Seeing the World of Agriculture

Challenges and Opportunities

The development of industrialized forms of agricultural production has contributed to unprecedented yields, employing methods that have reduced the toil and drudgery that for centuries often characterized agricultural labor. Global commodities are exchanged, markets created, and resources distributed in international venues – all at a scale unimaginable just a few decades ago. There is so much to be grateful for when reflecting upon the history of agricultural production, especially in this past century.

Such gratitude, however, must be balanced by humility and clear-sightedness. This requires an integral assessment of the world of agriculture, an analysis informed by the Gospel’s affirmation of the dignity of the human person and the stewardship of creation (e.g., Rom. 8:18-22). In this light, an honest assessment recognizes that such historic achievements have often been accompanied by significant problems. Authentic leadership calls for the courage to face these concerns with determination, knowing that our effort at an honest assessment is the foundation of a more just plan of action.

It is therefore imperative that agricultural leaders exercise the courage to call out and break any cycle of dehumanization and environmental degradation that can often accompany large-scale industrial operations. Widespread abuses that become systemic within agricultural production are not only structural problems; it is a failure of our moral imagination. When agricultural leaders commit to a faith-filled vocation, they go beyond a pursuit of mere economic advantages, but create pathways for full human flourishing. As the Vocation of the Business Leader states: “[Businesses] contribute best when their activities are allowed to be oriented toward, and be fully respectful of, the dignity of people as ends in themselves who are intelligent, free and social.”[1]

Among the many points of reference, or complex factors, that shape agriculture and food production around the world, there are five that have profound ethical dimensions and are currently the source of great moral concern. In one sense, these factors have shaped the method and development of agriculture throughout the modern era. In a more urgent sense, these factors appear to be leading to serious problems and conflicts with the sustainable supply of food.

We identify these as: (1) globalization of industrialized agriculture; (2) financialization of agricultural commodities; (3) bias in agricultural knowledge and technology; (4) technocracy and power; and (5) ecological impacts. There are many other factors or points of reference that have a bearing on agriculture and food production – state regulation, international standards and rules, food consumer movements, peasant farmer campaigns, water availability, to name a few – all which deserve analysis. We begin with examining these five; other factors will be addressed in the near future.

Globalization of Industrialized Agriculture

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”(1 Cor. 3:7)

Globalization and the process of integrating national economies on a worldwide basis have created a global exchange of agricultural commodities and goods in the belief that the path to peace and prosperity is through the marketplace. Aided by information and communication technologies, there has been increased linkages and concentration at almost all stages of the food production and marketing chain. From a purely market-based and capital-growth measurement, globalization is an unprecedented success for those with enough economic power and influence to profit from its realization.

But the development of industrialized agri-food production on a global scale must be placed not merely at the service of corporate profits, but at the service of authentic human development. When national and local governments and economies cede fundamental parts of their sovereignty to the forces of globalization, vulnerable portions of the population are pushed to the margins of an unjust world economic order. In respect to agricultural production, that means what is produced and how it is produced is increasingly subject to outside interests, not local food producers. As they are forced to abide by the demands of larger foreign entities, regard for local traditions and customs fall by the wayside. The pattern has been disenfranchisement of local producers, often leading to urban migration, as large companies take over agricultural operations.[2] For many countries, there is the subsequent inability of governments to properly regulate capital flows and enforce environmental protections.

In theory, globalization and international economic policies can have positive effects, such as competitive pricing and efficient distribution, but these possibilities are often not realized in practice. Large-scale, industrial agricultural enterprises can be undertaken without regard to the needs of local communities, leading to the potential abuse of the land, inhumane livestock practices, or the dehumanization of low-wage workers in such operations. Many of these abuses are identified in Terra e Cibo[3] and Laudato Si’. Rather than leave these consequences of globalization unexamined, faith-filled agricultural leaders are charged with a special task to face such challenges with honesty and hope.

Related to the excesses of large-scale industrial practices within global agriculture, but distinct in its resolution, is the concentration of market power away from multiple agri-food producers into the hands of a few transnational agribusiness corporations. This corporate concentration appears to have taken over every link in the agri-food value chain.[4] The evidence is compelling that globalization and trade liberalization have been uneven in benefit for the many kinds of farmers and farm operations around the world, notably worse for the family and peasant farmers, particularly those struggling to emerge from rural poverty.[5]

The agricultural leader is called to see that the life of faith entails the fundamental obligations to justice and equity. Markets must be understood as ordered to the integral development of peoples, not merely as venues or exchanges for the sake of profits alone. It is not consistent with one’s life in Christ to ignore the total context of decisions and their impact on communities, especially the poor. As Pope Francis has written: “Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.” (LS §129)

Questions for reflection: Do I recognize that my work plays an essential role in the building up of the common good of the human family? Am I convinced I am an essential contributor in God’s plan of justice for the human family?


Financialization of Agribusiness Production

“But if anyone has the world’s good and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)

Financialization of business enterprises worldwide, including agribusiness, has intensified tendencies to emphasize wealth maximization and short-term gains at the exclusion of working for the common good.

