Document offers church's hope for farmers as 'agricultural leaders'

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By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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Editor’s Note: The Catholic Rural Life website is, which has a link to “The
Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” document at

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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