Food Justice Through Agroecology
By Rev. Andrew Kang Bartlett
Did you know that you practice agroecology when you buy a pint of organic blueberries grown by a nearby family farmer, or, when you pick up your share of produce for the week? You further promote agroecology when you plant an heirloom tomato seed. And, even when you collect water off your roof into a rain barrel, you’re participating in agroecology by joining with agroecological water harvesters around the world.
This means you’re helping, perhaps without knowing it, to stem the tide of climate change, reemphasize traditional farming practices, and increase access to healthy foods. What would happen if we began to do these things with greater intentionality locally, nationally and globally?
As the term itself suggests, agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the practice of agriculture. It asks a basic question that has a number of complicated answers: how can we produce food while living in harmony with God’s creation? The core principles of this science include:
- conserving and using farm resources, such as manure, on the farm rather than bringing them in from other places (sourcing from an outside producer, like a chemical fertilizer or pesticide);
- generating and conserving energy on the farm;
- raising both crops and livestock to take advantage of mutual benefits;
- practicing agroforestry where plants, shrubs and trees with varied heights are all used to increase productivity; and
- diversity of genetic resources through cultivation of multiple plant and animal varieties and seed saving.
At its foundation, agroecology is about listening to the small farmer. The knowledge of those who work the land and protect biodiversity is critical for developing local solutions to the challenges faced by producers—challenges like climate change-induced droughts and floods, debt incurred through the purchase of expensive patented seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and insufficient prices paid for their crops and livestock. The science of agroecology complements the social goals of food sovereignty, which are greater local control, dignity and justice for producers, workers and consumers, and the ability of people to provide sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for themselves, their community and their nation.
Ultimately, agroecological practices are based on the knowledge of people whose survival depends on a healthy relationship with nature. That’s what led the Presbyterian Hunger Program to connect with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste and Haiti’s Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), which for more than 35 years has been running a tree nursery and an agroforestry program. “I can say for sure that the country will continue to go from catastrophe to catastrophe if nothing is done to change the situation,” says Jean-Baptiste. The MPP has planted more than 20 million saplings on deforested hillsides in Haiti. Trees hold the soil in place, preserving precious nutrients that improve food-crop production.
Even if you are not a farmer, you are a person whose survival depends on a healthy relationship with nature. God has provided this abundant planet, and we survive only to the extent that its ecosystems are healthy. Future survival will rely in no small part on agriculture. Our species has converted 50 percent of the world’s surface area into land for grazing and farming—in the process losing about half the forest cover, the “lungs” of the earth.
Agriculture is a major driver of climate change, from deforestation to livestock production. Scientific advances have only increased the impact. Modern agriculture has shifted away from traditional, organic farming methods, and now fossil fuel is used throughout the food and farm system. Current food production and consumption practices are estimated to account for between 17 and 32 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
But, by growing our food more responsibly, we can begin to reduce our negative impact on the earth and increase the chances that adequate food will be available for the almost 1 billion hungry people, most of whom live in rural areas of the Global South.
Some argue that only high-input, industrial agriculture can feed the world, but multiple studies prove otherwise. A global assessment of agroecological projects throughout the developing world documented clear increases in food production over some 71,660,560 acres, with nearly 9 million households benefiting from increased food diversity and security. In the African region, two United Nations agencies demonstrated that using organic methods increased agricultural productivity by 116 percent in impoverished countries where hungry people directly benefit.
These are some basic facts of agroecological practice. But how are we, as people of faith, called to get involved? While the term agroecology may be new, this field’s essential concepts are not, and many of them can be found in Scripture. God has called us to be good stewards of God’s creation (Gen. 1:26), to care for our land and animals (Ezek. 34), to avoid excess and live sustainably (James 5:5), and to offer even the land a Sabbath of rest (Lev. 25:2).
In all that Jesus said and did, he proclaimed the reign of God. The original word for “kingdom” or “reign” in Aramaic, malkuta,can be understood as the “ruling principles that guide our lives toward unity” and wholeness. When it comes to the food system, malkuta envisions a more organic and balanced way of producing sustenance. (From ‘Toward Food Sovereignty For All’ Report, The United Church of Canada, 2013.)
For the people of the Bible—farmers, fishermen, shepherds—faith and science went hand in hand, because the food they cultivated and ate was a gift of the land created by God. And God’s laws ruled that land. May it be so once again.
Andrew Kang Bartlett is the associate for national hunger concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Find manuals, guides, curricula, action steps, and allies at pcusa.org/food and harvesting-justice.org/resources.
Lenten Calendar for MARCH 26
Read Mark 7: 24-30. Consider how you could advocate for a better world. Go online and read more about Bread for the World.
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In addition to being the founder and editor-in-chief of the “40 Days for Food Justice Project”, the Rev. MargaretAnne Overstreet is a mom, a Presbyterian pastor, and a certified Health Coach. She does ministry with and among the good people of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Illinois, where she gets her hands dirty in the community garden and, every Sunday, preaches with bare feet. She treasures family time, relishes every opportunity to teach and write about food justice, and loves to play outside with her dogs. Find out more about her at www.AnInBetweenPlace.com