By Father Bud Grant
Recently the Diocese of Des Moines hosted a symposium to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to America’s heartland. One topic discussed was how agriculture will feed the anticipated 9 billion people expected within the next half century.
Solutions ranged from diversified rotations to genetically modified crops. Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey asserted that “traditional” agriculture will bear the greatest burden in meeting this challenge.
It is strange how language mutates. The kind of agriculture that Johanns and Northey promote is highly industrialized, chemical dependent, agri-business monoculture, which emerged rapidly only since the end of World War II. Yet it now bears the hoary gravitas of “tradition.” In the mean time, diversified, organic, labor-intensive and sustainable agricultural methods that have been developed for the past 10,000 years are referred to as having a “niche” market. One might think that this ancient agriculture, still practiced around the world and enjoying a mini-renaissance here at home, has some claim to being “traditional.”
It is argued that such old-fashioned methods cannot hope to feed the world’s hungry because of low yield. Iowa’s own Norman Borlaug helped create the “green revolution” that triggered a 60 percent increase in global food production that saved a billion lives. Is it repeatable?
Dr. Matthew Lieman — an agronomist at Iowa State University — notes that we will have to ramp up production another 70 percent from today’s levels to meet the goal of feeding 3 billion more mouths. How? Two strategies are considered. The first is to increase acres under the plow. The problem is that, with global warming and other environmental and human pressures, we are actually losing arable land. The second strategy is to increase productivity per acre of farmland. Besides intensive use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, this means an ever greater dependency on genetically modified crops (GMCs).
Most likely both tracks will be pursued. In an effort to recover farm land from remnant wilderness, we will lose more of the earth’s already disintegrated native ecosystems. By ramping up the use of GMCs, agriculture will be even more controlled by profit-driven private agriculture industries. Especially in the developing regions of the world, farmers are made economically dependent upon their Western suppliers, creating a sort of neo-feudal system of indentured rural workers. Yet even with these strategies, the goal of ramping up agricultural output by 70 percent isn’t likely to be met.
If not, we face a colossal human tragedy that will strike whenever the threshold is crossed between what we can produce and how many we can feed. We are already witnessing massive waves of “environmental refugees” as the world’s hungry flee ravaged ecosystems. As food production falls behind population growth, today’s famines will deepen and spread. Jeopardizing the earth’s ecosystems and exploiting farmers might slow that crisis, but won’t stop it, and in the long run may make matters worse.
There is another perspective. Consider Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “The notion of rights and duties in development must also take account of the problems associated with population growth … Due attention must be given to responsible procreation, which among other things has a positive contribution to make to integral human development” (44, italics mine). Of course the Holy Father is not endorsing birth control. Further, he points out that the practice of immoral birth control methods has not benefited society. The larger context of the passage suggests that the pope sees the issue as one of economic justice for the poor, not controlling their population. At the same time, he identifies the links between justice for the hungry, equitable economic development and sustainable environmental practices.
Whenever developing communities — and more specifically, women in those communities — are offered education, health care and economic opportunity, populations stabilize. That we must feed the world’s people is as close to a moral absolute as they come. That we protect God’s creation from ravage is as great a mandate, if less obviously so. Both requirements can be addressed — they need not conflict with one another and, indeed, in the long run they logically do not conflict.
The pope’s position is visionary and prophetic. No wonder they’re calling him the “Green Pope.”
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)