In recent decades, macro-economic conditions have made farmland and primary food production more attractive to investors and corporate entities. This global economic restructuring of agriculture has spread to more and more countries, which often in turn leads to fewer, larger, and more highly industrialized farms. Agribusiness conglomerates seek capital to fuel further consolidation in order to achieve economies of scale in agri-food production processes. As a result, agricultural investment firms are purchasing farmland in various regions, covering major commodity crops. Rather than families farming the land, whose aim for a successful enterprise would also include a commitment to upholding the dignity of those working on the farm as well as contributing to the local economy, farm management is carried out by more anonymous entities: the distant firm, tenant farmers, or other third parties.[6]

While abuses of local regions and cultures is certainly not an inherent feature of corporate investing, agricultural leaders must have the courage to conduct an honest evaluation of their existing financial practices in light of their deeper vocation in Christ and their responsibility for the common good. Tradition affirms that an account will indeed be required of each of us, precisely in terms of how we have served “the least” among us. As Pope Francis has expressed:

“Land grabbing, deforestation, expropriation of water, inappropriate pesticides: these are some of the evils which uproot people from their native land. This separation is not only physical, but existential and spiritual because there is a relationship with the land. This sad separation is putting rural communities and their special way of life in notorious decline and even at risk of extinction.”[7]

Agriculture as a legitimate business endeavor, even on a large scale, can create opportunities for communities to participate fully in their own integral development. But to approach agriculture solely as the production of a market commodity reduces this noble undertaking to mere economic exchange and profit-taking. The agricultural leader has the unique responsibility to guide financial endeavors in accord with human flourishing, not merely the making of money. By serving the common good through the creation of and participation among fair exchanges, the agricultural leader can be a catalyst for authentic human flourishing.

Question for reflection: Do I practice principles of justice and solidarity in my dealings?


Bias in Agricultural Knowledge and Technology

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21)

It is integral to human development to use the resources of the earth, and it is integral to human dignity to act as co-creators in doing so. The processes of technological development, however, can sometimes obscure the fundamental reality that God ultimately provides our daily sustenance. “For in Him we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The production of food reveals our complete dependence upon the earth for our lives; agricultural production and development do not displace the presence of God, but allow us to participate in God’s care for us.

Knowledge and technology have expanded agricultural production, including the improvement of crop seeds and animal breeds. But ethical questions are raised in respect to the extent of such manipulation; ethics also apply to industrial livestock production, resource management, environmental impacts, international trade, and indeed to any human intervention. To this we include control of the research agenda by large and powerful entities; the question is whether this favors corporate agribusiness interests over family and peasant farms and local communities. The evidence suggests this is indeed the case as revealed in “Agriculture at a Crossroads,” a 2009 Global Report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; Island Press, Washington, DC.

It is too easy to say “choose technology wisely” since it is not always evident which technologies serve our values and which are detrimental to ourselves or to the environment. In our critique of the status quo of the industrial agriculture model, we believe there flows the assumption that if its new and advanced, technology ipso facto must be good.  Without a doubt, technology must continue to advance and improve; our contention is that one kind of technology can serve us equitably and another kind work against common values. Hence, we need to carefully choose technologies and direct our research to improve human community, broadly expand economic opportunity, and protect God’s creation.

Agricultural leaders can help larger society forces to evaluate the agricultural goods and services we will need to achieve common goals related to hunger, nutrition, human health, poverty, equity, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability. We are encouraged by the unique international effort that led to an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (2009). Their synthesis report made clear that in the changing world we now live in, “It will be important to assess the potential environmental, health and social impacts of any technology, and to implement the appropriate regulatory frameworks.”[8]

Given the growing social and economic disparities among the world’s farmers – mainly differentiated between industrial mega-operations and small proprietary farms — it is right to ask if agricultural science and technology as a product of North-based institutions is a cause to that. What is termed “progress” appears more as a process of displacement and replacement, serving the benefit of outside corporate interests over the authentic development of local populations. This requires a forthright examination. Who will lead agricultural science and technology, and be held accountable, so that this knowledge has a positive impact on rural communities and indigenous peoples? Such a re-imagining of our food production chain demands the mature efforts of leaders working in deliberate co-operation with all stakeholders.

Question for reflection: How might understanding my work as one co-operating in God’s provident care shape my approach to my daily tasks?


Technocracy and Power

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Whereas the previous factors identified – globalization, financialization, and agricultural knowledge and technology – emerged out of symposium discussions, confirmed by research studies and organizational reports, this next factor was articulated by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si. In Chapter Three of his universal letter addressed “to all men and women of good will,” he writes about our technical prowess and how this “creativity and power has brought us to a crossroads.” (LS §102)

We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change, the pope writes, which have brought about the invention and development of steam engines, railways, electricity, automobiles (including tractors and farm equipment, we might add), chemical industries, information technology and, more recently, biotechnologies. “It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for ‘science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.’” (LS §102)

“Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings,” Pope Francis goes on to say, so how can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress? Besides great improvements in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications, we can add agricultural improvements in seeds, crop yields, livestock production – virtually all along the food chain line from field to fork.

