Acting for the Common Good

From Aspirations to Practices

“But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

We began this reflection by recalling our original vocation as the children of God: To till and to keep God’s creation. Though we were cast from the Garden of Eden, that first sanctuary on Earth, we believe in the Promised Land and strive to respect the covenant between God and Man. That covenant tells us to abide by the laws of God the Creator and uphold the universal principles of life, as we now strive to apply in this reflection on agriculture, food and the environment. In the light of human history, we have come to see that agriculture based on family production is the best model for living on the land. We hold a deep preference for the family farm and maintain a great respect for this kind of farmer as a provider of food and a caretaker of the land. But we also realize that we operate in a world of globalized markets that are shaped and bent by the powers of financialization and technocracy.

It remains our concern that industrial-scale farming operations are given undue support and attention in comparison to proprietary family farms. Equally troubling is the increasingly adverse ecological impacts brought about by an industrial model of monocultural, energy-intensive, soil-depleting, and chemical-dependent production. The 2008 world food crisis was an important catalyst for realizing the need for a fundamental transformation of the assumptions that have driven food, agriculture, and trade policy for too long. So we ask agricultural leaders who share these concerns to enter into dialogue with the many stakeholders who seek to contribute and participate meaningfully once again in food production. This must urgently happen at all levels: political, economic, and social; from local decision-making to international agreements.

Central to such transformative dialogue is our fervent belief in the oneness of humanity as children of one God and common citizens of the one earth. We heard this refrain in our many conversations with farmers and other stakeholders around the world, both in developed economies and emerging ones. In the tilling and keeping of their parcels of land, no matter how small or large, they felt a bond to a much deeper and greater common home, the earth. As Pope Francis has said: “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (LS §164). Thus we ask agricultural leaders to serve the Lord in a spirit of faith, courage, and practical wisdom.

I. Ecological Conversion: Recognizing Earth’s Limits

The fundamental transformation of agriculture in a world of finite natural resources and a growing global population may well turn out to be one of the great challenges for this century. International security remains a major challenge, but this will be aggravated – or eased – by the level of food security in various parts of the world. The nexus of food-water-energy calls for an ecological balance that cannot be regained under the current model of industrial production. Nations and societies around the world are beginning a paradigm shift in agriculture. The “green revolution” of years past with its over-reliance of intensive technological inputs must now be converted into an integral ecological approach: an agro-ecological model that better balances agricultural efficiency, integrity of creation, fair livelihoods, and the strengthening of community.

Therefore, the required transformation is more profound than simply making minor adjustments to the existing agri-food system. In line with agricultural research that properly addresses environmental impacts, it is time to institute more diversified and innovative forms of agricultural production that function in greater harmony with the local environment, both natural and human. Various reports support such a systemic turn; UNCTAD*, as one example, lists these elements of the ecological transformation now required for agriculture:

Increasing soil carbon

Optimization of organic & inorganic fertilizer use

Reduction of direct & indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of livestock production

Reduction of indirect GHG emissions through sustainable land management

Reduction of waste throughout the food chain (farm to market to consumer)

Changing dietary patterns towards climate friendly food consumption

Reform of the international trade regime for food & agricultural products

* “Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate.” Trade and Environment Review 2013; UNCTAD

Political and institutional frameworks need to promote sustainable practices that remain economically sound but can overcome harm to our natural resource base. Political activity – ranging from the local level to national policies – must find a way to modify industrial production, protect biodiversity and other ecological goods, and offer greater incentives for a diversified agriculture. Because each country or region has its own challenges and limitations, there can be no simplified solution of “one size fits all.” Through dialogue with all relevant partners who attend to the larger connections within the fabric of life, and a prayerful and honest discernment of the vocation of farming, meaningful solutions can be achieved. By possessing a more comprehensive vision of agriculture, social and cultural changes are set in motion towards a new kind of agriculture that our vulnerable world now needs.

II. Economic Integrity: Caring for Our Common Home

Given the modern challenges facing those who pursue an agricultural life, we are compelled to reiterate that farming remains a noble vocation. Farming produces the most basic and fundamental form of wealth – food – and can improve our natural world in doing so. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for areas in which it operates; it allows families to stay on the land, creating for themselves a decent life, which in turn carries out an essential service to the ecological good.

