For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Pastoral Reflection - Part 3

Agricultural “Signs of the Times”

The agricultural “signs of the times” are complex and sometimes contradictory. Since our Conference last addressed these questions,1 much has remained the same. U.S. agriculture has demonstrated remarkable productivity and quality, thanks to the hard work, skills, and sacrifices of farmers and farmworkers. U.S. agriculture has given Americans and the world plentiful food, fiber, and other products at affordable prices. However, we live in a world where many are still hungry. We live in a nation where many family farmers are still struggling and where many have lost farms in recent decades. We live in a society where many farmworkers are still denied the opportunity to live a decent life.

We are also facing new challenges: for example, increasing concentration at every level of agriculture, increasing focus on agricultural trade as a measure of economic vitality, and increasing globalization tying together our lives and livelihoods wherever we live. (See data box “U.S. Agriculture: What Is Happening to Farms and Farmers?” and data box “Global Agriculture: What Is Happening to Hungry People and Farmers Around the World?”) Fewer people are making important decisions that affect far more people than in the past. These choices have serious moral implications and human consequences. These forces of increasing concentration and growing globalization are pushing some ahead and leaving others behind. They are also pushing us toward a world where the powerful can take advantage of the weak, where large institutions and corporations can overwhelm smaller structures, and where the production and distribution of food and the protection of land lie in fewer hands. (See data box “Concentration and Vertical Integration: What Is Happening to Our Food from Field to Shelf?”)

With these reflections, we offer brief summaries of trends and relevant statistics. They are not a comprehensive analysis of the forces at work in agriculture. They focus more on problems than progress, more on human costs than economic achievements, more on who is left behind than on who is moving ahead. Beyond the numbers are images and contrasts that haunt us.

  • We return home from the supermarket with its many choices and turn on the television to watch a young girl half a world away pick through a garbage dump for something, anything to eat.
  • We know U.S. agriculture is changing in so many ways, but farmers still depend on whether it rains and on other forces of nature.
  • We are urged to eat foods that promote health, but most of us never think about the health and safety of those who harvest those fruits and vegetables. We are stunned by the headlines when eighteen people die in a tractor trailer in Victoria, Texas, or in a desert, people who came seeking a better life, hoping to work in our fields.
  • We have learned that more than half of the coffee industry’s permanent labor force has lost their jobs as world coffee prices plummeted, affecting tens of thousands of workers and farmers throughout Central America.
  • We celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of so many farm families and the traditional community values in rural towns. However, many of us do not realize how these virtues and values are sometimes threatened by powerful economic interests and other forces that make it more and more difficult for smaller farms and communities to survive and thrive.
  • We heard the sad story at one of our listening sessions of a mother in Zimbabwe who stood in line for days to get food for her two young children. As she waited, she watched both children die.