Focusing on “Big Picture” Factors

As the Presentations of the 1st Symposium show, factors other than economic ones have a meaningful bearing on agriculture and food production. Appropriate technology, ecological harmony, social development and cultural aspirations all deserve analysis, as many academics and researchers continue to study.

The organizers of the Faith, Food & Environment project have strained through the presentations, as well as reviewed related research, and propose to focus our efforts on four “big picture” factors. We do this to be reasonably succinct and manageable as we move forward in articulating a set of vocational guidelines for agricultural leaders.

These four complex factors are:

  • Globalization: the process of integrating national economies on a worldwide basis has also deeply integrated the global exchange of foods and agricultural goods. But drawbacks to this development of a “global food system” include economic dislocation within countries, disenfranchisement of local producers, rural-to-urban migration, and the inability of nation-state governments to properly regulate capital flows and environmental protections.
  • Financialization: the process of financial markets to dominate business enterprises worldwide, including over agribusiness and agricultural commodities. This “financial leveraging” capability has intensified tendencies to commoditize the goals of work and to emphasize wealth maximization and short-term gains at the expense of working for the common good. An analysis of the financialization of food production and agriculture includes the role of asset management companies and private equity consortia. The concern here is that producers or consumers no longer control their food system; nor do commodity groups or food retailers. It is financial institutions which are increasingly dominate over the traditional industries of food and agricultural production.
  • Research and Technology: Although scientific research has discovered new products and solutions for improved agricultural production, this has also created controversies, such as the genetic manipulation of crop seeds and animal breeds. Ethical questions are raised in respect to farm practices, livestock production, resource management, environmental impacts and international trade, to name a few. Furthermore, ethical questions are raised about control of the research agenda (notably in Land Grant universities) and whether this favors corporate agribusiness interests over family farms and the public good.
  • Structural changes: The industrialization of agriculture over the past century has increased production efficiencies, but has led to fewer farms and the dwindling of rural communities. Agricultural leaders feel the pressure to maximize wealth over other concerns; farm operations become larger and more specialized; and markets have come to expect every kind of food all year round. These market-oriented or economic goals can lose sight of social, ecological and cultural goals. A vanguard of farmer and consumer groups are responding with community-minded and environmentally sound food systems.

These processes or trends are a complicated mix of factors that present “a complex interplay of light and dark, of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, of opportunities and threats,” as one of the symposium presenters characterized it. When it comes to agriculture, and perhaps to any extractive use of natural resources, what appears as economic opportunity could also be social and ecological threats.

Therefore, it is necessary to invoke a Principle of Sustainability: to satisfy food and fiber needs while maintaining the environment and natural resource base on which agricultural production depends. Given that industrial and exploitative agriculture has gone on for some time, a corollary Principle of Regeneration has also become necessary: to begin improving the environmental quality of the land so that the natural resource base is revitalized for the next generation of farmers.

Do you agree with these dominant factors? More to the question, do you feel that these factors are causing more problems than they are resolving? Or is it just the way business – or agribusiness – is in our modern productive world? There’s not much we can do about it.

Please let us know what you think! We’ll post selective comments as these come in, but the Symposium organizers will review and consider any and all comments as we move forward in our Faith, Food and the Environment project.

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