Sufficient Sustainable Livelihood for All

Striving for Justice in the Food System, a Lutheran Perspective

 Jon Greenstone

In this essay I will introduce you to a social statement on economic life known as Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All (SSL), which was approved as a policy statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on August 20, 1999. My comments and ideas regarding the sustainable foods and farms movement have been deeply influenced by this statement as well as the words of numerous theologians, philosophers, and advocates of rural renewal.

For the last two years I have been working for Just Community Food Systems as the ELCA Congregation Supported Farm program Coordinator. I am also a third year Masters of Divinity student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA. Hope you enjoy this essay and find the spiritual and altruistic values of eating locally grown foods and supporting local farmers.

Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All (SSL), begins by pointing out that "the global market economy feels like a free-running system that is reordering the world with few external checks or little accountability to values other than profit." This statement speaks very specifically about the rising levels of power being held by fewer and fewer economic entities existent in the world today. 

With respect to agriculture and the world’s food production systems it is the transnational corporations (TNCs) that are increasingly exerting their power and influence on the world’s food supplies with their sole motivation being the attainment of profit. This is of great concern to the Church due to the seriousness of the economic impact on the world’s farmers who are losing their ability to participate in feeding their own neighbors due to the decreasing number of farm commodity buyers. 

An increasingly centralized food system is coming into existence that can pick and choose who will have access to varying qualities of food. The discrimination of the TNCs is clearly motivated by profits. There are now pockets of hunger (or food insecurity) that can be readily identified in cities and towns throughout the U.S. and we can observe that there could come a day when corporate mandates and policies would dictate who would eat and who would go hungry on an international basis. In a song entitled, "A Place at the Table," land theologian, John Pitney, rhetorically asks, "Who has a place at the table? Who gets a space at the board? When communion is spread with that daily bread, will some be welcomed and others ignored?"

There is also the concern about earth’s resources being depleted or abused by industrial agriculture’s tendency to mine the soil of its biological and mineral wealth. Pitney’s song continues . . ."Whose child will taste God’s abundance? The table grows smaller for sure. Will the oceans and aquifers, lands, and soil sustain the multitudes keep us secure? Who has a place at the table now?" "We are embedded in a global food system structured around a market economy that is geared to the proliferation of commodities and the destruction of [localized food production]. 

We are faced with transnational agribusinesses whose desire to extend and consolidate their global reach implies the homogenization of our food, our communities, and our landscapes." The policies of the TNCs are presently geared toward catering to the wealthy nations of the world. If their strength is not soon challenged, they may exercise their grasp of world food supplies in such ways that would inevitably lead to additional risks of hunger or starvation for the world’s poor. 

As it is right now, "the global food system operates according to allegedly ‘natural’ rules of efficiency, utility maximization, competitiveness and calculated self interest. . . . Food production today is organized largely with the objective of producing a profit rather than with the purpose of feeding people."[4] For this reason, some hunger advocates have suggested a dismantling of the TNCs and in their place create an entity that would possess their equivalency in terms of distribution capabilities and economic strength, but have this entity under the control of the United Nations. 

Such an entity would hold anthropological and environmental values above stockholders’ dividends and bottom line profits, thus assuring that food would not be used as a coercive device and that people who have been reduced to poverty and hunger would not be further exploited.

The consolidation of the global food system has resulted in a narrowing down the number of firms who buy and then act as providers of the world’s food commodities. This has been accomplished by a few TNCs who have merged with or absorbed many of the smaller buyers of food stocks. Five of the top companies that actively participate in the consolidation of global food production are: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto, ConAgra, and Novartis.

I would be in remiss if I were to leave out the Phillip Morris Company who receives ten cents of every dollar Americans spend at the local supermarket—so make that six consolidated and integrated food giants. These firms further their control of the food supply by forming partnerships and cooperative ventures amongst themselves. This type of consolidation and subsequent international monetary control goes directly against the spirit of the SSL statement where it says: "While economic growth is considered an unconditional good, we insist that such growth must be evaluated by its direct, indirect, short-term, and long term effects on the well being of all creation and people, especially those who are poor."

Dr. William Heffernan has been documenting the rise to power of the TNCs since the mid-1980's. He says "the major concern about concentration in the food system focuses on the control exercised by a handful of firms over decision-making throughout the food system." The net result of the TNCs’ consolidation and integration of world food supplies and channels is that individual farmers find themselves caught in a system wherein they no longer have choices about who will buy their farm products. 