But Pope Francis warns that technology is also powerful — and not every increase in power is an increase of progress. We need a “culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (LS §105) in order to use technologies ethically. Science and technology are not neutral. Many environmental problems stem from the tendency to make the method and aims of science and technology a “one-dimensional paradigm” which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. Our current dominant technocratic paradigm has gone awry to the serious detriment of the world, whether we think of this in a social and natural context. The two are inextricably woven together.

Whereas human civilizations have constantly intervened in nature, there was a time we did so in tune with nature — receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand (LS §106). Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from the land while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Our relationship has become confrontational; we are squeezing the planet dry by going beyond every limit. This behavior is enabled by the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.”[9]

The technocratic bias also tends to dominate economics and political life, and this of course has a substantive impact on the primary sector of any economy: agriculture. Every advance in technology is hailed according to its efficiency in generating profit; less concern is given to impacts on the environment and in some notable cases, human beings and communities. We are slow in learning the lessons of environmental deterioration; financial interests fail to heed more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. We appear blind to the deepest roots of our present failures.

Question for reflection: Do my actions promote the dignity of those around me?


Ecological Impacts

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24)

The call to be protectors of the land and the creatures of the earth is integral and all-embracing, as we are called to serve as stewards of the earth. As Christians, we are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person. These concepts are reciprocal and together they make for authentic and sustainable human development. Dominion over the earth can only be exercised in communion with God, among men, with all living beings, and with the whole of creation.

The 2014 pastoral letter of the Irish Bishops echoes this point: “Our earth is complex, its systems of life are interdependent and finely balanced. Small changes in one part of the planet’s rhythms and systems can have significant, if not dramatic consequences for the whole of the earth and its creatures.”[10] For the natural environment to be respected, the human environment and its objective moral structure must also be respected. When we ignore or neglect one, it has a destructive impact on the other.

The very purpose of agriculture, of course, requires some degree of change to the natural ecosystem in order to produce the food, fiber, and other needs of human use and development. Industrial forms of agricultural production produce amazing yields, but at the same time compromise soil quality, lessen biodiversity, and create a concentration of by-product wastes. Small-scale farming can also damage the local environment, but the emergence of agro-ecological practices and sustainable land management technologies are exemplary remedies aimed at an improved agriculture that benefits both the land and the human family. The challenge for large-scale industrial agricultural leaders is to strike the necessary balance between sufficient yields of agricultural commodities without undermining the natural environment. To date, the negative environmental impact of such production is significant; the runoff of synthetic fertilizers and concentrated sources of livestock waste damage aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even oceans – with costly effects on drinking water quality and other water uses.

Climate change will intensify the impacts of these ecological changes and imbalances. Many parts of the world – whether the Industrialized North or Global South – are experiencing extreme weather events, such as prolonged droughts and epic storms and floods (cite?). More insidious impacts include the drawdown of water resources and the increased presence of pests and diseases. Agricultural leaders, if they are to guide us through this coming era of environmental imbalances and climate change, will need to wisely integrate a multitude of functions that sustain soil, water, biodiversity, a wide variety of producers and ecosystems, ample nutrition for a growing world population, and food security for all.

The world community is beginning to fully consider the effects of climate change upon agricultural production and food security. We sense that new policies, programs, and budget priorities are under consideration in response to the projections, risks and vulnerabilities created by climate change. Our question is whether agricultural leaders are helping to ensure that decisions made today do not render populations more vulnerable later on.

Questions for reflection: Do I recognize that the “earth is the Lord’s”? Do my decisions reflect a commitment to contributing to an ecological balance for generations to come?

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Now is the time for concerted action. Appropriate governance structures and institutions related to the interconnected issues of food, water, energy, and climate change will be crucial for the future, and more immediately for the poor and vulnerable. In order to do so, let us identify and reflect upon the ethical principles – the values – that will lead towards fair, just and right-minded action.




[1] Vocation of the Business Leader, 35.

[2] “Towards a Global Study on the Economics of Eco-Agri-Food Systems.” The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity: Agriculture and Food; Dec. 2015.

[3] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Terra e Cibo, (2015).

[4] Agribusiness Concentration: Globalization, Market Power and Resistance. Ch. 3 in The Global Food System: Issues and Solutions, ed., William D. Schanbacher. Praeger, 2014. Also see and

[5] UN-FAO. The State of Food and Agriculture (2015): “Social protection and agriculture: breaking the cycle of rural poverty.”

[6] See especially “Chapter 5: Social and Economic Effects of the U.S. Food System,” in Nesheim, et. al., Framework.

[7] Address of Pope Francis to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Old Synod Hall (Vatican), Oct. 28, 2014.

[8] “Agriculture at a Crossroads.” Global Report (2009) by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; Island Press, Washington, DC.

[9] Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, 462.

[10] The Cry of the Earth: A Call to Action for Climate Justice. Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference (2014) 201.