be the defining question of the 21st century: How can we meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future?  Sustainable farming is inherently multifunctional in that sustainability has three key dimensions: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic viability. Mono-functionally managed farms inevitably compromise ecological and social integrity in their quest for ever greater economic efficiency. Only farmers that manage multifunctionally are capable of farming sustainably and thus deserving of the historical high esteem awarded family farming.

Prof. Ikerd’s report complements our analysis on farming, food production and the environment and the recently released reflection, “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” (see blog posting below). We encourage viewers to take the time to read through Family Farms of North America and see if you agree with Ikerd’s compelling argument. Here’s a brief selection from his report, released earlier this month:

“Farms are inherently multifunctional in that they have inherent economic, ecological, and social consequences. Sustainable family farms are special in that they are intentionally multifunctional. They are managed to provide multiple benefits. Multifunctional family farms are not simply a means of economic livelihood for the family; they also are a social and ethical way of family life. They provide social and economic benefits to their communities and societies as well as to their families. They provide ecological benefits to communities, societies, and humanity though ethical stewardship of the land, water, air, and energy of the earth.”

He goes on to argue that when farm operations are managed solely or predominately for economic benefits, even if family owned and for the benefit of the family, these operations are not sustainable in the long run. Such farms can have adverse effects on communities and ecosystems, which in turn will lead to eroding food production and eventual food insecurity for vulnerable communities, regions and nations.

As Prof. Ikerd’s report shows, and our Faith, Food & the Environment project implores, the family farms worthy of high esteem are multifunctional family farms.

Intrigued to learn more about the work of Prof. emeritus John Ikerd and his distinguished career in promoting sustainable agriculture? He maintains an active website where you can find many of his published reports, presentations and essays; he also continues to speak at various public forums around the country.


“The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” reflection

Over the past three years, the organizers of the Faith, Food & Environment project have worked with farmers, theologians, sustainable agriculture advocates and agribusiness leaders to develop a faith-based reflection entitled The VOCATION of the AGRICULTURAL LEADER.

Farmers and ranchers face the challenges of turbulent weather and a changing climate, market competition on a global scale, and constant pressure to industrialize operations while being sustainable stewards of the land. There is a great need for ethical leadership in addressing these challenges. The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader reflection offers the voice of the Church in expressing solidarity with all those who work in agriculture and food production.

Click here to read The VOCATION of the AGRICULTURAL LEADER in its entirety.

(Hard copies are available for purchase at the online store of Catholic Rural Life.)

The objectives of The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader reflection were three-fold:

  1. To affirm the noble and dignified vocation of farming and of the work of men and women involved in agricultural production and get- ting food to our tables;
  2. To retrieve the spirit of vocation, that farming is not just an occupation, but a calling from the Creator to a holy relationship: “to till and to keep” the earth; and
  3. To inspire future generations of men and women to see how their faith informs both their work in agriculture and stewardship of God’s creation.

Project organizer Jim Ennis of Catholic Rural Life is available to present this new document at workshops and conferences. Contact his office by sending an email here.

Time is Now for Systemic Change in Agriculture

If you saw our previous posting (July 6, below), you know that we give due attention to the growing number of studies decrying our current industrialized agriculture and food system. Yet another study, published in Environmental Science & Policy (Vol. 55, Part 1) has come out, this one receiving special award recognition from an online information provider, Elsevier, that reports on solutions and discoveries in science, health and technology.

The study entitled “Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture” is based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding over recent years. Independent university researchers found there is an urgent need for increased investment in research and development aimed at making sustainable food production more effective. Here’s a synopsis of the report:

An estimated 25-35% of global greenhouse gases are produced from agriculture. Modern agriculture also contributes to the loss of biological diversity, habitat loss, water pollution, degradation of soil quality, and loss of beneficial organisms including pollinators and animals that keep pests under control, but which pose a risk to human health through pesticide exposure and excess nitrogen in drinking water.

Sustainable agriculture, including practices such as organic farming and crop rotation, has the potential to alleviate many environmental problems and health risks associated with the modern industrial agricultural system.

“Quite frankly, we have to make this transition to sustainable agriculture,” said Liz Carlisle of the University of California, Berkeley and corresponding author of the study. “The question is: can we be proactive about it so that our institutions and economy are prepared to make the transition in a more intentional way and can we be sure that all rural communities will have access [to sustainably produced goods]. We don’t want another unjust system like we have now in which some people eat and farm organically and others are stuck with agricultural toxins in their water supply and fast food for dinner.”

