Justice and Peace Conference
Hungry for a change
Food security was the theme for this year’s National Justice and Peace Conference. Delegates debated organic farming, genetically modified crops and – at an event that attracted no Bishops to attend – criticised the Church’s approach to the environment
Arecurring theme at this year’s National Justice and Peace Conference was just how low a priority the environment is for clergy. One environmental campaigner said their apathy on the issue is rooted in a misconception that environmental activism is for “pantheist tree-huggers” and is “not the stuff of religion”.
If so, the 400 delegates who met at the Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick in Derbyshire were eager to prove them wrong. They were there to discuss connections between the issue of food security and Catholic Social Teaching and to ponder why one billion people go hungry every day even though the means exist to feed the entire human population. The effects of environmental degradation and the misuse of the Earth’s resources also featured prominently in the discussions.
Lasting for three days, the conference combined speeches with personal witness and devoted an afternoon to informal workshops, covering topics such as “Is Meat a Moral Matter?” and the harsh realities of British farming.
Central to the conference was Saturday night’s “Big Debate”, chaired by John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian, which saw advocates of genetic modification and organic farming clash over the efficacy of their proposed solutions to the food crisis. On one side was Patrick Mulvany, chairman of the UK Food Group, a network for non-governmental organisations working on global food and agriculture issues, who argued for local, organic food production and stressed that the roots of the food crisis lay in distribution.
David Howlett, a visiting senior research fellow in climate change and agriculture at the University of Leeds at their Africa College, put the case for more scientific solutions. Seconded from the British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), where he worked on food and climate change policies and headed DFID’s agriculture research team, Mr Howlett said it was doubtful that organic agriculture could offer sufficient yields to feed the world.
“We need the ecological approach but we also need to maximise the use of modern science. And we even need to look at genetic modification technology,” said Mr Howlett, adding that modern science and a vibrant private sector could enhance sustainable agriculture and meet the needs of smallholder farmers. Mr Howlett said the “crucial” issue of water must be addressed when considering food security and pointed out that it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of meat compared to 500 litres for a kilogram of grain. He also felt a serious look at food security must examine the interrelated processes of agriculture and climate change. He pointed out, for example, that some land-use practices and the raising of livestock contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Conflict over resources is exacerbating hunger in many parts of the Global South he warned.
Keynote speaker Vandana Shiva, feminist, political activist and director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi, insisted that technology was the “wrong tool” for agriculture. She rooted her criticism of genetically modified, or GM, crops in the wider context of India’s “green revolution”, and was sceptical about developments in seed technology and the widespread use of pesticides.
“Pesticides are killing 220,000 people every year. They have converted agriculture into warfare against the land, against biodiversity, against farmers and against our bodies. These crude tools are not superior because they are violent. Violence is not superiority,” she said. Ms Shiva’s criticism of genetic modification was given a particular relevance by Fr Sean McDonagh, a bio-diversity campaigner and Columban Missionary, who criticised the Pontifical Council for Science and Life for its take on the subject. Last year, the academy held a study week in Rome on genetically
Organisers of the National Justice and Peace Conference worked to raise awareness of young people attending of the food issues facing millions around the world modified organisms (GMOs) and Fr McDonagh believes the event signalled support for their use. He warned that GM companies had no interest in the Catholic Church, and instead hoped that the Church, “will not be seduced by the promise of greater crop yield – of which there is none”.
A damning assessment of the Christian response to ecological crises came during the conference’s concluding plenary. Scottish environmental writer and campaigner Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, said that the Christian tradition suffered from a problem in its relationship with the environment because of a focus on God transcendent rather than God immanent.He described this as heretical because it “violated incarnation”.
Dr McIntosh suggested that this “spiritual blockage” made it difficult to see God present
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Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM: The Consequences of the
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24 July 2010 | THE TABLET | 13