"For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food" (Mt 25:35)
Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers
Catholic Social Teaching and Agriculture
- Our Purposes and Key Questions
- Agricultural “Signs of the Times”
- Our Faith Tradition
Catholic Social Teaching
- Responding in Faith
Meeting Pastoral Needs
Criteria for Agricultural Policy and Advocacy
- Overcoming Hunger and Poverty
- Providing a Safe, Affordable, and Sustainable Food Supply
- Ensuring a Decent Life for Farmers and Farmworkers
- Sustaining and Strengthening Rural Communities
- Protecting God’s Creation
- Expanding Participation
- Toward Commitment, Hope, and Challenge
A Word of Hope
The Challenge Ahead
A Catholic Agenda for Action: Pursuing a More Just Agricultural System
- Protecting Human
Life and Dignity—The Right to Food
- Social Nature
of the Person—The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
- Option for and
with the Poor and Vulnerable
- Dignity of Work
and the Rights and Duties of Workers and Owners
- Respect for
- U.S. Farmers and Farm Policies
- U.S. Agricultural Workers
- International Trade, Aid, and Development
- Emerging Technologies
- Stewardship of Creation
As Catholic bishops, pastors, and teachers, we seek to
address agriculture through the lens of our faith because so much is at stake
in moral and human terms. Food sustains life itself; it is not just another
product. Providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy
choice. For many, farming is a way of life, not just another business or
industry. Agriculture is the way farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers provide a
decent life for their families and help feed a hungry world. It is not just
another economic activity.
Agriculture is different because it touches all our lives,
wherever we live or whatever we do. It is about how we feed our own families,
and the whole human family. It is about how we treat those who put food on our
table and those who do not have enough food. It is about what is happening to
food and farming, rural communities and villages, in the face of increasing
concentration, new technology, and growing globalization in agriculture. For believers,
and especially for Catholics, who turn to the Scripture and church teaching for
guidance, these questions and choices in the world of agriculture have
fundamental ethical and human dimensions.
Too many in our Church and nation do not know the world of
agriculture. For some, agriculture is a distant reality, little seen and less
understood. When we go to the supermarket, we rarely think about where our food
comes from, who produces it, who harvests it, or what it takes to process,
package, and distribute it. When many of us think about agriculture at all, we
worry about the economic cost of groceries and not the environmental cost to
our land or the human cost to farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities in
the United States and around the world.
II. Our Purposes and Key Questions
In these reflections, we seek to challenge this lack of
awareness, which can lead to indifference or excessive self-interest. We focus
on the ethics of how food and fiber are produced, how land is protected, and
how agriculture is structured, compensated, and regulated to serve the “common
good.” We also call Catholics to think more about and act on these important
but often neglected concerns in light of our faith.
In this document, we outline some “signs of the times,” lift
up principles from Catholic social teaching, and suggest elements of an “agenda
for action.” We also highlight the global dimensions of agriculture today and
how they contribute to the growing gap between rich and poor at home and
abroad. But more than anything else, we seek to place the life and dignity
of the human person at the center of the discussions and decisions on
We offer these reflections especially to three groups:
First, we recognize and encourage those who carry out and
contribute to the work of agriculture in the United States and abroad: farmers
and farmworkers, leaders of rural communities, and those who serve them in our
Church. When we refer to farmers and farmworkers, our concern also extends to
those who produce our food and fiber, to ranchers, and to other agricultural
workers. For all those who devote their lives to agriculture, we offer words of
support and appreciation, as well as a plea to work together more cooperatively
and constructively for the common good.
Second, we offer elements of a moral framework for those
involved in agricultural policy: political leaders, experts, advocates, and
activists. We urge them to look at agricultural choices and at how these
choices touch the most vulnerable within agriculture and in the larger national
and global community.
Third, we encourage members of the broader Catholic
community to give greater attention and priority to issues of food and
agriculture and their connections to our faith.
We hope these reflections will contribute to a broader
dialogue about the ethical and human dimensions of agricultural policy. We
invite those involved in and those affected by the global agricultural system
to consider several key questions:
- How can hunger in the human family be
- How can we ensure a safe, affordable, and
sustainable food supply?
- How can we ensure that farmworkers and
owners of small farms, in the United States and around the world, live and work
- How can land, water, and other elements of
God’s creation be preserved, protected, and used well in the service of the
- How can rural communities in our country and
around the world survive and thrive?
ignore these questions or leave the answers only to those directly involved in
agriculture. They touch all of us.
III. Agricultural “Signs of the Times”
agricultural “signs of the times” are complex and sometimes contradictory.
Since our Conference last addressed these questions,1 much has remained the
same. U.S. agriculture has demonstrated remarkable productivity and quality,
thanks to the hard work, skills, and sacrifices of farmers and farmworkers. U.S.
agriculture has given Americans and the world plentiful food, fiber, and other
products at affordable prices. However, we live in a world where many are still
hungry. We live in a nation where many family farmers are still struggling and
where many have lost farms in recent decades. We live in a society where many
farmworkers are still denied the opportunity to live a decent life.
We are also facing new challenges: for example, increasing
concentration at every level of agriculture, increasing focus on agricultural
trade as a measure of economic vitality, and increasing globalization tying
together our lives and livelihoods wherever we live. (See data box “U.S.
Agriculture: What Is Happening to Farms and Farmers?” and data box “Global
Agriculture: What Is Happening to Hungry People and Farmers Around the World?”)
Fewer people are making important decisions that affect far more people than in
the past. These choices have serious moral implications and human consequences.
These forces of increasing concentration and growing globalization are pushing
some ahead and leaving others behind. They are also pushing us toward a world
where the powerful can take advantage of the weak, where large institutions and
corporations can overwhelm smaller structures, and where the production and
distribution of food and the protection of land lie in fewer hands. (See data
box “Concentration and Vertical Integration: What Is Happening to Our Food from
Field to Shelf?”)
With these reflections, we offer brief summaries of trends
and relevant statistics. They are not a comprehensive analysis of the forces at
work in agriculture. They focus more on problems than progress, more on human
costs than economic achievements, more on who is left behind than on who is
moving ahead. Beyond the numbers are images and contrasts that haunt us.
IV. Our Faith Tradition
- We return home from the supermarket with its
many choices and turn on the television to watch a young girl half a world away
pick through a garbage dump for something, anything to eat.
- We know U.S. agriculture is changing in so
many ways, but farmers still depend on whether it rains and on other forces of
- We are urged to eat foods that promote
health, but most of us never think about the health and safety of those who
harvest those fruits and vegetables. We are stunned by the headlines when
eighteen people die in a tractor trailer in Victoria, Texas, or in a desert, people
who came seeking a better life, hoping to work in our fields.
- We have learned that more than half of the
coffee industry’s permanent labor force has lost their jobs as world coffee
prices plummeted, affecting tens of thousands of workers and farmers throughout
- We celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of
so many farm families and the traditional community values in rural towns.
