Herbicide Controversy: Care for our Common Home Part II

This is Part II of a two part series. Read Part I here

Our perspective at Catholic Rural Life is to step back and examine the big picture of agriculture and biotechnology, even as we try to understand the specifics of this herbicide dilemma. The big picture for us as a Catholic organization is eloquently expressed by the encyclical, Laudato Si’. This June 2015 letter by Pope Francis, addressed “to every person living on this planet,” examines “what is happening to our common home.

Several sections of Laudato Si’ focus on the use of technology, including biotechnology, and weighs the costs and benefits of technological power. Only through “integral ecology” can we hope to take a wise and measured approach in how we interact with nature – and among ourselves as one human family.

Near the beginning, in chapter one of the encyclical, Pope Francis mentions “fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general” when identifying some of the chemicals that can become pollutants if used unwisely. Nevertheless, we are assured that technology is the only way of solving these problems. But in fact, technology linked to business interests “proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” (LS#20)

Further in the encyclical, the Holy Father notes that there is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of ‘progress’ itself. “The fact is that contemporary man has not been trained to use power well because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” (LS#105)

This strikes us at CRL as part of the dicamba problem: despite public announcements by the agri-chemical corporations not to use dicamba until properly approved, farmers reported that sales representatives privately told them otherwise. The lawsuit in federal court will sort that out; we can only surmise that human responsibility and values fell short in the face of business interests.

But let us not rush to judge. Our Catholic faith reminds us we have a theological vision of human beings and creation as basically good. Furthermore, the human person is endowed with reason and knowledge, which by extension creates progressive technology. Here Pope Francis recalls the balanced position of Saint John Paul II in his Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace:

(Saint John Paul II) stressed the benefits of scientific and technological progress as evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action”, while also noting that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas.” (LS#131)

We must be clear and say that the Vatican is not calling for a ban or moratorium on the use of agro-chemicals or GMO crops. Our point is the same one expressed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’:

It is difficult to make a general judgment about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application. (LS#133)

This certainly seems to be the case in the use of dicamba in the soybean and cotton growing areas of the country.

More than improper application, however, is our concern that genetically modified crops as owned and patented by agribusiness corporations, even when shown to be nutritionally safe for consumption and productively beneficial for farmers, can lead to further economic concentration in the agricultural market. Again we turn to the pope’s encyclical:

The expansion of these (genetically modified) crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future. In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.” (LS#134)

CRL can only agree with Pope Francis when he writes that these issues require constant attention and a concern for their ethical implications. “Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future.. (LS#135)

Let us end with an urgent call for “Integral Ecology”, as chapter four in Laudato Si’ is titled. In the section on “Environmental, Economic and Social Ecology,” Pope Francis says it forthrightly: “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS#139)

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.

  • minnesotasam

    Thank you Rob, for this well-reasoned article. You clarify what the issue actually is, and what is at stake regarding GMOs, while providing a broader context and cautioning against hasty conclusions or blame. I hope to read more posts in the future on what “adequate and reliable information” is needed in order to reach actionable conclusions on this issue, and what “comprehensive solutions” might look like. Thank you.