A Noble Vocation: Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment

In case you missed it, organizers of Faith, Food & the Environment held a national conference in St. Paul, Minn., on March 21-23.

The conference — “A Noble Vocation: Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment” — addressed pressing challenges facing modern agriculture from a unique perspective: How can our religious beliefs guide us in the ethical production of nutritious foods while caring for the environment and upholding the dignity of farmers and workers?

The conference organizers and presenters put forth their conviction that faith is essential to agriculture, simply because food is essential for our daily lives. Anything less than nutritious food – available for all – is an indignity to human life. Presenters also made clear that care for our common home, the Earth, is equally essential to sustainable food production.

The touchstone of the conference was the 2016 publication, “The Vocation of the Agriculture Leader.” The impetus now is to further explore and seek to apply the principles that integrate faith, food and the environment in the noble vocation of agriculture.

The Catholic Rural Life website has posted videos and presentations of some of the sessions. This Faith, Food and the Environment website will add more detailed proceedings of the conference. This will include expanding on “next steps” as suggested by participants at the end of the conference. (See more below)

Presentations currently available online (please click)

At this time, only a handful of presentations are available online. The opening address by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, lays out the purpose of the March 2018 conference. Most notably, he makes clear why farming is a “noble vocation”:

“All of our food, indeed all that nourishes us, comes first from our heavenly Father, through the gift of the earth and the work of human hands. On this fundamental point we cannot be mistaken: every good gift, including our daily sustenance, is from the Father above (James 1:16-17).

“Farmers, therefore, hold a crucial place in the common family of man and a unique role in the fulfillment of God’s plan. For through their determined labor, those who work in agriculture cooperate with divine providence and make manifest God’s care for each one of his children. Their work is not merely an effort to meet a basic human necessity.”

Another highlight of the conference was the address by Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann, a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center. He spoke on “Agriculture and Environmental Challenges: Implications for Leaders.” (Our next posting will provide a written list of the writers and references he made throughout his presentation)

Other videos available online at the CRL website are:

“Task of the Pastoral Leader” (three presenters, shown separately in roughly 15-minute videos)

“An Indigenous Perspective” (three presenters, shown together in a 54-minute video)

“Conference Summary and Shared Discussion with Participants” (71-minute recording — mostly audio due to a stationary camera)

This final session of the conference was opened to all attendees. They expressed with passion the challenges they see and the next steps that need to be taken. Key Take-Away: Farming is more than a business or economic calculation. It is a noble vocation that not only produces our daily foods, but nourishes the cultural health of our country, stewards the natural environment, and comes as close as everyone to the presence of the Creator.

Main issues that resonated with conference participants

  • Food is a basic human right: How food is made available goes beyond commodity production and market distribution.
  • We need a greater depth of connections and relationships: With producers and consumers; with Creation; and with God in how food is produced and shared.
  • Economic pressures facing family farmers: How to survive in a system of intensive, consolidated production.
  • Improving consumer awareness in food choices: Showing how the foods we eat have an impact on farmers, laborers and the environment.
  • Indigenous people as “original producers”: Respecting their cultural practices and traditional wisdoms.
  • Social changes in rural areas: Population movement away from farms; the aging of farmers.

Critical challenges faced by farmers and rural communities

  • Public support for the social needs of farmers and rural families: Health care costs, quality education, internet access, mental health, and other public services most Americans take for granted.
  • Wealth distribution: Many farm operations operating on slim margins while agribusiness conglomerates keep growing.
  • Challenging the repeated claim about the “low cost” of food paid by the American public: Need to factor in food quality, environmental costs, and availability to low-income families.
  • Next generation of farmers and ranchers: Confronting the high costs of entering farming; easing economic and social hardships to make farming more appealing to young people.
  • Connecting to consumers: Informing and relating to consumers in a way that “tells the story” of farming beyond food labels and advertising.
  • Understanding that these challenges faced by farmers require an evaluation of modern cultural values: Have our hopes in a good life become harder to realize?
  • Despair: When farmers and rural communities feel abandoned by the larger society, what must we as concerned citizens and people of faith do?

Next Steps: What are we inspired to do?

Both as individuals in their communities and as part of larger advocacy groups, participants at the conference shared initial inspirations for further action:

  • To inform and to educate: our family, friends, fellow church members, neighbors and community groups.
  • To create connections between eaters and producers: through farmers markets and local food systems; encourage agri-tourism and school outings to farms; more local foods in grocery stores.
  • To work with local authorities: protect local farmland; establish local food systems.
  • To create a Church-based agriculture (along the lines of Catholic schools, hospitals).

In short, through the work of human hands, let us once again renew the face of the earth.