However, many of us do not realize how these virtues and values are sometimes
threatened by powerful economic interests and other forces that make it more
and more difficult for smaller farms and communities to survive and thrive.
- We heard the sad story at one of our
listening sessions of a mother in Zimbabwe who stood in line for days to get
food for her two young children. As she waited, she watched both children die.
Because we are a community of faith, our response to these
realities and trends in agriculture is shaped by the truths of the Scripture
and the principles of Catholic social teaching, not just by economics or
When believers think about agriculture, we begin with the
story of Creation. “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very
good” (Gn 1:31). Those who provide our food are called to continue God’s plan
Throughout the Scripture, we hear of an enduring vision of
“new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17) where God’s justice will reign (cf. 2
Pt 3:12, Rev 21:1). The Old Testament calls us to care for the land and provide
for those who need food, especially those who are poor and outcast. The
tradition of the Sabbath Year is one example: “But during the seventh year the
land shall have a complete rest, a sabbath for the Lord, when you may neither sow your field nor prune your
vineyard” (Lv 25:4). God explains to Moses that the land should be used to
provide food for all who need it: “While the land has its sabbath, all its
produce will be food equally for you yourself and . . . for your
hired help and the tenants who live with you . . .” (Lv 25:6).
Time and again Jesus warned us against selfishness and greed
and called us to feed the hungry and show special concern for those who are
poor. In the story of the Last Judgment, Jesus reminds us that one of the
fundamental measures of our lives will be how we cared for people in need: “For
I was hungry and you gave me food” (Mt 25:35).
The Word of God provides direction for our lives. The Church
has applied these values and directions in developing a body of doctrine known
as Catholic social teaching. This teaching provides helpful guidance for our
choices as individuals and as a society on issues such as agriculture. To
assess the global agricultural system in the light of our faith, we need to
understand the core principles of Catholic social teaching.
Catholic Social Teaching
The essential starting point for Catholic social teaching is
the dignity of every human life. Created by God and redeemed by Christ, every
person possesses a fundamental dignity that comes from God, not from any human
attribute or accomplishment. Because each person’s life is a sacred gift from
God, all people have a right to life that must be defended and protected from
its beginning to its end. The dignity of every person must always be respected
because each person is a precious child of God. In light of our commitment to
the right to life of every person, we believe all people also have basic rights
to material and spiritual support, including the right to food, which are
required to sustain life and to live a truly human existence. This clear
commitment to the dignity and value of every human life must be reflected both
in individual choices and actions and in the policies and structures of
Linked to the dignity of human life is our understanding of
the social nature of the person. As the creation narratives tell us, we are
made in the image of a Triune God and we are created in relationship to God and
to each other. Our inherently social nature means that the structures of
social, political, and economic life must reflect basic respect for the dignity
of every human person as well as a commitment to the common good. This begins
with a deep commitment to the family as the foundation of society. It also
leads to the principle of solidarity, the understanding that as children of God
we are all brothers and sisters, no matter how different or distant we may
seem. The Book of Genesis highlights the central relationship between humankind
and the rest of creation, which deserves our care and protection.
Our commitment to the dignity of every person requires
special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable, whose needs are
greatest, and whose lives and dignity are often threatened by hunger, poverty,
and suffering. In order for people to live a life worthy of their God-given
dignity, Catholic social teaching affirms the right and duty to work, the right
to economic initiative, the rights of workers to safe working conditions,
decent wages and benefits, and the right to organize and join associations to
secure these rights.
In light of these principles, our Conference will continue
to advocate for policies that protect and encourage family farming on a human
scale. We also insist that all agriculture, whatever its scale or structure,
must meet fundamental moral criteria. Agriculture in all its forms should be
evaluated, regulated, and rewarded based on these principles.
The brief overview we have offered here does not begin to do
justice to the depth and richness of the Catholic social tradition. We hope
Catholics and others will review the summary of key themes of Catholic social
teaching that are a part of this document, as well as the papal, conciliar, and
episcopal documents that express this teaching in its fullness.
A farm or agricultural system that ignores economic
realities is in financial trouble. An agricultural system or enterprise that
ignores or neglects moral principles is in ethical trouble. We wish to
recognize and applaud so many farm families and others who live by these
principles every day. For them, farming is not just a way to make a living; it
is a way of life. It is not just a job; it is a vocation and an expression of
V. Responding in Faith
Meeting Pastoral Needs
The Catholic Church has a pastoral presence throughout rural
America and in rural communities around the globe. Within our community of
faith, farmers and farmworkers, land owners and contract growers, business
owners and workers are called to the one Eucharistic table to be nourished by
the Body and Blood of Christ.
Throughout history, rural parishes have built a sense of
community, nurturing the spiritual and sacramental lives of their people, and
offering formation and faith development programs. Rural parishes and many
dioceses have sponsored schools, provided health care, supported community
activities, and offered essential services for people in need. As rural
populations diminish and the resources available in rural communities decrease,
the role of the Church and those who serve it becomes even more important.
Priests, deacons, religious, and other pastoral workers are
often the first people to whom farm and ranch families turn when they
experience stress from economic and social forces beyond their control. Rural
pastors and pastoral workers serve, comfort, and stand with their people, build
and form community, and care for the needy in the face of many challenges. Some
priests travel long distances to meet sacramental needs. Diocesan clergy, women
and men religious, and volunteers also regularly travel to rural communities
and farm labor camps to provide opportunities for adult faith formation,
prepare believers to receive the sacraments, and join in the celebration of the
Eucharist. They often serve as counselors and advocates, responding to family
separation, fears about immigration status, and exploitation.
Around the world, the Catholic Church provides essential
relief and development assistance in rural communities that are home to some of
the poorest people on earth. Catholic programs provide emergency assistance in
times of crisis and support a wide range of ongoing human, economic, and
agricultural development projects.
We wish to express our deep gratitude for the hard work and
dedication of those who serve in rural parishes and dioceses in the United States
and around the world. They are supported by the work of many diocesan programs
and national organizations.2 We hope this statement will be a source of
affirmation, support, and encouragement to continue their essential service to
the Church and rural communities.
Criteria for Agricultural Policy and Advocacy
Beyond meeting pastoral needs, the Catholic community has a
responsibility to raise the ethical dimensions of issues that shape rural life
and agricultural policy. As a Vatican statement on public life states, the
Church has a “right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters”3
and to “instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly
those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral
promotion of the human person and the common good.”4
As bishops, we shall continue to share Catholic social
teaching, to apply it to the ethical and human dimensions of agricultural
issues, and to bring our values to agricultural decision making. We hope that
Catholics throughout our country, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, will
join in the effort to promote a food and agricultural system more focused on
overcoming hunger, providing a decent living for farmers and farmworkers, and
protecting the earth and its resources. Drawing on Catholic social teaching and
the experience of the Church in rural communities, we offer criteria that
should guide agricultural policy.