This is a loss of marketplace-democracy and it follows that the exercise of a vocation in farming is no longer based on independently derived values, but is instead driven by the constitutions and economic policies of the TNCs whose will is legally asserted via world trade negotiations and subsequent international trade laws. Under TNC contracts absolute decisions are made that make careless assumptions about conditions on the farm and in the farm fields, e.g., soil conditions, water bodies, risk of runoff, and environmentally sensitive areas. Farm plans that are conceived of in executive suites then handed down to independent farm owner/managers (under contract) show little concern for the land, the animals, or the human families who will be directly affected by corporate mandates that may make recommendations without local knowledge.

The economic forces are no longer a fair playing field. They are international in scope. A man with a quarter million dollar combine may be pitted against a villager in India who uses oxen to cultivate the land. Neither farmer is winning in the global market. The ones who are benefitting seldom smell the freshly turned earth, but are more accustomed to the din of ringing phones and the whir of internal disk drives that crunch the numbers of grain futures, foreign trade markets, and cattle prices in Brazil. The family farmer is a pawn amidst the TNCs.

An additional negative outcome of today’s consolidated food system is the possibility for community food insecurity. Larger and fewer food source conglomerates may represent an increasing vulnerability in the food system. Larger systems cannot readily cope with unforeseen shortages, e.g., caused by GMO contamination. This was the case with the GM corn that was mistakenly allowed to mix with food grade corn, causing a huge recall of food products and subsequent lawsuits. Organizational largeness can result in an inability to change or adapt to a new situation with limited response time. This leaves the world’s centers of highest population at risk for food shortages.

Roman Stoltzfoos is a successful organic grass-dairy farmer in Kinzers, Pennsylvania. Roman has found that the transition of his dairy from conventional practices to organic/sustainable has proven to be profitable and beneficial to the land and the cows, not to mention the consumer who buys his dairy products. Roman believes there are "dismal days . . . ahead for the American farmer. ‘When we cannot save our own seeds and genetics, find our own markets, and think on our own without being labeled as ‘emotional.’ there is something seriously wrong with farming."

In an article entitled "Caring and Working: An Agrarian Perspective," Norman Wirzba illustrates the paradox between an agrarian ideal (a state in which the vocation of the farmer is honored and valued) and the agribusiness ethos. Wirzba says that agrarianism represents a fundamental challenge to the technological/industrial/capitalist worldview or ethos. Whereas techne is about making and controlling a world in our own image, agrarianism is about tending to and taking care of a world already given.Obviously this contrast is stark and perhaps too simply drawn, since agrarians would not want to dispense with technology altogether. The contrast turns on the overriding ethos that governs thought and action. Is our main objective to care for the earth or to care for ourselves? The Biblical view clearly mandates the first alternative (because when it is correctly carried out, the second is understood in its proper light), and repeatedly describes the second as the temptation that needs to be overcome.

The SSL statement makes several points that relate further the importance of seeing our vocations as contributing to a greater good. As people of faith we should strive toward an ethic whatever our vocation, an ethic that views work as "the means through which basic needs might be met . . .. Work is seen not as an end in itself, but as a means for sustaining humans and the rest of creation."

This is expressed in God’s charge to the first humans, i.e., when God charges them to be about ‘tending and keeping the garden’ (Gen. 2:15). This charge can serve as an illustrative guide when considering the intrinsic value of a vocation that is born out of stewardship and responsibility to both human and natural beings; this would be a more accurate understanding of a true agrarian culture. I am always intrigued by Grandma Moses art prints that portray idealized farm scenes where humans appear to have a harmonious relationship with the particular piece of God’s creation where they dwell. 

However, western technology, capitalism, and shortsightedness (today’s industrialized agriculture) is not rooted in a Grandma Moses idealism nor does industrialized agriculture necessarily embrace a long term stewardship outlook, nor is there provision for a just wage to be provided to the agrarian people themselves. Instead today’s agriculture is organized in ways that foster the greed of the few while diminishing the quality of life and land for those persons who live in our rural places. This is a food system without a conscience, a representation of an economic and legal construction without a heart or soul.

In light of the injustice done in today’s globalized agriculture, we may do well to examine the experience of the peasant farmers in ancient Israel as recorded by Nehemiah: There were also those who said, "We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine." And there were those who said, "We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.

Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others." (Neh. 5:3-5a). With regard to this passage Walter Brueggemann explains that during Israel’s time of prosperity there were "disparities between the small landed citizens and the elite who ordered the bureaucracy. One might have thought a community (Israel) with such a self-conscious vision would have acted differently. But the realities of economic manipulation and political leverage came even here. And it happened that the power class taxed the citizens into debt."

And so the situation so dramatically recorded for us by the prophet of old is now present once again in our own day. Monopolization of the farm economy is not only exploitative of small farmers and their communities throughout the United States, but the market strength of such enormous trade enables the TNCs to exert control on international economies. The "TNCs are pressing for the Multilateral Agreement on Investments.

