Catholic Bishops' Conference
"For I Was Hungry
and You Gave Me Food" (Mt 25:35)
Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers
- 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
Catholic Social Teaching and Agriculture
- 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
- Respect for Creation
A Catholic Agenda for Action: Pursuing a More
Just Agricultural System
Farmers and Farm Policies
- 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
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
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 agriculture.
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
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
- How can hunger in the human family be overcome?
- 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 with dignity?
- How can land, water, and other elements of God’s creation be preserved,
protected, and used well in the service of the common good?
- How can rural communities in our country and around the world survive
We cannot 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”
The 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.
- 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 nature.
- 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 Central America.
- 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.
IV. Our Faith Tradition
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 politics.
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 for
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 faith.
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
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 Food?”)
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 God’s
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
- 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 the workplace.
- 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.
The Challenge Ahead 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 tables.
- 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 mining.8
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,
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
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.
3 Multi-National 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
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),
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.
5 U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1997 Census of Agriculture,
|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),
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
|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
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 are Mexican.1
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
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 and Agriculture
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
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 Participation
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
justice 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, which
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
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 treated.
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 and
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 human family.
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
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
- Do these policies help to overcome hunger and poverty?
- 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 communities?
- 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 good.
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
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
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
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 agricultural workers.
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
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,
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 States.
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
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 option.
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 prudence.
Public 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
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).
2 Among 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.
3 Congregation 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).
4 Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation
of Catholics in Political Life, no. 6.
5 USCCB, 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.
6 Cf. 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).
7 Catholic 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.
8 John Paul II, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum
(Centesimus Annus) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1991), no. 48
9 Cf. Archbishop Renato R. Martino, Address at the Ministerial
Conference on Science and Technology in Agriculture, Sacramento, California,
June 23-25, 2003.
The document 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.
Msgr. William P. Fay
General Secretary, USCCB