Overcoming Hunger and Poverty. The presence of so
much hunger and poverty in our communities, nation, and around the world is a
grave moral scandal. The primary goals of agricultural policies should be
providing food for all people and reducing poverty among farmers and
farmworkers in this country and abroad. A key measure of every agricultural
program and legislative initiative is whether it helps the most vulnerable
farmers, farmworkers, and their families and whether it contributes to a global
food system that provides basic nutrition for all.
Providing a Safe, Affordable, and Sustainable Food
Supply. Agricultural systems in the United States have been remarkably
successful in providing sufficient, safe, and affordable food for consumers.
These strengths should be directed toward serving better the needs and
interests of hungry and poor people in the United States and abroad. Caring for
land and water resources has become an increasingly important focus within U.S.
agriculture. Farmers should expand the use of environmentally sustainable
methods so that farmland in the United States can provide food for generations
to come. We are concerned that as a society we continue to lose productive farm
land for development as communities and transportation expand. In other parts
of the world, agricultural and food supply systems also need to be strengthened.
An important measure of international trade and agricultural policies should be
how they promote safe and affordable food and sustainable, environmentally
sound farming practices.
Ensuring a Decent Life for Farmers and Farmworkers.
Food can remain safe and affordable without sacrificing the incomes, health, or
lives of farmers and farmworkers. Catholic social teaching insists that all
workers deserve wages and benefits sufficient to support a family and live a
decent life. Farmers must be able to support themselves and their families
through their work and to provide for important needs such as health care and
retirement. Farmers and their employees receive less and less of every dollar
spent on food. This is a matter of justice that should be addressed.5
Agricultural policies must take into consideration the risks associated with
farming that are beyond a farmer’s control, such as weather and changes in
global markets. Trade policies should better reflect the right to economic
opportunity of all farmers wherever they may live. Agricultural policies should
help ensure basic income security and provide opportunities for economic
initiative for farmers in the United States and throughout the world, with
special attention to small producers.
Likewise, public policies must address the needs of
agricultural workers. A key measure of agricultural, immigration, and labor
policies is whether they reflect fundamental respect for the dignity, rights,
and safety of agricultural workers and whether they help agricultural workers
to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. (See data box
“Agricultural Workers: What Is Happening to Those Who Harvest and Process Our
Sustaining and Strengthening Rural Communities. In
rural areas of the United States and throughout the world, small towns and
villages are the backbone of social and economic life. As rural populations
decline and rural economies suffer, basic structures of rural life are at risk.
Public policies should encourage a wide variety of economic development
strategies in rural areas. They should continue to promote and support farming,
especially family farms, as a strategy for rural development. Likewise, the
practices and policies of Catholic institutions on leasing and ownership of farmland
should be consistent with our principles, especially in the area of encouraging
young people to enter farming. A key measure of agricultural and development
policies is whether they encourage widespread diversity in farm ownership and
advance rural development in this country and abroad, promoting and maintaining
the culture and values of rural communities. (See data box “Rural America: What
Is Happening to Rural Communities and Culture?”)
Protecting God’s Creation. Care for God’s creation is
a central calling for believers. Agricultural and food policies should reward
practices that protect human life, encourage soil conservation, improve water
quality, protect wildlife, and maintain the diversity of the ecosystem. An
essential measure of agricultural and food policies is whether they protect the
environment and its diversity and promote sustainable agricultural practices in
the United States and abroad. (See data box “Agriculture and Environment: What
Is Happening to Land and Water?”)
Expanding Participation. To achieve an agricultural
system consistent with these criteria, widespread participation and dialogue in
the development of agricultural policies should be encouraged. Truly effective
policies will be developed when people who are most affected have adequate
information, time, and opportunities for real contributions to legislation,
regulations, programs, and trade agreements.
These six criteria provide a framework for measuring
policies related to agriculture in light of Catholic social teaching and the
requirements of the common good. They are not comprehensive, nor do they
suggest predictable positions on important issues. We hope they will encourage
serious, thoughtful debate and dialogue on U.S. agricultural policy, the global
agricultural system, and the impact both have on human dignity. As our
contribution to this discussion, we offer an “Agenda for Action” that seeks to
apply these criteria to key agricultural policies.
Members of the Catholic community can differ about the
specific application of these criteria. We come to these issues from very
different perspectives: as farmers and farmworkers, landowners and contract
growers, business operators and workers, producers, processors, and consumers.
But as Catholics we share a fundamental concern for human life and dignity and
a basic commitment to the common good. As bishops, we invite Catholics and
others to use these criteria to explore, discuss, and advocate for agricultural
policies that protect human life and dignity and advance the well-being of all
VI. Toward Commitment, Hope, and Challenge
As a result of the listening sessions and dialogues that led
to these reflections, we call upon the standing committees of our Conference
(the Committees on Domestic Policy, International Policy, and Migration) to
continue educating the Catholic community, policy makers, and the larger
society about the ethical dimensions of agriculture and to follow through on
our recommendations and policies with new urgency and priority. The wide range
of concerns raised in our listening sessions requires the Conference to
continue integrating the issues of agriculture into the agendas of its various
committees and structures. We believe that this strategy of integration and
collaboration will ensure a sustained, comprehensive, and necessary approach to
pastoral care, policy development, and advocacy on issues of food, agriculture,
trade, and international assistance.
A Word of Hope
Fundamentally, food and agriculture are about life: life for
the hungry and for all who depend on farmers and farmworkers for what we eat
every day. But they are also about life for farmworkers who risk their health
to pick our food, sometimes not knowing what pesticides are in the field. They are
about life for subsistence farmers in Africa trying to feed a family and make a
meager living. They are about a way of life for farm families in the United
States who are unable to meet debt payments and face selling a farm that has
been in the family for generations. These reflections call all of us to make
the protection of life and dignity the foundation of our choices on
We know these are not easy times, but as believers we have
hope for the days ahead:
The Challenge Ahead
- We have the capacity to overcome hunger in
our nation and around the world. What an achievement that would be!
- We stand with farmers, particularly those
who own small and family farms here and abroad, in their struggle to live with
dignity, to preserve a way of life, and to strengthen rural communities.
- We insist that agricultural workers be
treated with dignity—decent wages, safe working conditions, and a real voice in
- We advocate care for creation to protect the
fields and streams, which are gifts of God.
- We find in our faith—the lessons of Genesis,
the passion of the prophets, and the words and life of Jesus—the ultimate
source of hope.
Through the eyes of faith, these tasks are not options, but
obligations. The Catholic community is discovering with new urgency that our
faith calls us to strengthen our presence and witness, our advocacy and action
in defense of the human life and dignity of hungry people, farmers and
farmworkers, and God’s creation.
Our Conference has called all Catholics to work to ensure A
Place At The Table6 for all God’s children. Agriculture is at the
heart of this moral challenge. As we have pointed out:
- A table is where families gather for food,
but some have little food or no table at all.
