This last Sunday was the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa. He spoke of the importance of feeding the hungry and the role those involved in agriculture have in completing this task. To celebrate the anniversary, the Des Moines Diocese had a votive Mass and held a symposium to discuss the last thirty years in agriculture as well as to suggest the direction agriculture should be heading. The theme of the symposium, “What God has given, and human hands have made”, was very fitting, though there were arguments as to the value of what human hands have made over the last thirty years.
In the last thirty years, agriculture has found itself whittled down to a few large agribusinesses controlling its direction. The number of farmers has declined rapidly and the size of farms has largely increased. Small and middle sized family farms have not been able to compete and have been forced out. The emphasis in agriculture has been placed on a few commodities, mainly corn, with large government subsidies leading to overproduction of these commodities. Instead of helping those in impoverished countries to create a self-sustaining system, our overproduction is dumped on them. Their farmers cannot compete with this influx of cheap commodities. Meanwhile the main benefactors are the large farms and agribusinesses.
Conventional agriculture has had a negative environmental impact as well, due to concentrating only on yield without considering sustainability. Massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are poured onto fields, the production of which requires incredibly large amounts of energy. Fields are then managed in ways that send nitrates into the water system and billions of pounds of topsoil to the Gulf of Mexico.
At the symposium, the keynote speaker,Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska, did nothing to encourage any improvements. Instead of discussing the further work that needs to be done to end world hunger, he sat back and praised the current state of agriculture. One of his main points was that modern conventional farming was the only way to feed the world. It was very disconcerting to hear a U.S. senator make such a statement. I don’t know whether to hope the statement was made out of ignorance or as a result of the intense lobbying from large agribusinesses.
All of this sounds pretty grim, but there is actually much to be optimistic about. Many of the other speakers at the symposium spoke out against our current global food system. They offered the hope of providing third-world countries with the tools to sustain themselves. Much is currently being done to buck the trends as well. Local food systems and organic agriculture are being fostered around the world. Environmental and social justice groups are also doing what they can to make positive changes in agriculture, but their work is hard and constantly countered by the interests of agribusiness.
The anniversary of the Pope’s visit to Iowa is a good time for all to reflect on how agriculture affects all of our lives. It is a time to consider the consequences of our own decisions, whether we are producers or consumers. Our current global food system is not what Pope John Paul II had in mind when he spoke of feeding the hungry, and a continuation of it would be a continuation of turning away from the needs of the poorest in the world while also degrading the land.
On a personal note, the Mass and symposium were special to me in another way, because my mom was the lector for the papal Mass in Iowa thirty years ago! She and twenty or so others were asked to try out, and she was selected. Now that’s a pretty nice honor.