Conservation Programs: Maintaining the Integrity of Creation

By Bob Gronski on March 20, 2018

Ethical Food and Agriculture

Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part posting on conservation programs.

One of the goals for a “common good” Farm Bill, is to nurture the growth of a sustainable agriculture agenda. The emphasis on “sustainable” is meant to express a distinction from conventional or production agriculture. The fundamental principle of sustainability is to meet the needs of today while ensuring the needs of tomorrow. Production agriculture excels at meeting current needs; it is debatable whether its industrial and monocultural practices make for viable natural resources in years to come—and sufficient food for all.

An explicit sustainable agriculture agenda means stewarding our farmlands, waterways and other agricultural resources for food production today and tomorrow. Our farmers and agricultural leaders must be as concerned about food market needs as the integrity of the natural environment.

This sounds like common sense, but public policies bend more to immediate needs than future ones. American farmers are called to “feed the world” and the Church blesses such a vocation. This can be overshadowed, however, by the impulse to seek economic benefits at the expense of other social and ecological goods.

What is meant by “ecological goods”?

The Church will continue to remind us to care for one another and share the goods of the earth, but inspired minds are also recovering the original Biblical teachings of stewardship and care of Creation. Ecological goods help meet our basic human needs, and that requires a respect for the integrity of creation. Sustainability makes us once again consider how to produce and consume according to God’s plan for us, especially as one humanity.

A key concept in chapter four of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, is “integral ecology.” It flows from the Holy Father’s understanding that “everything is closely related” and that “today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis” affecting our common home, the Earth.

Suffice it to say that ecological goods are the natural resources that sustain our lives. As for a deeper understanding of integral ecology, check out this article by Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst with National Catholic Reporter, issued soon after the release of the 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

Who best sustains productive farmland?

It is not a surprise to anyone that the United States is no longer an agrarian nation, such as we were two centuries ago. However, agriculture remains very much a vibrant sector of our nation’s economy. American farmers are praised for their efficient and intensive productivity, but that has come at a cost. Farm and food production are highly industrialized and highly concentrated. This means that many farmers feel pressed by high input costs and low commodity prices. They exploit themselves and their land in order to stay on the farm: this is a contradiction that cannot be sustained.

So sustainable agriculture is more than conserving natural resources, although that is essential for maintaining continual production. Sustainable agriculture is also about keeping families on the land, both as proprietary owners and conscientious operators, managing the farm from one generation to the next. This is good for the land, good for rural communities and good for the cultural health of the nation. Family farms are best suited to balance the goods of the earth for the good of all.

How does this translate to federal policy?

Our principled language on ”integral ecology” and “stewardship of creation” quickly becomes mundane when converting to legislative policies! In the current Farm Bill (previous ones, too), Title II covers conservation programs and addresses environmental concerns and regulations, like those regarding pesticide use and soil conservation.

Here’s a listing of major programs:

– Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
– Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
– Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
– Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
– Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

What do our elected officials need to hear?

– Restore fiscal responsibility in farm policy. Current farm payments are outright subsidies favoring large landholders and investors. Prudent reforms can restore commonsense rules to farm programs, mainly by setting limits and targeting payments to working farmers on the land.

– Reward farmers for the environmental benefits they help secure. Current farm programs provide incentives for monoculture and over-production. This must change to reward producers for a balance of production and conservation.

Specific reforms for conservation include the following:

– Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP): Fully restore and expand funding so that more farmers of all types of operations can sustain and enhance their working lands.

– Soil Health Enhancement: Increase incentives and support for crop and livestock operations that build soil health.

– Payment Limits: In order to make CSP available to more farmers, enforce the $40,000 annual contract payment limit. (Loopholes allow large operations to get around the limit, eating up the overall share for all farmers.)

In Part II of this posting on Conservation programs in the Farm Bill, I’ll explain a bit more about CSP, CRP and others. There are also a few bills that have been introduced by legislators; these are the building blocks for a new Farm Bill.

Please stay tuned!

Robert Gronski is a Consultant for Catholic Rural Life. He tracks policy perspectives on food, farm, environmental, and rural community issues and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

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