- A table is where leaders gather in
government and international negotiations and other forums to make decisions on
trade and aid, subsidies and access. But some have no real voice at these
- For Catholics, the table is the altar at
which we gather for Eucharist to transform “the fruit of the vine and work of
human hands” into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is also the table from which
we are sent forth to secure “a place at the table” for all.
We cannot secure a place at the table for all without a more
just agricultural system. Some small farmers are losing their place at the
table. Some farmworkers never had a place. And so many people in our own land
and around the world, seeking to feed their children, have no real place at
that table. The moral measure of our efforts is how our community of faith
works together to secure a place at the table of life for all God’s children.
|U.S. Agriculture: What Is Happening to
Farms and Farmers?
Scale. In 2001 there were an estimated 2.16
million U.S. farms,1 down from approximately 5.5 million in 1950;2 10% of these
farms account for nearly 70% of all agriculture production.3
Farm Support Programs. Recent studies show
that approximately two-thirds of subsidies go to just 10% of farms. In fact,
most fresh produce in supermarkets is grown without subsidies and livestock
producers are ineligible for most government payments, though they do benefit
indirectly from grain subsidies.4 From 1999 to 2001, agricultural support in
the developed countries totaled $329.6 billion. The U.S. share totaled $95.5
billion, while the European Union’s share was $112.7 billion.5 Over the same time
period, U.S. agricultural support was more than three times the amount of U.S.
foreign economic and humanitarian assistance. U.S. farm supports will significantly
increase in the future due to the passage of the 2002 farm bill.
Health and Safety. Of more than 41 million
uninsured people in the United States, one in five lives in rural areas. They
are older, poorer, and less healthy than people living in urban areas.7 The
2002 occupational fatality rate in agriculture was 22.7 per 100,000 people
employed, compared to 12.2 in construction, 11.3 in transportation, and 23.5 in
1 National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) (2002), 23.
2 Bread for the World, Agriculture in the Global Economy,
Hunger 2003, p. 36.
3 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Agricultural
Policy: Taking Stock of the New Century (September 2001), Appendix 1, Table
4 Congressional Quarterly, Farm Subsidies: Do They Favor Large
Farming Operations? 12:19 (May 17, 2002): 436-437.
5 World Bank, Global Economic Prospects (2004), 120.
6 The Kaiser Family Foundation, Kaiser Commission on Key Facts (April 2003).
7 U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal
Occupational Injuries (2002).
|Concentration and Vertical Integration: What Is
Happening to Our Food from Field to Shelf?
Food Retail. In 1997, the top five food
retailers held 24% of the U.S. market; by 2000 that share increased to 42% of
retail food sales.1
Livestock. Today the four largest beef
firms process 81% of all the cattle; the four largest pork firms process 59% of
pork; and four chicken firms process 50% of all broilers.2
Grains. The four largest wheat processors have
61% of the market; the four largest soybean processors have 80% of the market.3
1 Mary Hendrickson, William Heffernan, Philip Howard, and Judith
Heffernan, Executive Summary, Report to National Farmers Union,
Consolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy: Implications for Farmers and
Consumers in a Global Food System (January 8, 2001).
2 William Heffernan, Multi-National Concentrated Food
Processing and Marketing Systems and the Farm Crisis, 7. A paper presented
to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 14-19, 2002.
Concentrated Food Processing, 7.
|Rural America: What Is Happening to
Rural Communities and Culture?
Sources of Income. In 1999, net farm cash income was $55.7
billion, while other sources of income contributed $124 billion to the total
income of farm families.1 Most rural counties do not depend on agriculture for
their economies; on average, seven of eight rural counties derive income from a
mix of farming, manufacturing, services, and other activities.2
Rural Poverty. Poverty in rural areas has been
consistent for the last 40 years, with rates of 20% or more in the rural South,
Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, and the Rio Grande Valley.3
Poverty rates in most agriculturally-based counties in six of the major
agriculture-producing states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota,
and South Dakota) are greater than in the metropolitan counties in those
states; the rates in the smallest agriculturally-based counties are 60%
Culture. Studies for the past 50 years show a
correlation between a growing concentration in agriculture and a loss of
businesses and civic society in rural towns. Fewer farms and ranches mean fewer
agricultural support services and farm-related businesses, since larger and
more intensive farms can deal directly with national or global agribusiness.
Fewer farm families mean fewer children in rural schools, fewer community
services, and fewer churches; the average age of a farmer is estimated to be
about 55 years.5
1 Department of Agriculture, Food and Agricultural
Policy: Taking Stock of the New Century (September 2001), 4.
2 Food and Agricultural Policy, 12.
3 Food and Agricultural Policy, 90.
4 Jon M. Bailey and Kim Preston, for the Center for Rural
Affairs, Swept Away: Chronic Hardship and Fresh Promise on the Rural Great Plains
(June 2003), 1.
Department of Agriculture, 1997 Census of Agriculture, Table 1.
|Global Agriculture: What Is Happening to Hungry People and
Farmers Around the World?
Scale. In 2001, 55% percent of all workers in
developing countries were employed in agriculture;1 70% of the poor in
developing countries live in rural areas and derive livelihoods from
agriculture directly or indirectly.2 Among the developing regions,
Africa has the greatest concentration of low-income, food deficit countries
that cannot produce enough food to feed their populations and cannot afford to
make up the deficit through imports.3 Also, in sub-Saharan Africa, women
produce up to 80% of basic food products.4
Hunger. An estimated 840 million people
worldwide are malnourished,5 despite the fact that farmers globally produce
2,800 calories of food per person per day:6 enough to adequately nourish
everyone on the planet. Further, 30,000 children die of hunger and related
causes daily; 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day, 70% of whom are
found in rural areas.7
Trade/Aid. The United States is the largest
exporter of agricultural goods in the world.8 Three companies
account for 81% of corn exports and 65% of soybeans; four companies account for
60% of the grain terminals.9 In 2001, the developed countries gave
six times as much in subsidies to their own farmers as they gave in total
foreign aid to poor countries. These agricultural subsidies cause “direct harm
to poor countries,” because they lower the prices poor farmers would otherwise
receive for their products.10 U.S. global food aid in 2001 accounted for about
60% of all food donated worldwide.11
1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Mobilizing
the Political Will and Resources to Banish World Hunger, prepared for World
Summit Plus Five (2002), 63.
2 FAO, State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002, 12.
3 International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Drylands:
A Call to Action (1998), 6.
4 FAO, Gender and Food Security.
5 FAO, State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001.
6 FAO, World Agriculture: Towards 2015-2030 (2003).
7 Mobilizing the Political Will, no. 3.3.
8 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Agricultural
Policy: Taking Stock of the New Century (September 2001), 40.
9 William Heffernan, Multi-National Concentrated Food
Processing and Marketing Systems and the Farm Crisis, 11. A paper presented
to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 14-19, 2002.
10 United Nations
Development Report, Human Development Report (2003), 155-156.
