A Vision for the Agricultural Leader
“Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” (Psalm 37:3)
It is essential to remember, if we are not to lose hope, that the dilemmas presented above are not meant to cast aspersions upon those who work in agribusiness or manage food production. These observations are meant to awaken a profound sense of the great promise and responsibility that God grants to those who serve others in the production, processing, and distribution of nutritious food and other agricultural goods. Whether directly through farm management, more remotely in corporate centers of global enterprises, or in the national and international policy arenas, the agricultural leader is entrusted with a task of immense importance. If attention is brought to the genuine difficulties of the present situation, it is not in a spirit of futility, but one of hope and expectation – a hope that is made possible through a deeper appropriation of one’s Christian vocation. When faced with the extraordinary challenges of creating a more just and sustainable food system, it is essential to keep in mind the consoling words of our Lord Himself: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)
The foundational principles of this reflection are respect for human dignity and concern for the common good. These were recognized and emphasized in The Vocation of the Business Leader, our companion in this reflection, and so we reiterate how these principles should inform the way we organize agricultural production. We add, however, a crucial third principle: the integrity of creation. If we believe that the Earth belongs to the Lord, and we do, then all of Creation has an integrity and inherent value beyond its utility or usefulness for human beings. In the production of food and other agricultural goods for our human needs, we firmly state that farms, ranches and food processing facilities should abide by a balance of economic, ecological and socially-just principles. In practice, these activities broadly fall under the following:
- Securing basic human needs: nutritious foods and land rights
- Respecting the dignity of farmers and farmworkers
- Creating sustainable wealth by caring for creation
- Valuing the common good of family farms
It is a social tradition of the Church to outline practical principles and offer guidance to decision-makers in the good they may do. These practical principles build on the foundational principles of the Church: respect for human dignity, value of solidarity and the common good, a special preference for the poor, and regard for the integrity of creation. In this way, our reflection can better clarify the vocation of the Christian agricultural leader and their role in the world food system. A faith-based reflection is meant to lead to prudent discernment: a way to determine what we are called to do by a just and merciful Creator. This process is not mean to point a finger or lay blame, but to guide us in offering our hands in support and laying a foundation for a new way of living and expressing solidarity with the poor and vulnerable of the world.
Securing Basic Human Needs: Nutritious Foods and Land Rights
Food is not a market product like any other. Abundant, nutritious foods are essential to human flourishing; agricultural production is yoked to the fundamental demands of what is due in justice to the human family. The sustainable production of food is therefore a fundamental obligation to which all of us are responsible. The right to nutritious food is intimately linked to the right of human life, which must be respected in its entirety. It is not possible to love one’s neighbor and have no regard for the quality or reliability of their food sources.
A fundamental moral measure of any society, therefore, is to ask how the poor and vulnerable fare. Those who suffer from lack of basic goods and necessities bring before us a profound question about the order of the world, and whether this order is truly right and good. A constant concern for the poor means that we should act – as individuals and as members of community – to overcome the structural injustices of economic orders. This preferential option for the poor is a commitment to transforming society into a place where human rights and the dignity of all are respected.
In solidarity with the poor and overall concern for the common good, agricultural leaders become alert for opportunities to serve those in need while also creating opportunities for more involvement in farming and food production. This takes us beyond the fundamental common good of the provision of vital goods for human sustenance, be it food, clean water, and the air we breathe. The common good is also social, which means that each of us finds comfort and happiness when we belong to a community and are productive in meeting our own basic human needs. True food security comes about by developing local capacities, not by simply increasing agricultural production where it currently prevails in the hope that the global market will do the rest.
World summits and global declarations on food security regularly commit to the fight against hunger wherever food insecurity persists. Given that it is secure access to food that is the critical problem (as opposed to insufficient production of food), the question is closely tied to market access and poverty. While some argue for the expansion of free and open global markets to reduce food insecurities, others call for the development of local agriculture appropriate to a region or area. Care must be taken, however, not to create a dependency on a single agricultural commodity, especially for export, in the promise that this “economic development” will create local employment and income. For as a region’s “land wealth” is exchanged through its exports, the temporary income this may achieve can leave the community impoverished as more and more imported foods are then needed in order to sustain healthy local communities. A fair and balanced commodity of goods for the market and local food production is a prudent course.
