‘Food is an inalienable right’

By  Cardinal Peter Turkson, Catholic Register Special
  • November 30, 2014

God’s gifts to us should be used to overcome the scourge of hunger

Food is unique. Food sustains life itself. It is not just another product. As Christians, providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy choice. Eating is a moral act because it is human, and human acts can and must be morally evaluated.

But food and agriculture have become distant, abstract, anonymous. For many, food comes from a grocery store or fast food restaurant. We are disconnected from how our food is produced. This disconnection leaves us unconsciously dependent for our food on systems we cannot see and do not understand.

And yet people are hungry — millions upon millions of them. Pope Francis has a way of getting at things directly. This October, at a gathering of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, he told people from peasant movements, landless farm workers and indigenous people that their fight for land, water and a sustainable environment is vital to all of us.

“Hunger is criminal. Food is an inalienable right,” said the Pope.

We Christians must consider some important, underlying ethical questions:

  • How can hunger be overcome?
  • How can safe, affordable, nutritious and sustainable food be ensured?
  • How can farm workers and small farmers around the world live and work with dignity?
  • How can rural communities survive and thrive?
  • How can land, water and other elements of God’s creation be preserved, protected and used well in service to the common good?
  • How do we respond to climate change?

Think about these things in terms of vocation. We all share a human vocation, which is how we acknowledge and engage our nature as humans. It’s our way of being human. Don’t think of it as an individual career path, but as something we hold in common with everyone who shares our human nature. From meals we share with family and friends to our global food system, agriculture has always been part of our human vocation and its future is part of our human destiny.

Farming is a constant backdrop in the Bible. The language of Jesus is full of illustrations from agriculture — tending flocks, planting, harvesting, building granaries and paying workers. Jesus assumes His listeners understand and respect healthy agriculture. This allows Him to tell parables about farms and farmers. In the parable of the good seed, Jesus talks about how seed reacts to different types of soil to teach what happens when people react in different ways to the word of God (Mark 4).

The Bible teaches us about agriculture as a vocation. From the very beginning, the Creator asks us to till the earth and to keep it. It is our assignment as human beings. It cannot be just a job if we treat it as part of God’s plan of love in history. Even for those of us who don’t grow our own food, eating is an occasion for us to discover and fulfil the authentic and complete meaning of our personal and social lives.

Let’s not limit our thinking to the mechanics of the marketplace. There’s more to growing food than profits and losses. There’s a profound gift inherent in God’s creation, in the soil, the air and the water which nurtures every seed.

Our lives and the entire world we inhabit are gifts freely given by God — gifts that should inform how we act. If we permit it, God’s gifts will humanize and civilize our economies. Where farmers, traders, buyers and sellers see themselves as stewards rather than owners, see their wealth as common goods rather than just private poverty, and see the food they produce, prepare and distribute as sustenance we share, then the whole enterprise sustains our human being.

Food has not been distributed fairly in the world, and we should therefore wonder what more is being asked of each of us.

At the centre of Church teaching is the fundamental dignity of all human beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God and that has to mean something. This expresses God’s infinite love for us. He would never wish untruth, bondage, injustice and strife for us. Rather, based on divine love and human dignity, our faith would have us embrace four fundamental values: truth, freedom, justice and peace. These four pillars are grounded in our divinely and lovingly created human nature — and this gives us an absolutely firm response when any such values are challenged or denied.

The common good comes before serving narrower interests. The goods or resources of the world have a universal destiny. Creation is a gift to the whole of humanity, not just a part. We are called to act in solidarity with those who lack access to these goods — with the large portion of humanity who suffer in the midst of plenty, beginning with those millions who are hungry while we throw food away.

It is abundantly clear that agriculture commands influence over immense resources — the land that feeds us and houses us, the water, the soil and its nutrients. Is it legitimate to worry that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little? Can genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilizers make their contribution without endangering God’s creation, with all its species — God’s original gift to us all?

Is the common good subordinated to our individual ability to pay? Do corporations practise subsidiarity? If they do, they will allow and even assist other farming structures — family farming in some regions, subsistence farming in others — to flourish alongside agribusiness. Is our system more geared to produce money than food? One difficult case is how local food production is curtailed in favour of growing crops to produce ethanol for use in cars — a clear impact of the global economy.

Is our global agricultural system more interested in what sells than feeding a hungry world? Is there room for responsible, prudent stewardship of the environment? Do production and distribution decisions address the rampant problems of malnutrition? And are long-term risks such as the growth of resistance to herbicides and pesticides included in how we assess technological innovations?

If you’ve answered all these questions, either you haven’t really thought about them or there’s a job for you in Rome. There’s no way of thinking about these questions without thinking about our environment, the ecology and God’s gift of our relationships with each other and the natural world.

Our human bond with the earth is foundational. “Adam” comes from adamah or ground, earth. So too, “human” is grounded in humus, soil. Humanity was not created ex nihilo but ex adamah and out of humus. Without earth, there is no human being.

Moreover, our human story begins in a garden, not in the wilds. And it involves more than the inexorable laws of nature. Humanity is the factor that opens the earth up to new possibilities. Will there be blessed innovations and new harmonies, or new imbalances and cumulative decline? The outcomes depend on our choices.

I dare to challenge everyone to use all the gifts God has given — your wisdom, your experience and your creativity — to dialogue, to wrestle with the question of food and the tragedy of hunger. You must offer solutions to farmers and agricultural workers of this generation and the next. With faith and commitment to the common good, we can address the food, land and environmental challenges before humankind.

(Cardinal Turkson is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.)

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