11 World Food Program, “Global Food Aid Flows,” Food Aid Monitor
|New Technologies, New Questions: What Are the
Opportunities and Problems in New Agricultural Technologies?
Scale. The United States accounts for
approximately 66% of all the world’s genetically engineered crops. In 2001, 66%
of both cotton and soybean acreage planted in the United States and 25% of corn
acreage were genetically modified.1
Market. The ten largest agrochemical companies
accounted for 82% of sales in 1996; six agrochemical companies are the major
producers of agricultural chemicals today.2
1 P. G. Pardey and N. M. Beintema, for International Food Policy
Research Institute (IFPRI), Food Policy Report, Slow Magic: Agricultural
R&D: A Century After Mendel (October 2001), 19.
2 Andrew Burchette, "Family Tree," Farm Journal,
|Agricultural Workers: What Is Happening to Those
Who Harvest and Process Our Food?
Scale. Approximately 1.8 million farmworkers
live in the United States, 80% of whom are foreign born and more than 50% of
whom are undocumented. The percentage of foreign-born agricultural workers has
grown from about 60% to 80% of the workforce in the past 20 years; the majority
Conditions. On average, the real wage rates of
agricultural workers have declined nearly 20% over the past ten years,
resulting in a poverty rate of approximately 60%.
1 Department of Labor, Findings from the National Agricultural
Workers Survey, A Demographic and Employment Profile of the United States Farmworkers (March 2000), 5.
|Agriculture and Environment: What Is Happening to
Land and Water?
Scale of Soil Erosion. From 1982 to 1995,
erosion on cropland and land enrolled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve
Program declined 38%. Since 1995, erosion in the United States has leveled off,
but 29% of cropland is still determined to be excessively eroding. This severe
erosion affects general water and air quality.1
An estimated 23% of all usable land globally is
affected by degradation, and soil erosion is a major factor. Causes include
overgrazing, deforestation, and excessive use of chemicals.2 In Africa, 25% of
the land is prone to water erosion and 22% to wind.3
Scale of Water Needs. The usable portion of
all freshwater in the globe is less than 1%. More than 50% of all runoff occurs
in Asia and South America. About one-third of the world’s population lives in
countries suffering moderate to high water stress. Some 80 countries,
constituting 40% of the world’s population, suffered from serious water
shortages in the 1990s. While the number of those served with improved water
quality grew, 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe water. By 2020,
water use is expected to increase by 40%, and 17% more water will be needed for
agriculture, particularly irrigated agriculture.4 In the United States,
agriculture relies on groundwater for 62% of its irrigated farmland.5
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources
Conservation Service, 1997 National Resources Inventory: Highlights,
rev. ed. (December 2000), 2.
2 United Nations Environment Program, Global Environmental
Outlook 3, (2002), 64.
3 Global Environmental Outlook, 71.
4 Global Environmental Outlook, 150-152.
5 Global Environmental Outlook, 170.
Catholic social teaching offers important values and
principles for assessing policies and programs related to agriculture. The
following brief summaries of key themes of Catholic social teaching are not
comprehensive. They offer an overview of principles that have shaped our
current reflections on agricultural policies. We urge the reader to become
familiar with the original documents that have developed and expressed Catholic
social thought over time.7
I. Protecting Human Life and Dignity—The Right to Food
The Catholic Church proclaims the central truth that every
human person is sacred. Created in God’s image and likeness and redeemed by the
death and resurrection of Christ, every person has fundamental human dignity
that comes from God, not from any human attribute or accomplishment.
Every person has a right to life and to the material and
spiritual support required to live a truly human existence. The right to a
truly human life logically leads to the right to enough food to sustain a life
with dignity. The poverty and hunger that diminish the lives of millions in our
own land and in so many other countries are fundamental threats to human life
and dignity and demand a response from believers.
II. Social Nature of the Person—The Call to Family, Community, and
The human person is not only sacred but also social. Each
person lives and develops in community. Our inherently social nature makes
pursuit of the “common good” an important goal and measure of society. The way
we organize society economically and politically, including the way our
agricultural system is structured, impacts human dignity. In our tradition,
justice has three key dimensions: commutative, distributive, and social. Commutative
demands fairness in all relations and exchanges. But this must be
understood in the context of both distributive justice
, which requires
that the benefits of social, economic, and political life reach all people,
including those on the margins of society, and social justice
insists that all people have opportunities for participation and authentic
human development. All three of these dimensions of justice must shape
decisions about the global agricultural system.
Catholic teaching’s focus on justice and the social nature
of the person emphasizes family, community, solidarity and cooperation, and the
need for people to participate effectively in the decisions that affect their
lives. Rural communities and cultures, with their focus on family life,
community, and close ties to the land, serve as welcome signs of these social
dimensions of Catholic teaching.
III. Option for and with the Poor and Vulnerable
While Catholic teaching calls us to seek the common good of
the entire human family, Scripture and our Catholic tradition also call us to a
priority concern for the poor and vulnerable. Like the prophets of the Old
Testament, Jesus calls us to care for the powerless and those on the margins of
society. For us, hungry children, farmworkers, and farmers in distress are not
abstract issues. They are sisters and brothers with their own God-given
dignity. In the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, they are also “Jesus in
his distressing disguise.”
Our care and concern extend in a special way to those who
work in agriculture here and abroad. While some are doing well, others are
vulnerable or struggling and poor. Those who farm, work in the fields or on
ranches, and process our food must have decent wages and a decent life.
Agricultural trade practices with poorer countries must be fair and must seek
to protect the dignity of farmers in those countries. An important moral
measure of the global agricultural system is how its weakest participants are
IV. Dignity of Work and the Rights and Duties of Workers and Owners
We believe that the economy, including the agricultural
economy, must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way
to make a living. Catholic teaching on the dignity of work calls us to engage
in productive work and supports the right to decent and fair wages, health
care, and time off. Workers have a right to organize to protect these rights,
to choose to join a union, and to have a voice in the workplace. Employers are
obligated to treat their workers with dignity, providing decent wages, safe
working conditions, and humane living conditions.
Our tradition also supports responsible economic freedom,
initiative, and creativity at the service of the common good. The Church has
long defended the right to private ownership of productive property. Widespread
ownership is a social good that must be promoted and protected. We must help
families to maintain their farms and help others to begin farming. Our Catholic
social tradition also speaks of a “social mortgage” on property, a concept that
calls for responsible stewardship for the sake of the larger good of society
Solidarity is both a principle of Catholic social teaching
and a virtue to practice. We live in a shrinking world. Disease, economic
forces, capital, and labor cross national boundaries; so must our care for all
the children of God. We are part of one human family, wherever we live.
