We Are Made in God’s Image and We Are What We Eat: Environmental Toll of Agricultural Practices and the Catholic Response

Globalization and Agriculture

As the effects of globalization dominate every aspect of human life, something as simple as the food people eat every day turns into an ethical dilemma. Agriculture has become a massive industry, in which there is disconnect between the farmers and the food they grow, and subsequently, between the consumer and the food. Questionable techniques employed in industrial farming include the reprehensible treatment and raising of livestock, the use of pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the global scale at which the food is produced, packaged, and transported. These considerations make the consumer wonder if something that is “all-natural” in his supermarket is “real”, and the Catholic consumer will wonder if this is how God intended the fruits of his creation to be cultivated and consumed. Another set of factors to take into consideration is both the short and long term effects that these mainstream agricultural techniques and the state of the food supply have on the world’s environment, namely pollution, and the health of the people of the world. These concerns are pertinent specifically within the developed countries of the Western hemisphere, most notably in the United States. These industrial farms are “run like factories with large inputs of fossil fuels, pesticides and other chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil,”[1] and the impact on the environment, the animals, the plants, the human consumers, and the relationships between these individuals is a great harm done to the common good of all people and to all of creation. As the shift from local farming and its trusted methods to global industrial agriculture and its inherent unethical practices takes place, the solidarity amongst peoples and the vitality of the community is eroded and forgotten. The dignity of the farmer, who is a slave to the crop that he grows for profit at an increased demand, and the dignity of the consumer, who is incredibly removed from the food that he trusts to be safe without knowing the costs, are both at risk in the world of modern agriculture and food distribution. Upon discovering the truth about the deficiencies of the food and farming industries, one would hope that consumers would transform into denizens of the world community and take a stand. Citizens can make change happen from demanding action from their governments to changing their own eating and purchasing habits. Taking action within one’s community and political system is the responsibility of a socially aware Catholic, just as much as is adopting more just, personal habits aimed at benefiting the common good and protecting God’s creation, of which we are all stewards.

Social Analysis of the Global Food Community

pesticide_graph.png The world has shifted to a global food community, and the comprehensive effects of this large-scale shift are skimmed over by the mainstream consumer’s myopia. The dominance of small farms just 60 years ago has been trounced by the faster, bigger, and supposedly better farming practices at present. The option for supermarket shoppers to have any food at any time of the year is a novel concept in the long history of farming; it is one that has increased foreign imports from warmer climates and the damaging costs of the transportation of such goods. From the biological standpoint, livestock are fed diets of corn, as opposed to grass, to accelerate their expedience to the market, but consequently have to be pumped full of artificial hormones and antibiotics when their bodies inevitably cannot properly digest the feed. Plants and crops are being deconstructed on a molecular level to make them fraudulently sturdier and more fecund, but neither scientists nor consumers know what effect these artificial GMOs will have in the long run. As the world becomes smaller due to increased ease of communication and transportation, the impact of one country or region’s negligence or corruption becomes a global problem for all. Such effects are most significantly seen as pollution of the global environment, the disparity between food shortages and surpluses around the world, and the rise of diseases and ailments like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and malnourishment.[2] The fact of the matter is that most people do not link their food to any or all of these issues, and most people are unaware of the existence of such issues in the first place. Ignorance does not absolve people of their individual contribution to these problems. The welfare of each individual person, the common good of all people, the preservation of the urgency of the community, and the general task of guarding and sustaining the sanctity of creation is imperiled while these matters silently afflict our global and local environs. It is the responsibility and the intrinsic mission of each human being to attend the problems and privations that accompany the shortcomings of the agricultural and food industries.

The development of tractors and other farming machinery at the time of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the current industrial agriculture situation. As new technology was introduced and globalization became prevalent, trade barriers between countries were lowered and there was an increased demand for all varieties of food during any season, increasing the number of foreign imports. Corn was a major catalyst in the transformation to industrial means and still is the major player in industrial agriculture. The discovery and promotion of antibiotics and pesticides at the beginning of the 20th century further contributed to the new system of agriculture. Thus began the shift from the small local farms that once characterized the American heartland to the large, industrial farms of today. One local farmer, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farms, put things in perspective saying, “we used to be a nation of farmers, but now it's less than two percent of the population in the United States. So a lot of us don't know a lot about what it takes to grow food.”[3] For the majority of the US population, this distance from our food – both in physical distance from it and lack of knowledge about it – puts the consumer at a disadvantage; yet the distance from our food is what the industry thrives on.