External link to the full study here.

Time for Policy Changes

Studies like this provide the impetus for change, but no substantive change can take place without action in the public policy realm – which is to say politics. The Republican and Democratic political parties have become more spectacle than substance, but some substance can be found with a little digging. Each party accepts a platform of policy positions that more or less lay out their intentions for governance. (I say “intentions” because these are not binding. On top of that, the policy statements tend to be fairly general and offer few, if any, specifics.)

I am grateful to staff at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) who has examined the respective convention platforms of the political parties and subsequently provided an analysis of policies related to agriculture and rural America. For viewers who are interested in the details (or what some call the weeds) of policy proposals, here are links to the NSAC analyses of the political party platforms:

The respective positions on agricultural issues in the two major party platforms were sometimes general, other times specific, but overall their approaches imagined a disaggregation of farmers, the public, and the government —  each existing in their own silos, so to speak. Members of the sustainable ag coalition are calling for a greater exchange of communication and, indeed, collaboration in setting farm & food policies:

“To create a sustainable future for American agriculture, we will need farmers, the public, and the government working together –not against or apart from one another – for the common causes of a strong farm economy, healthy lands and ecosystems, and a safe and ample food supply.”

“While we appreciate that party platforms have the unenviable task of trying to address the entire host of issues faced by our next president, we remain disappointed at the lack of attention paid to our nation’s farm and food system, and the family farmers who are its lifeblood.”

On a related note: “Plate of the Union”

A national campaign called “Plate of the Union” is underway to raise awareness of our a broken food system, propped up by a set of agricultural subsidies and other government policies, created and maintained by powerful lobbyists. This system relies on the exploitation of workers, damages the environment, and puts a financial squeeze on farmers. It doesn’t have to be this way. The next president can and should lead with a plan to make sure every American has access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to food workers, good for the environment, and improves farmers’ livelihoods. As candidates hit the campaign trail, we want them to prioritize fixing our food system. Here is the sign-on petition by the Plate of the Union campaign:

Petition to Our Next President: Current food policies prioritize corporate interests at the expense of our health, the environment, and working families. This has led to spikes in obesity and type-2 diabetes, costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year. If you are elected president, I urge you to take bold steps to reform our food system to make sure every American has equal access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to workers, good for the environment, and keeps farmers on the land.


Agricultural Paradigm Shift: From Uniformity to Diversity

A new report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems confirms much of what our discussions on Faith, Food and the Environment have been pointing out: that today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts.

The report – From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems – identifies these negative outcomes as “widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”

The report links many of these problems specifically to industrial agriculture and the intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The report identifies “uniformity” as the unsustainable heart of these systems, and the underlying cause “that leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.”

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

What is required, the panel asserts, “is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems’.”

In the report, the panel identifies a series of insidious cycles that lock in place industrial agriculture with the global food system and, in turn, national food systems. For example, “the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.”

Systemic change needed, not just tweaks

The international panel of experts is not fooled by the tweaks to industrial agriculture production that can improve some of the problematic outcomes. It seems evident that is needed are long-term solutions that effectively respond to the economic, ecological and social problems generated by industrial agriculture and the oligopoly of transnational corporate agribusinesses.

As cited in the report, data shows that diversified agroecological systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed.

A key message of the report is that change is happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

More needs to be done to shift political incentives in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. To that end, sustainable agriculture advocates are looking ahead to the U.S. presidential election and a new administration, along with a new Congress: this is an opportunity to launch new federal policies in agriculture and food production. The next Farm Bill is still a couple years away, but now is the time to shape that future.


Update on process to complete our reflection document

The Faith, Food & Environment project is continuing to work with our international partners to produce a reflection that we are calling “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader”. There remains a great deal of anticipation for this ethical reflection on how food is produced in our modern industrial agricultural system — and what we believe needs to change for ethical, social and ecological reasons.

The Organizers of this project apologize for the time it is taking to complete a final version of the proposed reflection: they did not fully anticipate the amount of time it would take to review drafts and collect comments from our various partners around the globe. This entailed an agreeable balance in the tone and emphasis when discussing the various economic, social and environmental factors that go into the production and structure of the world food system.

