In the past week, the Chinese government has announced the possible implementation of new tariffs countering those recently levied on foreign goods by our own government. Among these are new duties on pork from the United States and the threat of similar tariffs on U.S. soy and grain.
For the American grower, this is no mere bluster between aggressive heads of state; China is a chief consumer of U.S. produce, and farmers rely heavily on that business to make ends meet. The potential trade war will exacerbate an already difficult situation, and while the powers-that-be puff out their chests, those who provide our daily bread will be left in the lurch.
All those who eat are called to care about the plight of those whose work produced the eating.
If, as the farmer and writer Wendell Berry has said, “eating is an agricultural act,” then each of us is implicated in these moral concerns. These are matters that should tug especially at the Catholic conscience. Adherents to a faith that professes God himself to have been a worker and to have described himself as a “vinedresser” and “shepherd” should always be attentive to the concerns of those laborers who, unseen to most of us, provide our most basic necessities. The last several popes have articulated a vision of “integral ecology” that has become a part of Catholic social teaching and that compels the faithful to work toward integrating care for the land, for workers and for the poor.
Today, the suicide rate for agricultural workers (a category that also includes fishing and forestry workers) is higher than for any other profession—five times higher than the general population and more than double that of military veterans. This statistic is only one indicator of the larger reality that farmers face: an agricultural economy that forces producers to work long hours for uncertain and minimal compensation. Even as the farmer is compelled to work harder than ever, the social networks that once supported rural life have been undercut, and the demands of the current food production system have forced farmers to overwork the land with methods that damage the long-term health of the countryside they care for.
The life of the farmer has always been difficult and uncertain. But there have been elements of rural life that softened its rigors, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in his homily to Iowa’s farmers. The special gifts of the farmer's life, he said, were gratitude, care for the land and tight-knit community. Indeed, it is this closeness to nature and the solidarity among those who work the land that has given farming its savor to so many. More and more, these supports have been knocked out from under the farming family.
The hollowing out of rural communities, the endless pressure for higher yields from a small number of cash crops and the methods by which farmers are often required to meet those demands have diminished what were once the personal satisfactions that compensated farmers for their toil. This has often left farmers struggling under debt, worn out and not knowing how they will make it to next year. It is difficult for those of us who benefit from the farmers’ labor to imagine the weight on their shoulders or to really feel the herculean task that faces them at the start of each season.
The response to this hidden crisis for a Catholic must be at once spiritual and corporeal. "It is the dignity of those who work on the land and of all those engaged in different levels of research and action in the field of agricultural development which must be unceasingly proclaimed and promoted," Pope Paul VI said in an address to the World Food Conference in 1974.
The first task is to show a solidarity and fraternal concern for farmers and to promote the work of the rural church in providing that solace the faith affords to those in tough times. But it is not enough to stop here, for Christ not only called his followers to pray and preach, but to feed, clothe, comfort and bring justice.
The issues of today’s agricultural economy are complex and admit no easy solutions, but all those who eat are called to care about the plight of those whose work produced the eating. In another address to farmers, John Paul II recalled that God gave the Earth to humankind “to till and to keep it.” This divine charge, he said, requires that we seek out social and organizational measures that promise fair remuneration for the farmer’s labor and that support the healthy balance between productivity, care for the land and family life.
This would include, for starters, halting these tariffs that threaten to deal a serious blow to the already suffering sector, but beyond this, it may require an effort at a more serious reworking of the agricultural status quo. I would not pretend to know the answers, but these are questions to which we must apply ourselves with seriousness and urgency. In so doing, we will begin to participate in the good work and gratitude that comes from farming and eating done well.
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