At the heart of this problem are sentiments that have become part of the American mantra: more is more; bigger is better; I want it, therefore I need it. Consumption and over population are major contributors to the entirety of the problem, with “consumption in developed nations [being] the single greatest source of environmental destruction.”[4] To put it in perspective, in one lifetime, an “American uses twenty-eight times the energy of a person living in a developing country.”[5] This disparity between the rich and the poor is continuing to grow at alarming rates. Yet even in America, there are disturbing statistics of children suffering from obesity and rickets. Rickets is a disease marked by a vitamin D deficiency “in children suffering from severe malnutrition,” usually found in developing countries.[6] It is alarming and truly speaks to the nature of the food that is available for consumption that a child in a developed country can suffer from both obesity and a disease of malnutrition.

Theological Reflection

The social concerns that have arisen in the debate of the agricultural and food issue go hand in hand with the theological concerns that are rooted in this controversy. First and foremost, the dignity of the farmers involved in this system is compromised, just as the dignity of the consumers that purchase and eat the food is. The structure of the market on which the agriculture and food industry rests, challenges and endangers the dignity of the farmers that must function within it. The documentary, King Corn, exposes many of the hidden secrets of the corn industry:
“The farmers respond to something that has been handed to them and what has been handed to them is a particular kind of market structure and a particular kind of set of policies which give them really very few choices… if the price of corn goes down to a point where it's below cost of production they'll quit raising it because it's not rational to raise it. They'll do something else until the demand catches up with supply and then they'll come back in and raise corn again…farmers don't have that choice because the market is now so specialized. … If we want to address some of these issues that give farmers a more sustainable approach in the long-term. How do we being to change the system so that it provides more flexibility?”[7]

Not only does the market system of agriculture infringe the dignity of the farmers that struggle to subsist within its’ terms, but the fundamental quality of it is rigid to change and is unsustainable for the future. Regard for the dignity of the people is an intrinsic characteristic of a sustainable, local form of food production. On the other hand, the agribusiness system, which is not evil in and of itself, has many shortcomings, which are not flagged as such; as a result, the common good of the people is put at risk without them ever being fully aware of it until it is a full fledged problem. The solidarity of each and every community is threatened as this system takes over every aspect of daily life, and individuals struggle to find ways to preserve their ideals amidst the overpowering lure and ease of the status quo. The ease of consuming within the realm of the global, industrial market is appealing, yet the true appeal should lie in the sustainability and meaningfulness of the local, organic farms. Pope Paul VI expounded upon this idea of solidarity with and because of the environment in a message to the UN, saying that “ the environment in which we live is essentially good, as the environment in which we were placed to live out our calling in solidarity with each other… before man fell into sin, the world was a paradise: beautiful, intact, harmonious nature, [but] nature was unbalanced by man who rebelled against God. Now nature rebels against man.”[8] Man is called to rise above the fall of sin and to place solidarity at the forefront, as it “requires sacrifices of our own self-interest for the good of others and the earth we share.”

It is important that Catholics be cognizant that the established industry jeopardizes the pillars Catholic Social Teaching; equally as important is the recognition that where the current mainstream industry fails its consumers, the local movement succeeds and surpasses, despite claims that it is a reversion to past, dated methods. “Fostering and protecting human dignity lies at the heart of the Church’s social teachings. Human dignity can serve as a basis for an environmental ethic which can ‘champion the good of the earth’ while seeking to discern how humans can continue to flourish. Protection of the earth and the human community go hand in hand – a truly classic case of the common good.”[9] In essence, many of the integral pillars of Catholic Social Teaching – dignity of the human person, the common good, and the vital role of the human community – only serve to reinforce the importance of caring for the environment. All of these aspects are intertwined and enrich the importance of each other; as Catholics recognize how to fully utilize each aspect, they will also recognize the best way to care for the environment as part of their religious and social duty. The importance of caring for the environment is just as important as the other charitable and dutiful tasks that Christian love draws us to do. “We are called to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked [etc.]. We are also summoned to restore the land, to provide clean, safe water to drink and unpolluted air to breath [etc.].”[10] The practices of agriculture, while providing food to the masses, has created a system where food distribution throughout the world is seriously inequitable, leaving the poorest with the least amount of food. This directly contradicts the call to help “the least of these,” which should be first and foremost in the minds of every socially aware Catholic person.

“Be the change you want to see in the World"

Social change requires both the efforts of each individual and of every individual within a society. To change the structure of the food production and distribution that is the norm in today’s society, there must be a flicker of change that ignites within the mind and heart of each global citizen. The framework of healthy and functioning communities allow its members to precipitate change on a higher level, most likely within government. Before a government sets out to enact change, the public must first demand it. In essence, social change must happen on an individual level first, and only then can change also happen on a broader scale. Government can provide incentives for the industry to cut use of GMOs – as has happened in Europe – replace the need for livestock hormones and antibiotics by shifting to free-range farming, diminish the need for pesticides that pollute the soil and water by making a national move toward organic farming methods, and to set production limits to reduce wasteful surpluses. The move toward more sustainable, local farming with more ethical and conscientious methods is a possibility if the market and the consumers demand it. In fact, in the documentary, Food, Inc., a farmer is quoted as saying, “people have got to start demanding good, wholesome food from us, and we’ll deliver, I promise you.”[11] Many farmers see the inherent problems with the system that they are producing in, but because of the market demands of the consumer, they find it nearly impossible to escape the questionable methods of the system. In that sense, it is the role of the consumers to demand a change in the way their food is produced. Anytime anyone buys an item in the supermarket, he is voting for and supporting the way that item was produced and transported. It is up to the consumer to take a stand.[12]