Starvation and widespread hunger indict us as believers. It may be tempting to
turn away from the world and its many challenges. However, the Gospel and our
Catholic heritage point to another way, a way that sees others as sisters and
brothers, no matter how different or how far away they are. Agriculture today
is a global reality in a world that is not just a market. It is the home of one
Our interdependence, as expressed by the principle of
solidarity, leads us to support the development of organizations and
institutions at the local, national, and international levels. Solidarity is
complemented by the concept of subsidiarity, which reminds us of the
limitations and responsibilities of these organizations and institutions.
Subsidiarity defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society and
affirms the essential role of these various structures. In the words of John
Paul II, subsidiarity asserts that “a community of a higher order should not interfere
in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of
its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to
coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with
a view to the common good.”8
In the case of agriculture, solidarity and
subsidiarity lead us to support and promote smaller, family-run farms not only
to produce food, but also to provide a livelihood for families and to form the
foundation of rural communities.
VI. Respect for Creation
All creation is a gift. Scripture tells us that “the earth
is the Lord’s, and all it holds” (Ps 24:1). All of us, especially those closest
to the land, are called to a special reverence and respect for God’s creation.
Nurturing and tilling the soil, harnessing the power of water to grow food, and
caring for animals are forms of this stewardship. The Church has repeatedly
taught that the misuse of God’s creation betrays the gift God has given us for
the good of the entire human family. While rural communities are uniquely
dependent on land, water, and weather, stewardship is a responsibility of our
The Catholic community brings to our consideration of agricultural
policies the teaching of our Church and the everyday experience of our
community of faith in rural communities in the United States and abroad. In
light of this teaching and experience, we reiterate the criteria for policies
that shape our advocacy:
- Do these policies help to overcome hunger
- Do they provide a safe, affordable, and
sustainable food supply?
- Do they ensure a just and decent life for
farmers and farmworkers?
- Do they sustain and strengthen rural
- Do they protect God’s creation?
- Do those affected by agricultural policies
have a real opportunity to participate in their development?
Our criteria lead us to focus attention on several key
policy areas. We realize that taking positions on these issues involves
prudential judgments and that people of good will may disagree about the
application of Catholic principles to specific policies. We hope our
reflections will encourage widespread discussion and dialogue on issues related
to agriculture and their impact on human life, human dignity, and the common
I. U.S. Farmers and Farm Policies
Catholic teaching about the dignity of work insists that
farmers must be able to support themselves and their families through their
work. This means that they must be able to survive fluctuations in the market
and the risks associated with production. We recognize the great pain and
stress experienced when a family loses its farm, as so many have in recent
years. Their loss is our loss.
Those who live and work in rural areas, especially those who
have the fewest resources, depend on small towns to make the transactions of
daily life possible without the expense and inconvenience of traveling long
distances. For some rural communities to survive economically, there must be
enough farm families in the surrounding area to support local businesses. The
suffering that accompanies the loss of farms is paralleled by the pain of lost
businesses and the struggles of small towns when concentration of the
agricultural sector leads to fewer and fewer small and moderate-sized farms. We
are concerned that the continuing concentration in the ownership of land and
resources and in the marketing and distribution of food leaves control in the
hands of too few and diminishes effective participation.
Policies and programs are needed that encourage rural
development, promoting and maintaining the culture and values of rural
communities. These should include policies that encourage a wide range of
economic development strategies, especially by fostering the entrepreneurial
spirit of rural people and investing in their education and training. They also
should include policies that promote and support farming, support the efforts
of farmers to establish co-ops and other cooperative ventures, and encourage
widespread diversity in farm ownership. Limited government resources for
subsidies and other forms of support should be targeted to small and
moderate-sized farms, especially minority-owned farms, to help them through
difficult times caused by changes in global agricultural markets or weather
patterns that destroy crops. Agricultural subsidies often go to a few large
producers, while smaller family farms struggle to survive. Rather than simply
rewarding production, which can lead to surpluses and falling prices,
government resources should reward environmentally sound and sustainable
farming practices. Because of rising land prices, the cost of sophisticated
equipment, and the difficulty of making a living, government resources are also
needed to help new farmers and ranchers enter the field of agriculture.
Resources should be targeted towards research that helps
smaller farms remain viable and promotes environmentally sound agriculture.
Programs that provide affordable insurance protection are essential so that
farm families can start again if crops fail. In the wholesale and retail
sectors of the food supply system, we favor policies that promote greater
competition so that farmers can receive a fair price for their goods.
II. U.S. Agricultural Workers
Farmworkers have been among the most visible concerns of our
Conference. We renew the commitment to lift up their situation and to work to
improve their lives and those of their families. They are among the most
vulnerable and exploited people in our land. Their situation demands a response
from people of faith.
Agricultural workers are low wage earners. The seasonal
nature of their work and the inadequacy of the minimum wage keep most living in
poverty. We affirm our support for an increase in the minimum wage for all
workers. In addition, the hourly pay of agricultural workers should be
increased, and enforcement mechanisms should be available to ensure that they
receive just pay and benefits. These agricultural workers, who work long hours
during a seasonal period, should have overtime pay as a measure of justice.
Payment methods such as “piece rates” should not be used to prevent workers
from earning a just wage.
A living wage for agricultural workers could help their
families live a just and decent life, help to stabilize the workforce, and
stimulate rural communities without significantly impacting food prices
domestically and internationally. Since most benefits generally are not
available to them as part of an employment package, federal, state, and local
laws should be amended to ensure that all workers are entitled to health care,
unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and Social Security. In
addition, agricultural workers’ low wages and the scarcity of affordable
housing in rural areas make it essential that funding for housing be increased.
To participate fully in the community where they reside and
work, farmworkers and their families need access to services and mobility in
those communities. We are encouraged by the enactment of laws in several
states, supported by many state Catholic conferences, that would provide to
undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition rates and driver’s licenses.
Agricultural labor involves some of the most dangerous jobs
in the United States, with workers exposed to harsh working conditions,
pesticides and other chemicals, and long hours of labor-intensive work. Labor
protections are currently inadequate; for those protections that do exist in
law, enforcement is random and ineffective. Labor protections for agricultural
workers should be guaranteed in law, consistent with protections for other
workers in the country. The law must also be amended to allow workers to
challenge in civil court employers who do not provide sanitary and safe working
conditions, who violate wage and hour laws, or who use dangerous pesticides.
Working conditions should be consistent with appropriate federal standards.
Agricultural workers should enjoy the same protections as other U.S. workers,
including the right to join together to have a voice in the workplace and
bargain with their employers.
