While today's family farmers worldwide are tested as never before, the church believes they can contribute to a more just ordering of life, said a new document issued Dec. 7.
"The circumstances facing the family in farming are especially distressing. In many respects, we have sought an abundant harvest in exchange for a more diminished culture of life," said the document, "The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader," released by the International Catholic Rural Association.
Agricultural leaders can be found at any link in the chain from seed to table, the document said, adding, "The agricultural leader is responsible for contributing to a vision of the food system in which the various participants are treated with dignity and justice."
"Today, the world produces more food than ever before, as incredible advances in agricultural technology and models of heightened efficiency have combined to create bountiful yields and a surplus of life-giving sustenance," it said.
"Yet the development of globalized and industrialized food systems has not come about without its share of alarming consequences: Family farms are being squeezed out of existence by the powerful forces of a global market."
Catholic Rural Life, the U.S. member of the International Catholic Rural Association, had a considerable hand in developing the document over the past few years. James Ennis, the U.S. group's executive director, is not only the international association's president but also one of two coordinators of the document, along with Christopher Thompson, an associate professor of moral theology and director of the Center for Theological Formation at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Catholic Rural Life is based. Robert Gronski, a CRL policy analysts, was one of the document's 10 contributors.
"The whole document is all about affirming the vocation of farming," Ennis told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 9 telephone interview from Rome, where he was helping lead a seminar on "The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader" one day before presenting it to Pope Francis at the Vatican.
"The average age of farmers has increased to about 58 years old, and the challenges of a globalized society and market and the impact that globalization has had is significant. It often squeezes out the smaller farmers," Ennis said. "Nevertheless, the church maintains hope that farmers, especially those inspired by Catholic social teaching, will see this vocation. We're trying to retrieve the idea of vocation in agriculture."
"Agriculture is increasingly and exclusively thought of in terms of profit, resulting in many short-sighted practices that have harmful results for both human communities and the natural environment," the document said. "An excessive reliance upon the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has caused demonstrable and significant degradation of the natural environment. This not only hurts members of the human family now, most usually the poor and the marginalized, but it also threatens long-term ecological sustainability."
The document added, "Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their lands or to abandon their traditional crops. ... Today's economic realities make such a lifestyle virtually impossible for those seeking these celebrated models of family farming. It is especially difficult for current families who seek to continue that heritage.
"The promotion of sustainable family farms must be one of the essential benchmarks of human-centered agricultural leadership," the document said, estimating that about 2.43 billion people are "smallholder" farmers who produce nearly 70 percent of all food eaten worldwide.
"Agricultural leaders have a responsibility to ensure the conditions in which the family can remain a vibrant community amidst the production of foods and other agricultural products," it said.
"Unable to compete due to their disproportionately diminished ability to participate in markets, many local food producers are forced to abide by the demands of larger, foreign, international entities, whose regard for local traditions and customs are rarely considered," said "The Role of the Agricultural Leader.
"This situation leads to disenfranchisement of local producers, economic dislocation, rural-to-urban migration, and the inability of governments to properly regulate capital flows and enforce environmental protections. Globalization and international economic policies can have positive effects, such as competitive pricing and efficient distribution, but these possibilities are often not realized in practice."
The document said, "Corporate concentration has taken over every link in the agri-food value chain. Some believe this creates a more efficient flow of food; others see it as a chokehold on farmers and consumers alike." It added, "Globalization and trade liberalization have been uneven for the many kinds of farmers and farm operations around the world; they have been notably worse for the family and peasant farmers, particularly those struggling to emerge from rural poverty."
"The entire order of creation, from the lowliest creatures up to humankind, is permeated by God's loving design. Agricultural life unfolds within his plan. In particular, the farmer who attends to the soil enters into a relationship with God, an order of creation that is itself already intelligently ordered by him," said the document.
However, "as Pope Francis has expressed: Land grabbing, deforestation, expropriation of water, inappropriate pesticides — these are some of the evils which uproot people from their native land. This separation is not only physical, but existential and spiritual because there is a relationship with the land. This sad separation is putting rural communities and their special way of life in notorious decline and even at risk of extinction."
The challenge, the document said, for "large-scale industrial agricultural leaders is to strike the necessary balance between sufficient yields of agricultural commodities without undermining the natural environment. The runoff of fertilizers and concentrated sources of livestock waste damage aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even oceans — with costly effects on drinking water quality and other water uses. Climate changes will intensify the impacts of these ecological changes and imbalances."
The 17-page, 11,000-word document, according to Catholic Rural Life's Ennis, is only a first edition. "Next year we conduct workshops and conferences around the world" on "The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader," he said, including 14 across the United States, in hopes of preparing a second edition before the end of 2017.