The agricultural leader who aspires to this vision can help create an economic system that is a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities – striving creatively, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable quality of life on the land. Agriculture has always meant work, and it cannot be forgotten that historically such work was been seen as drudgery and low social standing. But an enlightened and right-minded economy can overcome such dismal conditions. Again, we are inspired by the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care of Our Common Home:

We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replaces human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. (LS§128)

In this reflection on agriculture and food production, we tried to encapsulate this complex and interrelated world system and do justice to economic and environmental concerns. Our starting point was that we can no longer single out just one objective, namely maximizing production, without considering the complex web of life and social relationships. Our faith perspective calls us to ensure that the agricultural system — besides delivering abundant yields — meets society’s other needs, such as the maintenance of public health, the safeguarding of rural employment, the protection of the environment, and contributions to the overall quality of life. We are compelled to raise “big picture” questions, and we now ask agricultural leaders to not excuse themselves in addressing these. We have no doubt you leaders can devise a more sustainable approach to agriculture. The real challenge is to do so while recognizing the wider social, cultural and ecological aspects identified in this reflection.

We believe this can be achieved by bringing together seemingly competing voices around a common table. This gathering begins as all gatherings must, with a common prayer for our brothers and sisters worldwide, who themselves pray for their daily bread and the forgiveness of sins. Only then, we believe, can business leaders, agriculturalists, economists and experts in ecosystem services begin to go beyond their circumscribed fields and provide a comprehensive valuation of agri-food systems. We can only hope this leads to the full environmental and social costs across various food production systems, allowing policy makers to make better informed decisions.

We have argued that the exceptional power of agri-food corporations in the marketplace and their dominance over public policies must be curtailed. Public policy and the marketplace are meant for the common good, and part of that is a transformation of production patterns towards ecologically sustainable and climate-sensitive practices. At the same time, public policies must encourage moderate and nutritious consumption. These objectives are met, in part, by:

  1. Promoting equity and fairness all along the supply chain. Small-scale food producers play a vital role in community and regional food systems, and their access to and ownership of natural resources, especially land and water, must be protected to a reasonable extent.
  2. Promoting nutrition education and ensuring the production of nutritious foods. The cost of food is not just the price marked on a product. Poor nutrition – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, and obesity – leads to life-long impacts, such as stunted physical growth and cognitive and impairments.
  3. Advocating and implementing ambitious climate action. Climate change impacts us all, from the poorest households to the largest company’s supply chain. We praise those in both public and private sectors who have taken action, such as integrating climate risks and adopting low- to zero-emission practices.

These actions brought about by an “economic conversion” is inspired by a spirit of solidarity. The virtue of solidarity propels individuals and communities to go beyond their narrow selfishness or enclave mentality, and to care for their neighbors, their regions, even the world. Solidarity moves us beyond blind self-interest and private advantage; solidarity reminds us that we are social beings. In solidarity, we are joined in a greater body of being and the fruitful sharing of common desires. For rural life, the principle of solidarity motivates us to care for the earth and the greater bio-community in which we ourselves are just a part. Solidarity in this sense means a stewardship of the land as we recognize that creation is a web of life in which we all cling together.

III. Ethical Discourse: Religion in Dialogue with Agricultural Leadership

This reflection is directed to the agricultural leader who, by position or persuasion, influences others to think or behave in a certain way within our modern agri-food system. Although we touched on some types of agricultural practices, we were looking far beyond any technical solution which agricultural science or knowledge could offer to solve the serious problems of food production in a finite world. The offering of religion is to hold a moral compass for humanity and sound a continual call to charity. Our natural lives are nourished by our daily bread, but to live fully we are called to “to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well”? (LS §200)

You, agricultural leaders, can show the way to this fuller life by imagining a future of “right relationships” in our social, economic and ecological interactions. For those who believe in the Way and the Truth, you no doubt feel challenged to live in a way consonant with your faith, especially when economic and structural forces press you to contradict your religious beliefs. When you incorporate spirituality into your leadership, there is the hope you will cause others to seek their true selves and foster a greater sense of meaning and significance in “tilling and keeping” the earth.

So we ask agricultural leaders to stay in dialogue with the Church and with their religion. Your endeavors to apply spiritual values and principles into your work demonstrates a genuine concern for the farmer as more than replaceable labor, the human family as more than consumers and the Earth as more than exploitable resources. Spiritual leadership assists others in finding meaning in their work by addressing fundamental questions: What are our human values and ethical principles? What is our greater purpose? Is our work worthy?

Integrity, adherence to the truth, humility: these are spiritual ideals that also have a profound effect on leadership success. It follows that spiritual practices can heighten leadership effectiveness: Showing respect for others; demonstrating fair treatment; listening responsively; recognizing the contributions of others; expressing authentic care and concern.

We can take heart in the fact that the majority of people around the world profess to be believers. This should encourage the agricultural leader who might also believe that the world’s religions can continue in dialogue with the agricultural world for the sake defending the poor, building solid networks of respect and fraternity, and protecting nature. “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity” (LS §201).