In some cases, agricultural employers use labor contractors
to hire workers with the intent of protecting themselves from liability for
hazardous and unjust working conditions. Enforcement of the Fair Labor
Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers’
Protection Act (AWPA) should be strengthened to ensure that both employers and
labor contractors are held responsible for the treatment of workers. Nations
should not seek a trade advantage by mistreating working people, including
We renew our call for a comprehensive legalization program
that would permit hard-working undocumented workers in agricultural industries
to adjust their legal status to legal permanent residency. A legalization
program would help stabilize the workforce, protect migrant workers and their
families from discrimination and exploitation, and ensure that these workers
are able to continue making contributions to society. It would also give them
the opportunity to enjoy the benefit of labor laws and protections and to
better assert their labor rights. We would support a legalization program that
requires prospective employment in order to qualify for permanent residency, provided
that the work requirements are achievable and verifiable for all eligible
We have been skeptical of large-scale “guestworker”
programs, such as the Bracero program, which have led to abuse and
exploitation of workers. We recognize that, as an alternative to widespread
undocumented migration, a just and fair legal pathway must be established that
protects the basic labor rights of foreign-born workers. A temporary worker
program must guarantee wage levels and benefits that are sufficient to support
a family, include worker protections and job and benefit portability that other
U.S. workers have, and allow for family unity. It also must protect domestic
workers from job loss and grant workers the ability to move easily and securely
between the United States and their homelands. This kind of program requires
strong enforcement mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and to give them the
option to become lawful permanent residents after a specific amount of time. A
comprehensive legalization program and a temporary or migrant worker program
that protects workers and gives them a path to residency would help reduce the
number of undocumented agricultural workers and ensure that they are treated
with respect and dignity. Legalization of current and future workers would also
help reduce the incidence of smuggling and the deaths of migrant workers. We
welcome the ongoing efforts of representatives of farmworkers and agricultural
employers to seek common ground on these issues and to bring about legislation
that positively impacts the lives of farmworkers and their families. For
decades we have encouraged workable alternatives to the unjust status quo,
which hurts both groups and diminishes us as a nation. We continue to oppose
any program that lacks adequate, effective, and enforceable protections for
workers and fails to give them an opportunity for permanent residency and an
option for citizenship if they so choose.
III. International Trade, Aid, and Development
Catholic teaching requires us to pay special attention to
our brothers and sisters who are suffering in extreme poverty around the world,
many of whom live in rural areas. We seek measures that address the needs and
interests of small farm owners and farmworkers—both overseas and in the United
As a strategy for global poverty reduction, international
trade with developed nations, if guided by principles of justice, may do far
more for poor countries than all foreign aid. While we support targeted
subsidies and other programs for small and moderate-sized farms in the United
States (especially those most at risk), we also recognize that greater access
to local, regional, and international markets is essential for agricultural
development in poor countries. Current U.S. and European subsidies, supports,
tariffs, quotas, and other barriers that undermine market access for poorer
countries should be substantially reduced and should be focused on policies
that minimize the direct and indirect effects on prices of agricultural goods.
The process of reducing these trade barriers will not be easy. It must take
into account the time needed for farmers and farmworkers in developed countries
to adjust, while recognizing the need to reduce the negative effects of
agricultural trade barriers on struggling farmers in poor countries around the
world. Our goal should be to minimize harm to farmers caused by international
trade policies. We should assess all trade agreements, including the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for their impact on farmers and
We support the goal of free and equitable trade; however,
the poorest countries need appropriate flexibility to use protective measures
to safeguard food security and achieve income stability for their farmers and
farmworkers. It is important that trade agreements give impoverished nations an
opportunity to use protections when necessary, including tariffs, subsidies,
and other support mechanisms, to build their agricultural sectors so that poor
farmers can continue to produce and market staple food crops, can support their
families, and can sustain viable rural communities. The strength and success of
the U.S. agricultural system was achieved in part through policies that
provided extensive support for U.S. farmers over the years. We must find ways
for the governments of the United States and other developed countries to adopt
trade policies that provide special access to their markets for farmers from
the world’s most desperately poor nations and to take steps to promote stable
prices for agricultural goods. Initiatives for fairer trade should be supported
so that trade relationships benefit poor communities, minimize exploitation
through just remuneration, preserve local culture, and promote environmentally
sustainable farming practices. In some instances, developing countries, in
trading agricultural goods among themselves, could benefit from a mutual
reduction in trade barriers.
To protect the health and well-being of all people, trade
policies should provide consistent food safety standards that are open to
public review, are based on internationally accepted scientific criteria, and
are subject to a neutral dispute resolution process. This will ensure that all
farmers are subject to the same standards. To promote adoption of consistent standards
throughout the world, developed nations should provide technical and other
assistance to poorer countries.
All people have a basic human right to a sufficient amount
of safe food to sustain life. Food aid is an essential response to people who
do not have access to adequate food. We encourage more affluent nations,
including the United States, to generously respond to requests for food aid and
to focus their aid on meeting the needs of hungry people, as determined by the
countries in need. Food aid should not be a means for developed nations to
dispose of surplus commodities, create new markets for agricultural products,
displace local food production, or distort world food prices. Food aid programs
should not foster dependency among recipient countries and should be designed
in ways that advance broader food security strategies for poor nations.
Affluent nations and international institutions should support and assist
developing countries in creating strategies to ensure food security for their people.
The governments of developing nations have an obligation to do everything
reasonably possible to overcome hunger. This requires promoting agricultural
development, curbing corruption, and ensuring that food aid actually goes to
the hungry. Sometimes, providing financial assistance to enable food aid
recipients to buy food in regional or international markets might be the best
The decision to accept food aid has been complicated by the
development of new technologies that alter the genetic make-up of some grains
and other foods. Because some of the world’s developed nations will not trade
with countries whose goods are genetically altered, accepting genetically
modified food aid may jeopardize a poor country’s access to important markets.
If genetically altered seeds from food aid are accidentally planted, a
country’s crops may become genetically altered and may no longer be accepted by
some trading partners. Donors should fully inform developing countries when
food aid contains genetically modified crops. We respect the right of sovereign
nations to make decisions about accepting food aid based on their assessment of
the risks to health, the environment, and access to international markets.
However, when the threat of starvation places human lives at risk, and there
are no feasible alternatives, food aid must be made available to hungry people.
In these situations, donors should make every effort to ensure that local crops
are not affected and local concerns are addressed by milling food-aid grains
and other measures.
In an increasingly globalized economy, multinational
corporations provide farmers throughout the world with seeds, credit, marketing
support, transportation, food, and more. While global access to products and
technologies can bring important benefits, it also involves risks that control
over these goods can become concentrated in the hands of a few powerful
corporations and that local control over farming practices may be lost. The
policies of governments and international institutions should promote fair
competition in the agricultural sector while protecting the interests of small
IV. Emerging Technologies
New agricultural technologies are being developed and used
that promise to increase farm productivity, cut costs, create hardier crops,
reduce the need for pesticides, and enhance nutrition. Research into a wide
range of new agricultural technologies should be pursued, but with caution and
investments in research should be expanded, focusing on
opportunities to help the world’s poorest people and nations. For example, if
new technologies make it possible to successfully grow crops on marginal land
and in adverse weather conditions in poor regions of the world, they could
contribute significantly to improved nutrition and economic security for the
people of those regions. Developed countries also need to assist developing
countries in strengthening their capacity to monitor and regulate genetically
modified organisms on their own.