Land ownership is a complimentary basic human need to nutritious foods. Protecting the land rights of indigenous and peasant farmers is a great concern in the Global South. Aggressive agribusiness interests seek new lands for their large-scale production operations; this becomes controversial when legal actions override cultural understandings and traditions. Arguments of “industrial efficiencies” often outweigh the reality of smallholder farmers producing sufficient food for their local communities and larger regions. Transnational agribusiness corporations fail to evoke a spirit of solidarity among peasant farmers when they take over land ownership and displace rural populations in the name of efficiency.
Respecting the Dignity of Farmers and Farmworkers
The Vocation of the Business Leader speaks of the importance of developing a spirituality of God’s presence throughout life, especially in one’s work situation. In the broad field of agriculture, developing the spiritual posture of receptivity — of recognizing that one’s capacity to produce something of value is due to one’s prior status as a creature sustained by God — seems especially fitting. Perhaps in no other occupation is dependence upon the Creator more pronounced than in that of agriculture. This is not mere pious rhetoric or the musings of a romantic, but a central insight into the vocation of farming and the associate calling of the agricultural leader. Those who work so closely with creation work in the company of God.
Yet in seeming paradox, agricultural labor is often arduous and under constant threat of physical injuries. The church’s spiritual patrimony seems especially suited for this reality. Both the traditions of the Christian East and West have affirmed that faithful labor has been a path to sanctity. To all agricultural laborers she says: Your work often unfolds in solitude, but you are never alone. The loving eye of our heavenly Father looks upon you; Saint Joseph the patron of workers, Saints Isidore and Maria, and the communion of saints are among you; indeed, the whole Church enjoins you in your efforts when she prays at her liturgy the ancient prayer of blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you….” And the whole of the faithful responds: “Blessed be God forever!” The heroic efforts of you, agricultural workers, are not ignored. Instead, united with the prayers of the whole Church, your efforts to transform the world, to bring to fruition the Providence of the Father, are brought to a culmination in each Eucharistic sacrifice.
We would be remiss to not explicitly recognize the many grievances raised by those who labor in the field: poor living and working conditions, pesticide poisonings, lack of access to health care, lack of labor laws and protections, and suppression and garnishment of wages. These grievances are not just farmworkers, notably in the fruit and vegetable sectors, but also food processing workers in the beef, pork, poultry and seafood industries. These workers can be forgotten or unseen in the food chain, yet it is by their labor that we enjoy an abundant supply of fresh produce and packaged foods for our daily meals. This situation cries out for fairer treatment of farm and food workers, and extending our respect for labor and human dignity to those most vulnerable in agricultural production.
Creating Sustainable Wealth by Caring for Creation
The term “sustainable agriculture” is used by many actors and stakeholders to capture this notion of balance and sustenance. This has the effect of making the term pliable to the needs and purposes of many differing groups and perspectives, so much so that the term may be losing its original meaning. We wish to affirm this basic meaning of sustainable agriculture:
To satisfy human food and fiber needs;
To enhance environmental quality and the regenerative capacities of the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
To make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
To sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
To enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
[See more at U.S. Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov/oce/sustainable/definitions.htm]
We assert, however, that sustainable agriculture is a meaningless goal unless it includes a consideration of human life, especially the life of the family. For as Christians, we are not called not merely to sustain some biological homeostasis. Instead we are tasked with fostering the natural conditions in which each human person may come to their full stature as a son or daughter of God. This is the noble vision we anticipate and call forth from agricultural leaders. Each one of us must honestly examine our practices and address the question: how do I give witness to the promotion and sustainability of a culture of life?
Saint John Paul II spoke of the need to respect the constituent and inter-related elements of the natural world: “One cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings…animals, plants, the natural elements – simply as one wishes, according to one’s own economic needs. On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos.” (Saint John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, §34.)
The call to be protectors of the land and the earth is integral and all-embracing. 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. 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 trans-genetic modification of creatures, for example, is not merely an instance of making changes at the organic level of a particular kind of creature. Its impact includes ecosystems and social networks of food production as well. Such modifications of a creature must be undertaken only in deliberate deference to the order and wisdom of creation of which it is a part.
