ST PAUL, Minn. — More than 40 leaders in farming, food production, environmental studies and theology gathered at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., in November to dialogue about the challenges of 21st-century agriculture and how faith traditions can inform solutions to such things as food shortages, environmental degradation and the ethical use of biotechnology.

They were participants in the "Faith, Food & the Environment: The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader" conference. Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, chief of staff to the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Vatican, gave the keynote address on the vocation of the agriculture leader, conveying Pope Francis’ message on faith and the call for a “human ecology” that is expected to be highlighted in his forthcoming encyclical on creation, ecology and the environment.

Father Czerny presented on behalf of Cardinal Peter Turkson, the prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who could not attend but who has played a leading role in drafting the encyclical that expected to be published in early 2015. Cardinal Turkson was forced to cancel his appearance, conference organizers said, after Pope Francis requested that he work to strengthen the Vatican’s response to the escalating Ebola epidemic in the cardinal’s native West Africa.

Father Czerny presented a moral framework that could guide the vocation of agricultural and food-production leaders. His comments were based on reflections offered in Vocation of the Business Leader, issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought.

 

Sustainable Agriculture

Father Czerny challenged his audience to go beyond their day-to-day focus on profits and output and support more sustainable agricultural methods that will protect the land and other resources for future generations.

Despite the fresh challenges facing business leaders today, from globalization to advances in  communications technology,  the pontifical council urges business leaders involved in the agricultural sector to promote sustainable practices that feed a hungry world while preserving God’s creation and to allow small farmers to exist alongside agribusiness.

These urgent goals will also be addressed in the Pope’s encyclical. 

“One of his real concerns is for people who are excluded or marginalized through poverty or other reasons and are left out of the system: that they be not only part of the solution, but part of finding the solution,” Father Czerny told the Register. “It’s not enough to say that we will meet the needs of the poor; the point is: We have to listen to the poor because the poor have something to contribute as well.”

Another ongoing concern is the way in which the financial system functions.

“While there are legitimate forms of financial services that meet the needs for trade and manufacturing to function, there are whole parts that are just feeding off the numbers, where fortunes are made based on either technology or cracks in the system, but not really contributing,” Father Czerny said. “It puts pressure on other parts of the sector, which really do need proper help. Everyone will hopefully find orientation, motivation and encouragement in this encyclical and also maybe reason for penitence.”

 

Developing Resources

The outcome of this symposium will inform Pope Francis’s encyclical and, along with an international dialogue that will take place in June in Milan, Italy, it will be used to develop a set of resources that can help advise future generations of food and agriculture leaders, said James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, which co-hosted the symposium with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Farmers Union enterprises and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.  

“What we find is that many people have faith, but they don’t see how that faith applies in their ag or business world, whether they are a farmer or work for General Mills,” said Ennis. “We have environmental degradation, water that is contaminated by nitrates, soil that is eroding, concerns around soil quality and infertility. There are a number of environmental issues that agriculture is implicated in causing some of these problems.

“Therefore, it is necessary to have a dialogue with those who are involved to address how to solve them. If we understand properly our role in creation, maybe we’ll be slower about how to manipulate it or developing more synthetic fertilizers without asking why we need this. There are production practices that raise concerns about the sustainability of the land and the environment.”

“We also have a concern about how to feed a hungry world and do it in a way that sustains life and the planet long term,” Ennis added. “It does need a change in our understanding of our role in nature.”

 

Bishop Etienne

Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyo., the current president of Catholic Rural Life, urged the disparate stakeholders, from big ag farmers and corporations to small farmers and faith leaders, to come together to address these major challenges. 

“We realize these various groups look at things from different perspectives, but, already, at the small-group conversations, I hear people saying that we have to raise up more values other than profit, that there other goods here that we’re striving for in our daily lives,” said Bishop Etienne. “We’re also pointing to the dignity of the human person and the human family. We’ve become very isolated in our culture and society today, and the food and ag business is one area where we can help people see beyond the day-to-day business to the world community that they seek to serve.”

A number of Farmers Union presidents from various states came to the conference to register their hope for securing the survival of family and subsistence farms.

Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, expressed alarm at the number of people leaving farming due to the capitalization requirements and the growing struggle to eke out an existence.

“If you lose more farmers, will corporations own it all, and then will farmers become serfs and work for corporations? Will then consumers have no say in the cost of food or food security? Is this where we’re going with farming and food production?”

“At the same time, you have to have a nation that can feed itself and have food security for people on the margins of society,” he said. “Twenty percent of children in our society are hungry and 1 in 6 in Minnesota. These are the some of the questions we hope to answer in this symposium. If we don’t engage in this, we’ll walk down the path of just letting it happen, and somebody else is going to control our future.”

 

Economic Pressures

Within all of this, Peterson added, large and small farmers have to have the ability to make money, and the margins are getting thinner, so their output must increase for them to stay afloat.

“At some point, that collapses,” said Peterson. “We can’t survive an economic collapse within the farm economy because the nation depends on us for food, fuel, fiber, substances. But we can’t continue to feed a model that eats its own.” 

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.