National Conference on Faith, Food & the Environment

SAVE THE DATE: March 21-23, 2018

Organizers of the Faith, Food & the Environment project are inviting farmers, academic researchers, sustainable ag advocates, agribusiness professionals and others to participate in a three-day conference on the critical issues facing our nation’s agriculture and food production practices. How do we perceive agriculture as a moral act? How can consumers shape the food system according to ethical principles related to the land, animals, family farms and farmworkers?

The conference will take place March 21-23, 2018, on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

This will be an important step forward since the inaugural Symposium in November 2014 and publication of The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader (2016). The upcoming conference will continue to examine the role of farmers, ranchers and food producers from an ethical perspective. The conference program, including presenters and issue sessions, is coming soon.

In the meantime, a review of this dedicated website will give interested viewers both a comprehensive overview and “deep dive” into the ethics of our modern industrial food system – and what that means to farmers, consumers, the environment and our future health and security. Click on the tag headings in the menu bar running across the top.

The upcoming March 21-23 conference is open to the public, but space is limited. Reserve a spot by visiting this sign-up page and filling out a simple form (your name & contact information).

The main conference organizer is Catholic Rural Life. If you have questions about the conference or would like to learn more about attending, please email Annie Brickweg

Is the country in a farm crisis?

National Farmers Union recently raised this alarming news: “We’re in the midst of a farm crisis.” They rightly point out:

“Net farm income has been cut in half over the past four years, and other indicators point to intense, ongoing stress within our rural communities. Importantly, there is no foreseeable end to these tough conditions. Farmers, ranchers, and their communities are bracing for very hard times, and Farmers Union is going to be there to help them through it.”

Various parts of the country are experiencing depressed farm incomes, and certain farm commodities are more hard hit than others, but it seems reasonable to ask if this does indeed rise to “crisis” level. A crisis would mean urgent attention and action by federal and state authorities, along with agricultural and rural community leaders raising broad public awareness.

Other family farm advocates do see critical problems facing farmers and ranchers. Some of these groups will use the word “crisis” – but that appears necessitated by a host of “crises” that the country is facing in today’s political climate: from health care to decent-paying jobs to immigration and homeland security. If you don’t use strong words, you won’t be heard!

What others say about the farm economy

At the end of last year’s harvest season, AgWatch Network posted an opinion piece titled “No ‘crisis’ yet, but concerns grow about 2017 credit condition.”

“As combines roll across much of the nation’s mid-section,” reporter Sara Wyant wrote, “many farmers are finding bumper yields. But the bad news is, market prices for most commodities are still sagging. As a result, more farmers are starting to worry about access to credit in 2017.”

She went on to quote Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who said during a committee hearing at the end of last year: “The farmers and ranchers that I talk to remain in distress and worry whether their family farm can stay afloat.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service had announced that it expected farm income to drop for the third straight year, 2014 through 2016. How would family farm households possibly manage that? One way was off-farm earnings; farm families know they need one or two off-farm jobs to stay working on the land. Another way is federal “safety-net” payments for commodity producers when prices fall below certain levels. More on that in a moment.

The AgWatch opinion piece included words of caution by Sterling Liddell, Senior Vice President for Rabo AgriFinance and Rabobank International. He noted there is some disagreement as to how deep we are into what some would call a “farm crisis”. “It’s a bit of a strong term right now, but certainly we are on the edge of liquidity and facing challenges going forward over the next couple of years.”

A tempering factor is that farm debt loads remain far below the levels of the 1980’s crisis. Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said only 10 percent of farm operations are classified as highly or extremely leveraged.

So, won’t ag subsidies prevent a farm crisis?

The Environmental Working Group raised a red flag last year when the term “farm crisis” began to be uttered. In their analysis (The “Farm Crisis” Myth), EWG said that the farm subsidy lobby uses “farm crisis” as a way “to deflect well-deserved criticism of the fatally flawed federal subsidy system that they’re desperate to protect.”

EWG was not saying there is no urgent need to help struggling families who depend on their farms for income. These farm families are struggling to stay afloat as lower crop prices cut their margins that much slimmer. The problem is that the lion’s share of subsidies go to larger farm operations whose need is not as great.

“The federal farm subsidy system is badly broken,” EWG argues. “Policymakers should ignore the subsidy lobby as it beats the drum for more and more taxpayer dollars and focus instead on fundamental reform of these programs so as to help those farm families in greatest need.”

FarmAid sees “looming farm crisis”

Most know FarmAid as the annual concert that raises millions of dollars to keep family farmers on the land. But the organizers of FarmAid also promote stories and produce resources to raise awareness about the plight of family farmers. In mid-April of this year, they issued a Fact Sheet on the “looming farm crisis” for 2017. They point out that:

— The farm economy is hurting crop and livestock producers (hardest hit are wheat growers, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers).