The principle invoked here is respect for the integrity of creation. Our technological innovations and biotechnology modifications must be carried out with utmost care and prudent circumspection, when proportionate goods are clearly identified and reasonably expected, and other reasonable alternatives have been considered, including the modification of our lifestyles of consumption. The implications are rarely clear and evident at first, so it takes wise and precautionary leadership to grasp the ramifications of our choices. As expressed in the teachings of Laudato Si:
“The precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.” (LS §186)
Valuing the Common Good of Family Farms
Our concern for the integrity of creation does not lessen our primary duty to protect human life, especially the family. In many countries to this day, the essential community of production is the family and their extended members. The family farm allows for the creative participation on the part of many members of the community, children and the elderly in particular, who in more industrial urban centers are now often marginalized in terms of their contribution to the well-being of the household.
Our devoted attention is directed to farmers who live on the land they work. That farmers and their families are tied to the land in a fundamental way is a seemingly obvious fact, but one that is easily overlooked in our increasingly industrialized and urban lifestyles and imaginations. Farmers engage in a distinctive endeavor where they are not at liberty to simply “pull up stakes and go” when things do not turn out according to their plans. They are invested in a place, and therefore a community, sometimes for several generations. Their expertise is not capable of easy transport from one set of circumstances to the next.
Contemporary circumstances make the reality of the family farm more difficult. Without retreating into an overly romantic view of the past, we can still say that the situation is a cause of grave concern for a number of reasons. Communities are depleted and unable to sustain themselves due to the lack of participating members and future generations. There is an ironic quality to rural communities; namely, that despite the remarkable tradition of abundance and productive efficiency, the communities themselves are struggling to survive. Again, the widespread endorsement of an industrial approach to what is fundamentally an organic reality contributes to the creation of these social contradictions.
In many countries of the world, those who worked the land had remarkable gifts of hospitality and sharing, due to their own understanding that the earth itself was a gift. Such traditions are not entirely dormant. Retrieving these habits of solidarity, even in industrialized societies, can be possible. The result is not only the production of wealth but the overcoming of individualism and selfishness. Agriculture is not immune to self-interested behavior and certainly the pressures of the market system press it so. We do not mean to suggest a return to farming as it use to be, as if there was some golden age of agriculture that we somehow left behind, but urge societies everywhere to retrieve those habits that made it possible for individual farms and agribusiness firms to grow what is good for the earth and providing consumers an abundance of what is nutritious and good to grow.
It is precisely due to their long-term commitment to a specific place and their value of stability that makes family farms successful. It is necessary, therefore, that prudent safeguards be put in place to protect family farms from the vagaries of market volatility. Farming is about patience and endurance, courage and hope, steadfastness and commitment, as it is an enterprise whose outcome is not always guaranteed. The success of farmers is essential to human flourishing and ought to be regarded with a spirit of encouragement and hope. Agricultural leaders are to take as their model the farmer described in the Epistle of James (5:7) who is routinely patient before the Lord and His ways. “Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” If committed to a spirit of Christian service and humility to one’s family, one’s neighbor (seen and unseen) and God, agricultural leadership can be a path of heroic sanctity.
Question for reflection: How do I witness to faith, hope and charity in my life as an agricultural leader?
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The creation of a sustainable and just world calls for a virtuous approach. Agricultural leaders, especially at national and international policy levels, know the extent of food, hunger, and poverty problems the world faces. A virtues-based approach – one we believe should be based on Gospel values – can reshape the economy with a more human face. Only by locating the economy within the just needs of society and the ecological balance of the earth can we turn from the disastrous path we are on. Human beings are meant to be responsible stewards of creation, and indeed we can say that we work in harmony with God as co-creators. Just as God is One, the web of life is one and we are its caring stewards. How we live on God’s land cannot be disconnected to how we live in community as social beings. If we are to sustain ourselves in authentic community, we must maintain a healthy environment, we must develop a beneficial economy, and we must build a just society.
Therefore, now is the time for concerted action. Appropriate governance structures and institutions related to the interrelated issues of food, water, energy and climate change will be crucial for the future of the world, and more immediately for the poor and hungry. What can Christian and faith-based organizations around the world do about these challenges? How can they walk alongside agricultural leaders in this urgent endeavor? Each in their own ways, how can agricultural leaders analyze their respective situations, apply the teachings of their faith, and provide a new course of action?
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