The European Union (EU) is the paradigm of government intervention in agriculture to promote the welfare of its citizens, the environment, and the economy. The EU’s policies clearly focus on “environmental objectives, landscape preservation, the viability of rural economies and their cultural heritage, food quality and animal health and welfare standards” as important tasks that the government and its citizens are responsible to uphold for the common good of the collective.[13] It is by an illustration of good governance, such as the policy implementation of the EU, that governments must approach this issue. Government “authority must be guided by the moral law” because its dignity is contingent upon it ruling by God’s example in the context of a moral order.[14] A proposal for government is to listen to the true desires of the consumer public and facilitate the shift from industrial to organic. While complete organic agriculture may seem like an unattainable goal, at least the demand for the restriction of GMO’s, hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide can be feasibly accomplished. It is the responsibility of the community in solidarity with one another to make these demands a reality. This success of the increase in political involvement would lead to the amelioration of the general public health, a reduction of environmental pollution within the local and global communities, and a fuller sense of community through the support of local farmers.

The SLOW movement began in Italy, where the freshness and naturalness of food reigns supreme, and has the potential to be a campaign that opens the eyes of consumers to the benefits and virtues of seasonal, local, organic, and whole food. This movement serves as a reminder to “enjoy the preparation and consumption of our foods,” something that has been lost in the recent agricultural climate.[15] This concept urges people to consume food that will taste better, be healthier for them, be more respectful to the environment, and in the long run, through better farming practices, serve the common good. This proposal combats the detrimental effects of industrial agriculture on individuals by prompting consumers to be more conscientious of taking care of their minds, bodies and spirit, which are gifts from God in His image. The shift to local and organic in terms of animal and plant production means that animals will be raised naturally and not force-fed hormone and antibiotics to fulfill unrealistic consumer desires. Plants are grown without altering their natural structure and without the use of harmful additives. These methods both better exemplify how the human person plays the role of steward of God’s creation, to care for His animals and plants. Also, using production that manipulates creation to behave in a way that it was not made to behave is not natural as God intended; yet the SLOW movement restores the complete and true essence of creation as it was intended. One of the main criticisms of industrial agricultural is that it fails to be a sustainable method for fullness of life on earth to endure. The SLOW movement proposal curbs the adverse environmental effects of the current system by reducing the harmful effects of high levels of transportation, reducing the carbon dioxide farm emissions, decreasing the amount of methane from deforestation, and decreasing the high levels of nitrous oxide by allowing free-range livestock.[16] These are the attributes of a sustainable system of agriculture and food production that will better serve the needs of the common good as well as future generations.

These two proposals – the public demand for active and morally sound governance and the individual responsibility to consume in a SLOW and sustainable way – are examples of public and community effort and individual effort, respectively. The epitome of a complete and comprehensive approach to tackle the problem of industrial agriculture is a two-pronged strategy such as this. These proposals go hand in hand, and the crisis will not be remedied until all Christians and all people demand that action be taken on both a personal level and a civil level. Every small effort does make some difference, but in order to enact major change, everyone in society and on the global scene needs to contribute to protect the security and prosperity of community, the agricultural and food systems, and the environment.

[1] "Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture." Union of Concerned Scientists. 24 Aug 2008. Union of Concerned Scientists. 23 Apr 2009 <http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_industrial_agriculture/costs-and-benefits-of.html>.
[2] Michael S. Northcott, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming (New York: Orbis, 2007) 241.
[3] Deborah Koons Garcia, The Future of Food (Lily Films, 2004) film.
[4] Drew Christiansen, SJ, “And God Saw That It Was Good”: Catholic Theology and the Environment (Washington, D.C.: US Catholic Conference, 1996) 235.
[5] Ibid 235.
[6] Gorgeously Green 199.
[7] Iowa Public Television.
[8] Eugene C. Hargrove, Religion and Environmental Crisis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 134.
[9] Christiansen 14.
[10] Ibid 239.
[11] Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. (Participant Media, 2009).
[12] Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. (Participant Media, 2009).
[13] "The common agricultural policy" Europa: Agriculture and Rural Development, (European Commission) <http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/publi/capleaflet/cap_en.htm>.
[14] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 2007) #396.
[15] Sophia Uliano, Gorgeously Green (New York: HarpersCollins, 2008) 193.
[16] Sophia Uliano, Gorgeously Green (New York: HarpersCollins, 2008) 192.

Work Cited