Cardinal Turkson discusses meaning of 'vocation to agriculture'

St. Paul, Minn. — Catholics, and not just farmers, should consider "what could be the meaning of a vocation to agriculture," said the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday as part of a conference in St. Paul called "Faith, Food & the Environment: The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader," Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson said Jesus expected those who listened to him to know about agriculture or at least be exposed to it.

This enabled him, explained the cardinal, to tell the parable of the sower, which Jesus used to teach his disciples that God's word, like the farmer's seed, must be nurtured to yield a fruitful harvest.

Turkson was a late no-show on the conference agenda, as planners learned only two days before his scheduled address that he was unable to come to the conference, having been assigned by Pope Francis to help guide the church's response to the Ebola crisis in his native West Africa. Delivering the cardinal's remarks was his chief of staff, Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny.

The cardinal has been an adviser in the drafting of an expected papal encyclical on the environment, ecology and creation. The 70 invited participants at the "Faith, Food & the Environment" conference throughout the gathering signaled their own interest in the encyclical, expected to be issued in the spring.

The cardinal in his remarks said Pope Francis told one group meeting in late October at the Vatican, "Your concerns will be very present in that encyclical."

"From the very start, the Creator tells us to till the earth and to keep it" -- not in a sense of private ownership, Turkson said, but to preserve its use for future generations. Given today's farming practices, he noted, "it is possible we have been doing too much tilling and not enough keeping."

Agriculture "cannot be just a job," he said, "if we keep it part of God's plan and history."

As in business, "for everyone who has given much, much more will be demanded," Cardinal Turkson said, "this will also apply to people in agriculture. ... This is what we are expecting to see from them in their vocation."

The pressure to feed a growing number of people on the planet intensifies, and the use of genetically modified organisms has been proposed as one means of staving off hunger. The debate over the ethics behind their use continues.

But Turkson asked whether global agricultural giants "accept the food sovereignty of every nation and region? ... Is that what is best for humanity and the environment?" He added that "best" does not always necessarily mean "most," noting that the concept cuts across such spheres as fertilizer use, profit and even eating.

And the pressure to grow more food may be misplaced, according to the cardinal. "If we're throwing away 40 percent of what we produce, is it optimal to produce 20 percent more?" he asked.

Turkson noted that Pope Francis has said agrarian reform "besides being politically necessary, is a moral obligation." But the obligations may not stop there, he said.

"Would we not also agree that we need agrarian reform -- a rethinking of the whole scene?" he asked. "Would we then want an energy reform? Would we then want a sustainable food reform? Would we then want climate reform?"

"Faith, Food & the Environment: The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader" was held Nov. 5-7 on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.