Today, the world produces more food than ever before due to incredible advances in agricultural technology and models of heightened efficiency that have combined to create bountiful yields.
Yet the development of an industrialized and globalized food system has not come about without alarming consequences: small and mid-sized farms are pushed aside by the powerful forces of a global market; rural communities and their distinctive agrarian culture simultaneously fall by the wayside; new technologies, while promising greater food security, pose ethical questions from the genetic level to livestock practices to food quality and safety; and industrialized systems of food production all too often lend themselves to wasteful and destructive practices that degrade the soil and impose an ecological impact far beyond the farm.
Furthermore, despite the current bounty provided by contemporary models of farming, there has been a failure to ensure that people everywhere receive adequate nutrition. An alarming number of children, families and communities around the world go hungry or undernourished due to structural flaws in our economic system and public policy.
These troubling developments are the result of a mindset that treats agriculture solely as an economic endeavor, one dominated by the maximization of profits and a distressing separation from the social and material well-being of all. This exclusive economistic approach is problematic and harmful to the vitality of humanity and the sustainable use of the earth’s resources. Clearly, the dominant industrial approach to agriculture is in need of an ethical reformation, one that prioritizes the dignity of the human person and the integrity of creation, and reconnects agriculture to principles beyond economic metrics.
This foundation can be found in the Christian tradition. This tradition teaches that producing and distributing food is much more than a transaction in the marketplace, devoid of moral content or ultimate significance. Indeed, agriculture should be considered a vocation: a form of life through which God can be known, served and glorified. Inspired by the belief that God freely created the Earth for our well-being, we have a duty to “till and to keep” this gift. Farmers, we believe, uniquely cooperate with God’s plan by feeding His children and acting as stewards of His creation. This vocational understanding of agriculture as a calling from God to be good stewards of the Earth and to care for one another must be explored and expanded. This reflection will aid agricultural leaders to see more broadly, judge more deeply, and act more humbly (justly?).
SEEING: There are many complex factors shaping the global food system and their impact on farm communities and the natural environment. Five areas in particular demand urgent attention:
Globalization of Industrialized Agriculture: The world expansion of highly industrialized methods of production and management has favored powerful corporate interests. This is observable at local and national levels when family and small-scale farmers are pushed off their land, often into poverty.
Financialization of Agribusiness Production: Agricultural commodities are becoming exclusively defined in terms of profit, resulting in many short-sighted decisions and practices that have harmful results for vulnerable populations, rural communities and the natural environment.
Bias in Agricultural Knowledge and Technology: New technologies have increased production, but their development and implementation are led astray by likely investment returns rather than guided by concern for the common good. Scientific research and technology are too often driven by large agribusiness interests at the expense of farm communities and ecological sustainability.
Technocracy and Power: An overemphasis on understanding and solving problems exclusively through a technological perspective has diverted attention away from larger questions of human flourishing. Corporate power has distorted the structure of a competitive marketplace, while technocratic management has misshapen the dignity of work throughout the food supply chain.
Ecological Impacts: An excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, exacerbated by inattentiveness to nurturing and enhancing soil health, have caused demonstrable and significant degradation of the natural environment. This is hurting members of the human family, often the poor and marginalized, and threatens long-term ecological sustainability.
JUDGING: Given these pressing challenges facing modern farming, how should agricultural leaders think about solutions? Attempts to address these issues must come from a place of hope and must be informed by a vocational understanding of agriculture and leadership. Such an approach accepts that faith enables us to see clearly, judge wisely and act prudently when we choose a career in agriculture and strive to manage a life-sustaining relationship with the Earth and creation. We believe a sustainable approach to agriculture appears to go hand-in-hand with family farms — generations of families living on the land they till — a true principle of food production that grounds agriculture in deeply social and cultural dimensions.
Additionally, a vocational approach to agriculture holds that nutritious food for the entire human family is a matter of justice, and therefore the agricultural leader is called to shape policy for a just food system. Justice also calls the agricultural leader to respect the dignity of farmworkers and food process workers, ensuring that their work is safe and fairly compensated. In all matters of agriculture and food production, the agricultural leader guides producers and consumers to make choices that go beyond mere profit and cost factors, actively overcoming reductive paradigms in order to produce an abundance of nutritious food through practices that are also beneficial for the environment. In a word, a vocational understanding of agriculture should lead to a heightened recognition and respect for farming as a noble call from God and an irreplaceable way of life.
ACTING: After seeing and understanding the modern challenges of agriculture, and reflecting on Church principles for the common good, there is the call to move from aspiration to actual practice. The goal of this reflection is to inspire practical ways of applying faith principles to agricultural production and food security. We point a way for agricultural leaders to apply vocational aspirations more concretely to their organizational work. This document is not simply a thought exercise; rather, our intention is “to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). By helping others understand the complex challenges facing agriculture, agricultural leaders can make a difference in bringing about a just food system that upholds the dignity of the human person and maintains the integrity of creation. To bring this about, we consider three areas of action:
Ecological Conversion: Recognizing Earth’s Limits, Tempering our Excesses
Economic Integrity: Respecting the Dignity of Work and Caring for our Common Home
Ethical Discourse: Religion in Dialogue with Agricultural Leadership
CONCLUSION: Gratitude to the Agricultural Leader
Our confidence in Jesus Christ as both the Redeemer of the World and the one “through whom all things were made” ultimately transforms our relationship to the Earth and creation at large. The task of tilling the earth is intimately tied to our lives in Christ. The affirmation of the goodness of creation allows us to see the earth from a perspective different from that of mere use and efficiency. It is, rather, a gift to be shared in community with others and humility before God.
These insights shared here will require a new global solidarity, one in which everyone has a part to play and every action, no matter how small, can make a difference. Our solidarity with others has a two-fold dimension. The first is rooted in our dependence upon the one God, Father of us all. The second is rooted in our dependence upon the one earth, home for humanity. All of us share this dual heritage: created by God and fashioned from the earth. And so all of us are bound to care for the soil. In doing so, we care for each other. Whether we till the soil directly or live off the labor of those who do, each one reveals the earth from where we came. Created immortal by God and destined for eternity, the human person, nonetheless, is of the earth. To till it and to keep the earth is part of our promise to God and our solidarity with each other.
The complexity of these challenges will call forth humility and dialogue. Humbly listening to the message of God, our neighbors, and creation itself becomes the ultimate way through which these challenges will be met: dialogue with God in prayer and contemplation, dialogue with our neighbor in justice and solidarity, dialogue even with creation in humility, wonder and gratitude. It will demand our earnest prayers, prayers for vision, for courage, for hope, for steadfast service to one’s family, neighbors, and future generations.
The numerous examples of faithful stewardship in the Sacred Scriptures and the many lessons from our Lord himself that draw heavily upon farming provide ample material for further reflection and encouragement. Tradition and charity allow us to imagine, that while Jesus had Mary’s eyes, he had Joseph’s way of seeing the world. It is not impossible to imagine that it was through the daily labors he shared with Joseph and all those who worked on the land that Jesus came to see the truth and dignity of agricultural labor, for He himself says “that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” (Mt 13:27) Agricultural leaders, and farmers in particular, take pride in your work as witnesses of the ways of the Lord.
Proceed to INTRODUCTION: To Till and To Keep