— Farm solvency is weakening.

— Farm credit is tightening.

— Rural America is feeling the impact.

The FarmAid Fact Sheet does not leave it at that, but spells out what is needed to prevent the crisis and begin to resolve the critical problems faced by ranchers and farmers. The general needs are:

— Better farm policy

— Fair prices & parity

— Equitable access to credit

— Fair trade

FarmAid also calls for “reigning in corporate control” and makes a number of points to that end. Agricultural leaders need to hold agribusiness conglomerates accountable for an unfair structure that favors a handful of corporations over the needs of family farmers. While farmers and ranchers suffer high input costs and low farmgate prices, agribusiness corporations maintain their profitability and predatory share of the market.

Advocating farm policy for the common good

Besides the National Farmers Union, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is fully engaged in shaping the next Farm Bill. Like NFU, this coalition is effective because it has policy staff in the nation’s capital to maintain a presence on Capitol Hill. Member groups around the country are also able to build in-state and in-district support for crucial federal programs essential to the health and well-being of their farming and rural communities.

The Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota has launched a campaign called “Our Farm Bill”. They express succinctly what has been said above:

“Today there is a crisis facing rural communities. Our public policy in the federal Farm Bill is failing. Farmers are facing greater economic pressures while the majority of public money flows towards large landholders, insurance companies and corporate executives. This flow of public money speeds the consolidation of land, elevates an agriculture detached from the values of stewardship and community, and weakens rural life and culture.”

Catholic Rural Life echoes this same sentiment in our efforts to pursue a Farm Bill for the common good. (Click here for the marker page on the CRL website.)

Tough times on the farm, significant stress

Let us return to the National Farmers Union announcement about the start of their campaign “to raise awareness for the farm crisis and provide support to family farmers and ranchers.” To that end, their Farm Crisis Center is an online resource to help farmers find the information and services they need to get through financial and personal emergencies.

This is certainly a welcomed resource for farmers and ranchers facing yet another year of hard economic times. “When times get tough and farmers are under significant stress,” says NFU President Roger Johnson, “services provided by farm groups, hotlines, and mediation programs can go a long way in making sure families keep their farms and their families.”

State divisions of the Farmers Union are organizing listening sessions to bring together farmers to discuss the impacts of the depressed farm economy. Check your State Farmers Union for more details.

NFU says they will bring these stories and information “to the halls of Congress, the administration, and across multimedia platforms to raise awareness for the crisis currently confronting farming and rural communities.”


Recent Workshops on Vocation of Agriculture

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, recently visited parts of Texas for a series of workshops and presentations on the Vocation of the Agricultural Leader. One stop was San Angelo in central-west Texas and another was Victoria in the southeast.

“It is always a blessing to be out in the field meeting rural members and those interested in our work,” Ennis said.

“One of the comments we hear most often when presenting Vocation of the Agricultural Leader is that the acknowledgement of agriculture as a vocation is refreshing, new and welcomed, as this vocation is not often affirmed.”

One participant commented: “We’ve never heard this before, and I wish I would have known. I would’ve invited all of my neighbors–Catholic and non!”

During the workshops, participants are given an opportunity to break into small groups and discuss the challenges in their respective communities. There are two recurring challenges that are common to most rural communities throughout the U.S.:

  • Youth are leaving, and either do not want or cannot return.
  • Decline of the church as the center of the community.

In Texas, the participants expressed this additional challenge: the dynamic relationship between agriculture and oil. Many farmers have oil rigs on their land; this makes for a complicated and intertwined relationship, sometimes with opposing interests or agendas.

Ennis said Catholic Rural Life as an organization is addressing and promoting agriculture as a vocation or, more accurately, as a set of vocations within the many facets of agriculture and food production. This leads to acknowledging the importance of agricultural work all along the food chain from production to processing to distribution. Ennis believes this can inspire hope in the face of many challenges: economic, ecological, social and even political as farmers, workers, landowners, and agribusiness leaders strive to provide food for all and maintain the natural resource base.

The participants expressed this as well. Ennis came away feeling there is hope in the greater understanding of the importance of the vocation of agriculture.

“I believe there is greater acknowledgment by consumers in the essential work of farmers. There is greater recognition that farming still matters to people.”

If you would like to invite Jim Ennis to make a formal presentation or conduct a workshop on the Vocation of the Agricultural Leader, please email Jim@CatholicRuralLife.org. See the previous posting (below) for more details.


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 (Jim@CatholicRuralLife.org) 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.