In order to move the process along, a “first edition” of the Vocation of Agricultural Leader reflection for our North American readership will be released later this year. We will seek responses and reactions from American farm groups, agri-food companies, academics, environmental advocates, and others in our North American network.

Needless to say, we expect farmers, ranchers and food producers of all types to be particularly interested in our reflection on the food system – and how it should be guided and led in an ethical, sustainable and socially just way. This website will arrange a way for comments to be received, then posted in an orderly way. These will help shape a “second edition” of the reflection document, an edition that will also include the collaboration of our international partners.

For the time being, you can still express your reaction or opinion to how the document is shaping up. Draft language of the various sections of the document can be found in our Reflections section. Responses can be sent to Robert Gronski, coordinator of this website.

Our presence at World Farmers Organization gathering

This week, the World Farmers Organization is holding their 2016 General Assembly in Livingstone, Zambia. This year’s theme is “Partnership for Growth” and is bringing together representatives ranging from international organizations to local NGOs from various parts of the world. Click here for the WFO program.

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, is presenting on the third day of the gathering as part of a session devoted to fostering economic growth in rural communities through a multi-stakeholder approach in agriculture. His remarks are an opportunity to present our work to date on the Faith, Food and Environment project and the vocation of agricultural leadership in the 21st century.

We believe returning farmers to the center of policy decisions is fundamental to sustainable development in rural communities. The World Farmers Organization makes it clear that governments, businesses, scientists and civil society groups must focus attention on the source of our food security. All these groups must work together to enable the many millions of farm families, especially smallholders, to grow more crops sustainably through effective markets, more collaborative research and committed knowledge sharing.

Not familiar with the World Farmers Organization?

WFO is a community of entrepreneurial farmers from around the world that regardless of their size (small, medium and large- scale farmers) or gender, age and other characteristics, aim to gain global recognition of their rights as food producers and role as economic actors.

Their mission is to represent and advocate on behalf of farmers in global policy arenas and create the conditions for the adoption of policies aimed to improve the economic environment and livelihood of producers, their families, and rural communities. Learn more about WFO here.

It is worth noting that the WFO and their “agropreneur” members (as they call themselves) are striving to work with other stakeholders from around the globe. They do so in order to:

  • foster food system stability;
  • respect the environment;
  • acknowledge the rights of all farmers to be entrepreneurs and gaining appropriate incomes;
  • and respect the farming community’s diversity.

According to their website, WFO constructs their activities upon three main pillars: food security, climate change and a fair value chain. This is in line with the aims of the Faith, Food & Environment project, so we’ll see how we might work more closely with the WFO in reinforcing the role of farmers in policy dialogues at all levels.

This dialogues will include the private and public sectors, various international organizations, local stakeholder groups, nongovernmental organizations, and foundations, universities and research Institutes. We should add faith groups also belong at the table in these discussions — and that indeed is the mission of the Faith, Food & Environment project.


Global Agreements, Climate Change, and Agriculture

Last week at the UN General Assembly in New York, faith leaders delivered an Interfaith Climate Change Statement to UN delegates and official representatives prior to a crucial signing ceremony. The interfaith statement, signed by over 270 religious leaders, urged governments from around the world to ratify and implement the Paris Agreement, made last December, on reducing carbon emissions and decisively responding to climate change by 2020. Learn more about the Paris Agreement here.

The interfaith statement made clear that religious and spiritual leaders are standing together to urge all Heads of State to promptly sign and ratify the Paris Agreement.

“Caring for the Earth is our shared responsibility. Each one of us has a ‘moral responsibility to act,’ as so powerfully stated by the Pope’s Encyclical and in the climate change statements by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other faith leaders. The planet has already passed safe levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unless these levels are rapidly reduced, we risk creating irreversible impacts putting hundreds of millions of lives, of all species, at severe risk. The challenges ahead require honesty and courage and we all must take action to reduce emissions.”

The recent signing ceremony at the UN Headquarters in New York City took place on Friday, April 22, which by no coincidence was Earth Day. Some 175 countries signed the historic accord at a ceremony hosted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Agreement recognizes, he said, “the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the impacts of climate change.”

He also said in his remarks that the Agreement highlights the need to “increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience … in a manner that does not threaten food production.”