Looking beyond research to the actual use of new
technologies, we see substantial fears and significant polarization, especially
about genetically modified products. Some support the use of genetically
modified foods, noting that they are consumed widely in the United States with no
apparent negative impacts on human health and the environment. Others believe
there has not been enough time to conduct thorough research on the long-term
health and environmental effects. We join the Holy See in raising two key
concerns: the urgent need to focus new developments in agricultural technology
on reducing poverty and hunger, and the importance of ensuring open discussion
and participation in decision making regarding the development and use of
genetically modified products.9 With these priorities in mind, we believe that
use of genetically altered products should proceed cautiously with serious and
urgent attention to their possible human, health, and environmental impacts.
Even if genetically modified foods are safe to consume, they can still pose
environmental risks that must be managed. Scientists in developed countries
have emphasized the need to anticipate and manage the possible effects of
genetic modification on the environment. Developing countries may need
financial and technical assistance in building their capacity to monitor and
address the environmental risk associated with genetic engineering.
Debate about genetically modified food aid reflects two key
moral questions: Who will decide about the use and availability of these new technologies?
And who will benefit from them? Some individuals and countries seek to reject
genetically modified goods. They have major concerns about health and
environmental risks. They also fear that other crops will be affected by
genetically modified seeds, resulting in the loss of some trading partners. We
accept their right to assess the risks and to choose to reject these products
as long as lives are not put at risk.
Others are concerned that the benefits of new technologies
and genetic engineering will not be made widely available. They fear that
farmers will become dependent on seeds patented by a few companies, which could
provide returns for investors at the expense of producers. Both public and
private entities have an obligation to use their property, including
intellectual and scientific property, to promote the good of all people. To
ensure that the benefits of emerging technologies are widely shared, patents
should be granted for the minimum time and under the minimum conditions
necessary to provide incentives for innovation. Agricultural products and
processes developed over time by indigenous people should not be patented by
outsiders without consent and fair compensation. To ensure that poor countries
can take advantage of new technologies, strategies and programs will be needed
to help transfer these technologies affordably. The driving force in
this debate should not be profit or ideology, but how hunger can be overcome,
how poor farmers can be assisted, and how people participate in the debate and
decisions. (See data box “New Technologies, New Questions: What Are the
Opportunities and Problems in New Agricultural Technologies?”)
V. Stewardship of Creation
Protecting God’s creation must be a central goal of
agricultural policies. We support policies that promote soil conservation,
improve water quality, protect wildlife, and maintain biodiversity. Government
resources should be targeted to farms and ranches that practice environmentally
sound agriculture. We urge farmers to minimize their use of pesticides and
other chemicals and, where they are used, to take strong measures to protect
themselves, agricultural workers, and their families from exposure. Farmworkers
who may be exposed to these hazards need greater access to information to prevent
and treat exposure. Government policies and regulations should seek to reduce
the use of toxic pesticides and promote safer alternatives. When farmworkers or
their families are injured or become ill due to exposure, adequate health care
and benefits should be made available.
Catholic teaching about the stewardship of creation leads us
to question certain farming practices, such as the operation of massive
confined animal feeding operations. We believe that these operations should be
carefully regulated and monitored so that environmental risks are minimized and
animals are treated as creatures of God.
Another important concern is the practice of focusing large
acreages on one crop or a few strains of a crop. While economies of scale are
associated with this practice, so are environmental risks. Unless managed
properly, this limited approach to production can lead to depletion of the soil
and destruction of fertile lands. This practice should be carefully assessed in
light of its environmental impacts.
Agriculture is not just another economic sector. It is about
food and hunger, the way we treat those who grow and harvest our food and
fiber, and what kind of nation and world we are shaping. Agriculture and rural
life, farmers and farmworkers have been longstanding concerns for our
Conference, but the forces of increasing concentration in agriculture and
increasing globalization in our world are raising new questions that have
significant human dimensions and ethical implications. We hope these reflections
will contribute to a broader dialogue about the moral dimensions of agriculture
and to renewed efforts to advance the dignity of farmers, ranchers, and
1 Cf. National
Conference of Catholic Bishop/United States Catholic Conference, Report of
the Ad Hoc Task Force on Food, Agriculture, and Rural Concerns (Washington,
DC: USCCB, 1988); United States Catholic Conference, Food Policy in a Hungry
World: The Links That Bind Us Together (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1989).
the key national Catholic organizations are the Catholic Committee on Appalachia,
Catholic Extension, Catholic Relief Services, National Catholic Rural Life
Conference, and the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development and
Secretariat for Home Missions.
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding
the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (November 24, 2002), no. 3,
(accessed in November 2003).
Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political
Life, no. 6.
Economic Justice for All: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Washington, DC:
USCCB, 1997): “U.S. food policy has had a parallel goal of keeping the consumer
cost of food low. As a result, Americans today spend less of their disposable
income on food than people in any other industrialized country. . . . while low
food prices benefit consumers who are left with additional income to spend on
other goods, these pricing policies put pressure on farmers to increase output
and hold down costs. This has led them to replace human labor with cheaper
energy, expand farm size to employ new technologies favoring larger scale
operations, neglect soil and water conservation, underpay farmworkers, and
oppose farmworker unionization” (nos. 219-220).
USCCB, A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and
to Respect the Dignity of All God’s Creation (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2002).
social teaching is a rich tradition that is rooted in the Scripture and the
lived experience of the people of God. It has been developed in the writings of
church leaders through the ages and has most recently been articulated through
a tradition of modern papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents. For a more
thorough discussion of the themes identified here and their roots, see the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops [USCCB]-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000); Sharing
Catholic Social Teaching (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1999); the USCCB website
www.usccb.org; the Vatican website www.vatican.va. Also for previous
statements of the Catholic bishops on agriculture—namely, the report of the Ad
Hoc Task Force on Food, Agriculture, and Rural Concerns (1988) and Food
Policy in a Hungry World: The Links That Bind Us Together (1989)—contact
USCCB Publishing at 800-235-8722 or check the USCCB website.
Paul II, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Centesimus
Annus) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1991), no. 48
Archbishop Renato R. Martino, Address at the Ministerial Conference on Science
and Technology in Agriculture, Sacramento, California, June 23-25, 2003.
Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers was developed by
the Committee on Domestic Policy of the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops (USCCB). It was approved by the full body of bishops at its November 2003
General Meeting and has been authorized for publication by the undersigned.
William P. Fay
texts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
© 1991, 1986, and 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington,
DC 20017 and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All rights
Copyright © 2003, United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No
part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any
information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from
the copyright holder.
Catholic Reflections on Food,
Farmers, and Farmworkers is available in print editions in English and
Spanish and may be ordered by calling toll-free 800-235‑8722. Ask for
publication number 5‑603 (English), 5-903 (Spanish). Para ordenar este
recurso en español, llame al 800-235-8722 y presione 4 para hablar con un
representante del servicio al cliente, en español.