Stewardship of Working Lands - Catholic Rural Life

Stewardship of Working Lands

Sustainable agriculture is a response to highly-industrialized, highly-capitalized production agriculture. The pillars of sustainable agriculture are:

  • Satisfy human food needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality of productive lands.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and ranchers.
  • Sustain the economic viability of diverse farm operations.
  • Enrich society as a whole.

Sustainability rests on the principle that balanced stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance.

  • Stewardship of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing this vital resource base for the long term.
  • Stewardship of human resources means consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of laborers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety.

We are a long-time member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. For the last several farm bills, we have joined with farm groups and individuals from around the country to advocate for federal policies and programs that support the long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.

CRL Essay: Sustainable vs Insatiable

As we advocate for a new Farm Bill, our goal is to plant the seeds of a sustainable agriculture agenda. But, it is worth reminding ourselves what is meant by sustainable agriculture and even the term sustainability. It has become a ubiquitous term and used by both family farm groups and big agribusiness companies. Although such overuse might dilute the meaning of sustainability, it is clear that this is an important concept in meeting our daily needs both today and tomorrow.

It may be helpful to consider the opposite of sustainable. This might be insatiable, the sense of constantly wanting more; never feeling satisfied. An insatiable appetite is when someone cannot stop devouring. This can also be applied to society when our economic system compels wants beyond our means. Society, in a very real sense, devours the countryside and natural resources – the land, water supplies, minerals, fossil fuels – in order to meet its insatiable needs.

We well know that when given the choice, people want all kinds of food at all times of the year. The “Big Ag” industrial food system makes every effort to meet that demand. But we need to ask, is this sustainable – especially if based on fossil fuels and global trade? How do we find our way back to sustainability – to come home again to a more localized system of balanced needs?

The Church might have once condoned exploitation of the earth in order to produce an abundance of food and goods, but inspired minds have shifted back to the original teachings of stewardship and care of Creation. We know among our own members there is a devotion to regain simplicity in lifestyles. Sustainability makes us seriously consider how to produce and consume according to God’s plan for us.*

*For more on this idea, see Religion and Agriculture: Sustainability in Christianity and Buddhism (2005) by Lindsay Falvey, Institute for International Development. He offers this insight: “Sustainability involves challenging our self-awareness not only in our production of food, but in our consumption and all that we do in between.”

So what would be part of a sustainable agriculture agenda?

Our stance has long been and remains the call to expand opportunities for family farmers, especially the next generation of farmers, who will produce healthy foods, maintain vibrant rural communities and sustain the environment. We cannot say yet if this is a prophetic call, but we hold to the teachings of the Church grounded in temperance, prudence and graciousness for the gifts of creation.

Our elected officials need to hear this because we are in the middle of a “perfect storm” of economic, environmental, and health crises gripping the nation. We must call on them to take decisive actions and pass a comprehensive policy agenda to create jobs and ignite economic development, protect our natural resources, and make healthy food widely available today and for generations to come.

Here’s what we need to tell them:

  • Restore fiscal responsibility in farm policy. Current farm program payments are outright subsidies, uncapped and biased. 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 over-production. This must change to reward producers for a balance of production and conservation: in effect, sustainable agriculture.
  • Spur economic growth through food and farms. Local and regional agriculture is a major driver in the farm economy. It is crucial to develop policies that create economic opportunities through local and regional markets. This means a new system that expands access to healthy food for consumers, including underserved communities.
  • Invest in America’s future farmers and ranchers. Agriculture is a vibrant sector of our nation’s economy, yet barriers make farming and ranching one of the hardest careers to pursue. Public policies are needed that enable farmers just starting out to access land, credit, and crop insurance, and given a helping hand to launch new farm businesses.

Agriculture is a vibrant sector of our nation’s economy. Sustainable agriculture can make it so for many more of us, once we learn to balance the goods of the earth for the good of all.

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