The crucial role of agriculture

Maria-Helena Semedo, UN-FAO Deputy Director-General for Natural Resources, remarked that agriculture can play a crucial role in making the response to climate change more effective.

Semedo also noted that agriculture is one of the main sectors of the economy that is severely affected by climate change. The recent El Niño phenomenon is a testimony to that, she said.

She stressed that the rural poor and smallholder farmers are the ones severely affected by the consequences of climate change, namely prolonged droughts in some parts of the world and severe storms in others. Global warming also is causing changes in biological diversity and ecosystem balance to the detriment of many, even as this temporarily benefits some.

Role of family farmers, rural communities

The Faith, Food & Environment project continues to argue that there is a crucial role for family farmers to play in eradicating poverty and hunger, now aggravated by climate change.

Given that nearly 80 percent of the extreme poor and hungry people live in rural areas, we agree with international leaders who clearly state: “Let’s empower rural actors, small holders, rural women, youth, and indigenous peoples in our collective action.”

Role for U.S. Agriculture

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also released a statement following the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement last week. By signing the historic climate agreement, he said, “the U.S. is moving forward on our commitment to take real action on climate change.”

“The agreement establishes a long-term and durable framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and build resiliency for the future. America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have a track record of coupling extraordinary productivity gains with natural resource stewardship, which positions them well to contribute to the climate solutions called for in the Paris Agreement.”

Sec. Vilsack highlighted the significance over the past several years of USDA conservation programs. He said these “have helped American producers install practices that have reduced net greenhouse gas emissions by over 416 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or approximately 60 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 12.6 million cars off the road for a year.”

Vilsack went on to say that the USDA will accelerate its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons a year by 2025.

Leading the way to a resilient agriculture

The Faith, Food & Environment project will also advocate for “climate-smart” strategies and continue to encourage agricultural professionals to lead the way in building resilience, reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing carbon storage in our soils and forest.

At the same time, we must find an effective and equitable way to boost productivity and improve global food security. We firmly believe family farmers and smallholder farmers are a necessary part of this new agriculture for a challenging time in history.


“I thank you, small farmer.”

In his April prayer intentions, Pope Francis expresses his appreciation and concern for small farmers:

“I thank you, small farmer. What you do is essential for the life of all. As a person, as a child of God, you deserve a decent life. But I wonder: how is your work compensated?”

In a short video clip, the Holy Father calls for a just compensation for small farmers’ invaluable work. The April prayer intention is also a call to people everywhere to fully recognize the contribution of farmers.

Rev. Frédéric Fornos S.J., international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, said this April prayer request of Pope Francis draws attention to the problems that arise when an economy dismisses or excludes the small farmer.

“While the profits of a few grow exponentially, the small farmer is exploited,” said Father Fornos. “Yet small farmers are essential, so Francis has invited all people of good will to mobilize with prayer and action on behalf of his intention ‘that small farmers may receive fair compensation for their precious work.’”

Read more about the April prayer intention at National Catholic Register.

Rallying for the Vocation of Farming

For regular visitors to Faith, Food & the Environment, you know that we began this project to examine how farmers and food producers are treated in the world food system. A look back on our initial symposium in St. Paul, Minn., makes this evident: we recognize farming as a calling, and ask agricultural leaders to better represent farming in this way rather than merely a business venture.

We also directly express our appreciation for farmers in the Introduction to our reflection on the Vocation of the Agricultural Leader (still a work in progress). We invite visitors to our site to take another look at that.

There are also the remarks of Cardinal Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace, when he presented last June soon after the release of Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home. Cardinal Turkson reflected on the vocation of farming within the context of this encyclical by Pope Francis.

A story from the American countryside

On a more current note, and certainly of interest to those who are concerned about small and independent American farmers, there was a “going there” story aired on National Public Radio about what is happening in the countryside. In a series on Food, Farming and Health, this particular story was about a visit to a Nebraska family farm facing a shaky future.

Over the past several decades, many family farms have turned into very large family farms, or collections of farms, which turned into big businesses. You’re under an increasing amount of pressure these days if you’re a farmer who wants to stay small and independent

Vern Jantzen’s 300-acre farm in Nebraska is facing a shaky future because there is no guarantee the younger members of the family, like Vern’s two daughters, will want to stay to continue farm operations.

So for this one family’s farm, there is the temptation to leave and the struggle to stay.