Reflecting on World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, 1 September 2016, WelCom invited Vicky Forgie, an ecological economist at Ecological Economics Research New Zealand, at Massey University, and a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Palmerston North, to write about sustainable agriculture.
Pope Francis dedicated his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square, 5 June 2013, to the UN World Environment Day theme ‘Think, Eat, Save’ to draw attention to the excesses of consumerism and food wastage.
‘This culture of waste has made us insensitive even to the waste and disposal of food, which is even more despicable when all over the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families are suffering from hunger and malnutrition,’ the Pope said.
In 2015, Pope Francis declared September 1 as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. ‘This day offers to individual believers and to the community a precious opportunity to renew our personal participation in this vocation as custodians of creation, raising to God our thanks for the marvellous works that He has entrusted to our care, invoking his help for the protection of creation and his mercy for the sins committed against the world in which we live.’
When people refer to sustainable agriculture they usually think in terms of the impacts farming has on the environment. However, sustainable agriculture is broader than this and links ecological health with social responsibility and economic viability.
The paradigm the current New Zealand agriculture system operates within, is minimising the economic cost of production as opposed to sustaining the benefits derived from the country’s natural environment for future generations. To achieve sustainable agriculture the goal of increasing productivity has to apply to both the traded outputs of food and fibre and the non-market goods and services provided free by nature. Ecosystem services such as purification of water, regulation of floods, pollination, climate adaptation, formation of soil, cultural, spiritual, recreation and educational services need to also be ‘farmed’ to grow and increase. Despite the fact that we derive priceless benefits from these services, they are not part of the market system, and are often overlooked and not valued in planning and decision-making.
Sustainable agriculture is based on farming land that is naturally suited rather than highly modified and input dependent, avoiding monoculture, enhancing biodiversity and protecting high-quality agricultural land from urban encroachment. It also requires producing crops and growing animals with limited use of toxic chemicals, not relying on synthetic fertilisers, or engaging in practices that degrade soil, water, or other natural resources.
The social responsibility component of sustainable agriculture is concerned with caring for people and other species. Farmers, farmworkers, food processors and others employed in the food chain are entitled to good work conditions, a liveable wage and safe practices. There also needs to be good practice around the health and well-being of animals and how they are treated and fed. Progressive systems ensure food production does not compromise human health or increase the incidence of foodborne illness. In such systems wastes are dealt with in ways that reduce human and animal exposure to pathogens, toxins, and other hazardous pollutants such as the nitrate contamination of water and food. The over use of antibiotics is avoided and food is produced without the use of dangerous pesticides so it is safe for consumers, workers, and local communities.
Another critical factor for sustainable agriculture is to remain economically viable. Farmers have little control over farm prices, and receive a small percentage of the consumer dollar spent on agricultural product. To encourage a move towards sustainable agriculture consumers need to compensate farmers for good social, environmental and quality performance, even if that means paying a bit more. We need to be aware of where our food comes from and reward responsible producers by, for example, buying direct – either on line or via farmers markets. Consumers do have impact. The lobby against caged-egg production has increased the demand for free-range eggs to the level they are now in the Consumer Price Index basket of goods used to measure change in the rate of inflation. Economic pressures have led to a reduction in the numbers of farms and farmers, which has contributed to the disintegration of rural communities and local marketing systems. Sustainable farming finds ways to bolster initiatives that support local and regional economies, create good jobs and build strong communities.
The responsibility for achieving sustainable agriculture does not just rest with farmers – we all need to be part of the sustainable agriculture movement as we all eat and we all need healthy functioning ecosystems to survive. One way we can be more sustainable is to not waste food. Under the economic system we operate in, throwing away food has a double environmental impact. The food wasted has used energy, fertiliser, water, fossil fuels, and produced green-house gas emissions and pollutants to get to your home. Because it is purchased, our economic system assumes there is a demand so the feedback effect is to generate a replacement product that also requires the same inputs and generates pollutants and as there is no demand, is in turn wasted.
In the words of Pope Francis1: ‘Once our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food. Consumerism has led us to become used to an excess and daily waste of food, to which, at times, we are no longer able to give a just value, which goes well beyond mere economic parameters. We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry! I encourage everyone to reflect on the problem of thrown away and wasted food to identify ways and means that, by seriously addressing this issue, are a vehicle of solidarity and sharing with the needy’.