This will guarantee that the laws of a nation cannot be enforced on an outside corporate investor against its will . . .. For the sake of free trade, neocolonialism will become complete. TNCs will have fully replaced imperial powers as the [new] colonial controllers and exploiters."

 The only difference between the new and the old imperialism is that instead of political and military enforcement of colonialism it is the trade agreement and monopolistic economic influence that extract resources, both material and human, without just compensation.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth century reformer, addressed this type of exploitative, yet lawful business arrangement in his Large Catechism when he wrote, "these men are called gentlemen swindlers or big operators. Far from being picklocks and sneak thieves who loot a cash box, they sit in office chairs and are called great lords and honorable, good citizens, and yet with a great show of legality they rob and steal." 

In this context Luther is describing the illicit actions of the corrupted officials of old Rome, nevertheless an analogy can be drawn in similar fashion with the carefully crafted language of the World Trade Organization talks that guarantee arrangements to be more favorable to the TNCs than to national governments and common people. Luther goes on to say that " . . . [stealing] is not to be kept confined to narrow limits but must extend to all our relations with our neighbors . . .. 

On the one hand, we are forbidden to do our neighbor any injury or wrong in any way imaginable, whether by damaging, withholding, or interfering with his [or her] possessions and property . . . .

On the other hand, we are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interests, and when he [or she] suffers want we are to help, share, and lend to both friends and foes."[15] Herein Luther takes lawful conduct several notches above the "thou shalt nots" of our Judeo-Christian tradition. Laws are not to be merely obeyed so that one does not fall into condemnation, but the spirit of the laws themselves must be followed in such a fashion that a higher precedence is set for the persons and entities for whom the laws were written. 

Instead of exploiting a neighbor, even though a law might allow for this, Luther suggests that we should bless a neighbor with generosity. This is a gospel enlightened view of the seventh commandment and one that would serve well at this time, especially considering the plight of the world’s farmers who are like innocent pawns caught up in the gargantuan legal constructions and economic alliances of the TNCs and their influence on governments. And yet the shareholders demand their profits . . ..

This then returns the burden of guilt on many of us who participate to varying degrees in this economic injustice. How shall we respond? The SSL statement is very literal in its recommendations regarding supporting family farms. On page 15 under the section entitled "Sustaining Agriculture" the point is made that all human beings are dependent on farmers and farms for grain and daily sustenance. 

The article calls on the church and its members to lend "support to those who work the land; to pursue new ways for consumers to partner with small farmers in sharing the risks and yields of farming."

If congregations were to take these articles literally -- the principles of a Congregation Supported Farming (CSF) initiative would come into full fruition. This is the overarching vision of the CSF program. Inner city and wealthy suburban congregations would link up with regional farms that would produce a wide diversity of produce, meat, dairy, and poultry products. Some micro-farms could exist within urban or suburban neighborhoods, wherein they would provide inner city job opportunities and serve as catalysts for urban renewal. 

Larger farms would be located in more distant rural communities and would serve to strengthen those economies. This would create a steady stream of relationships between rural and urban places. The two settings would develop empathy for each other and mutual recognition of their economic and social struggles. A fresh influx of much needed commerce and tax base would strengthen rural places. Urban communities would gain the benefits of having healthy foods available and new opportunities for creating microenterprise zones with fresh farm products delivered daily, which are then further processed into ready to eat foods. 

Agriculturally centered commerce and development of community-based food processing would have synergistic outcomes: Healthy food brought into a community can enable opportunities for healthy work, which in turn stimulates local economies, that translate into healthy communities. Additional goals of a Local Foods--Local Farms project would include encouraging and training young people and second-career persons to begin new farming enterprises and offshoot businesses. There might be a continuous cycle of new CSF upstarts and new persons moving to and from suburban, urban, and rural locals pursuing the agrarian ideal or hybridizing that ideal into a technologically advanced, sustainably based, and relational agricultural community.

Through this paper I have sought to reveal how the TNCs are becoming too powerful and exorbitant in their business practices. The net result of their increasing power is exploitation of earth’s resources and the diminishment of the agrarian ideal, which equates with the loss of independent vocation and rural culture. 

Of further concern is the monopolization of the food system and the subsequent loss of democratic principles in the marketplace for producers and for consumers who wish to maintain freedom of choice with regard to: where food comes from, the manner in which it is produced, and who profits from the sale of food. Supporting local farmers and encouraging them to grow food sustainably can counteract the dominance and power of the food corporations and help to assure a safe, reliable, democratic, and localized food system.

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