November 22, 2010
An Ethiopian farmer walks next to his donkey in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

CNS PHOTO | FROM REUTERS

An Ethiopian farmer walks next to his donkey in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MARK PATTISON
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

The growing adoption of industrial farming practices worldwide puts too much stress on the planet.

It also deceives people into thinking that the world will be able to keep feeding a growing population, currently 6.8 billion.

Those were two of the main points raised at a recent forum held at Georgetown University titled Are We Eating Ourselves to Death?

Creating a more sustainable agricultural system poses a huge challenge, according to the forum's panelists, especially given all of the mechanized and monetized developments of recent generations.

Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, for 13 years the executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, said other nations are adopting U.S-style farming practices not because they want to, but because they have to.

Andrews said World Bank- and International Monetary Fund-mandated "structural adjustment" policies have knocked down vast areas of rainforest in a quest to grow exportable crops to pay back World Bank and IMF loans.

Meanwhile, he said, indigenous people, who had practised subsistence farming, are kicked off the land and have a harder time feeding themselves.

MARKETS FLOODED

Complicating matters, Andrews added, is that U.S. subsidies for certain crops allow foreign markets to be flooded with those crops at prices that are cheaper than what local farmers can produce.

Deforesting "costs us a whole lot in environmental repercussions," said Nancy Tuchman, a biology professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Because so few people farm the land today, it leads to, among other things, "monoculture" - using all available acreage to grow just one crop, she said.

Other results are the use of pesticides and other chemicals, and now genetics, to increase crop yields, Tuchman said.

Since Monsanto's Roundup weed killer kills everything that's green, the chemical giant has produced Roundup Ready seeds that won't be affected by Roundup.

"So now you have the same company selling you the pesticide and the seeds," she said.

SUICIDE GENE

"But you have to keep buying the seeds. Monsanto has inserted a 'suicide gene' that keeps farmers from using seeds from the crops they've grown" to use as seeds the following season.

The U.S. bishops, in their 2003 statement For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food, "recognized that farming is a way of life," said Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice Fla., who grew up on a dairy farm.

Catholic social teaching, Dewane said, "must shape the global agriculture system," noting the "option for and with the poor."

He noted the plight of tomato pickers in southern Florida, many of whom are migrants and many of whom are women.

"They are poor, they are vulnerable," Dewane said of the tomato pickers. "If a woman is pregnant, she is not going to get any money if she doesn't go" into fields laced with pesticides that could harm her unborn child.

Andrews suggested educating women on sustainable farming and agriculture issues "because if you've educated the woman, you've educated her whole family."