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To Till and to Keep: Towards a New Agriculture

August 21, 2015

Guest Blog by Robert Gronski, Policy Coordinator for Catholic Rural Life and a long-time NSAC member and contributor

After the release of Laudato Si: On Care of Our Common Home earlier this summer, Pope Francis has said on occasion that this is a social encyclical, not an ecological one. I believe it can also be read as a political-economic encyclical: Francis takes a clear-eyed look at the modern world and shines a light on where we have gone off track.

In his Encyclical Letter addressed “to all people of good faith,” Pope Francis writes about how we have hurt and mistreated our common home over the last 200 years – which is to say our modern industrial era. This has caused “sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.” (§53)

What does this mean for agriculture and food production? To till the land remains an absolute necessity; but to keep the land – and all life upon it – requires a political, economic and cultural change in how we farm and produce food.

The analysis contained within the encyclical hits at our “modern hubris” – our science, our “technocracy”, and our secular rationality – and how that has separated us from Nature and furthered our distance from the Creator. We have lost our historical way and become uprooted from our “place” in the world. True to its religious perspective, Laudato Si states that until we reunite with both the Creator and Creation, we will wallow in our alienation from both the land and one another.

The Dictates of Technocracy

Although science and technology can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, they have also given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the entire world. This is true for the world’s food production, over which a handful of giant agribusiness corporations have gained control from seeds and other inputs to processing and distribution. A legitimate concern is that some corporate interests supporting this paradigm show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment, and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.”(§109)

However, the position of Pope Francis on Big Business is nuanced. It can be a “noble vocation” that places creativity and ingenuity at the service of humanity and the common good. But he recognizes that amoral market forces can drive aggressive businesses to prioritize their own short-term profit in a way that harms people and the earth. Given that Big Ag commands influence over immense resources — productive land, water, soil and its nutrients – we might prudently ask: Have we tilled too much and kept too little?

Agriculture as a Vocation

The resolute wisdom of Laudato Si is the call us to once again integrate the human and the natural. Pope Francis calls for an intimate relationship with all of creation that goes beyond the impersonal mechanics of the marketplace. He invites us into a dialogue that will lead to a new culture based on “integral ecology” with the world – and which I believe fits beautifully and rightfully with the practices of sustainable agriculture.

I must leave it there, but invite those who wish to explore this discussion in more depth to visit Faith, Food and the Environment, a two-year project coordinated by Catholic Rural Life. Working with Farmers Union Enterprises and the University of St. Thomas, we are completing a document called “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” due out by the end of this year.

We’ll also have more to say about Laudato Si and sustainable agriculture in the summer issue of our Catholic Rural Life magazine, due out in early September. (One of the articles is by Cardinal Peter Turkson on “Laudato Si and the Vocation to Agriculture”, already available online at the Faith, Food & Environment website.)

Final word from Pope Francis

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” (Laudato Si, §202)

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, General Interest

2 responses to “To Till and to Keep: Towards a New Agriculture”

  1. Aimee Polekoff says:

    Let’s not forget that there is such a thing as no-till agriculture. Given enough mulch/compost, seeds can be inserted directly into the soil. Not breaking up the ground promotes great soil health and can put carbon back where it belongs. Tilling is certainly not a “necessity”, except in the modern industrial monoculture paradigm. After all, nature does not till, and plants still spring up.

  2. Martha says:

    “To till” was early in the last century discovered to be adverse to the soil. I now prefer “sustainable” to organic, because of the corruption of organic. However, I think they need to understand the principles of permaculture, biodynamic, and no-dig gardening. Also regreening the desert to stop desertification, and heal drought in a real and natural way. A good place to start in “One straw Revolution.” Another is forest gardening- Years ago, I read an article in prevention or organic gardening, that said that a garden in the forest by the sea grew largest vegetables ever, not since duplicated after clearing, even with compost and seaweed. I think it is the years of natural compost from leaves and animal waste and no-digging.