More than just crops? The debate about European farming policy

The harvest is rich but the labourers are few?

Few would deny the importance of farming to Europe’s identity. The intricate patchworks that make up our rural landscapes result from centuries of careful interaction between humans and nature. Throughout the ages, the countryside has nourished bodies and souls alike. In recent years we have also become acutely aware that responsible stewardship of our farmland ensures water quality, reduces flood risk, and helps protects wildlife.

But the European farming sector is in crisis.

A rural exodus

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from the land. This reality is borne out by a few statistics. In the 1960s a fifth of Europeans worked in agriculture. Today the figure is below 4%. Between 2000 and 2012, approximately 4.8 million jobs were lost in the European agricultural sector. And the hardest-hit group are those under the age of 35. This age group currently represents a mere 6% of farm workers. Put simply, the countryside is undergoing a population implosion.

This bleak situation has led to increased demands for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a scheme that hoovers up a hefty 40% of the EU’s annual budget. In spite of its immense expense, farmers throughout Europe are deeply unhappy with the CAP. It is significant that even though the average UK farm receives over half its income from CAP subsidies, farmers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of BREXIT.

Small is beautiful?

The main source of discontent is that smaller and more labour-intensive farms have suffered under the CAP’s focus on food production. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2010, over 2.5 million small farms were shut down. Given that 10% of the largest farms receive nearly 75% of CAP payments, critics argue that the EU is effectively subsiding large farms.

Éric Andrieu: subsidies should favour small farmers

Éric Andrieu MEP: subsidies should favour small farmers

This is where the French Socialist MEP Éric Andrieu enters the stage. Andrieu is responsible for a report entitled ‘How the CAP can improve job creation in rural areas’. A leading critic of the EU’s obsession with export competitiveness, Andrieu argues that the alarming haemorrhaging of young people from farming must be tackled. His report, which MEPs narrowly voted in favour of on 27 October 2016, sets out a raft of proposals, including measures to boost training for young famers, financial help for new entrants into the farming sector, and a fairer distribution of direct payments to farmers. Subsidies should be favourable to smaller farms and direct payments should be withdrawn from those who simply own (but do not farm) agricultural land. The MEPs also accepted measures to encourage shorter supply-chains and promote more organic food production.

The CAP: a behemoth to be slain?

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for 'public goods'

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for ‘public goods’

Whereas Andrieu’s proposals are premised on the basis that it is possible to readjust the CAP to make it more equitable to smaller farmers, others propose the abolition of what they regard to be an inherently flawed ‘behemoth’, incapable of reform. This is the view of Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University. Helm believes that BREXIT provides an opportunity for the UK to ‘reset’ farming policy and learn from the mistakes of the CAP. Whilst belonging to a free-market economic tradition, Helm nevertheless accepts that rural activities will always need public funding. However he argues that public money should be used to incentivise what he calls ‘public goods’, rather than simply subsidise food production. For Helm, there needs to be a public debate about what should be considered a ‘public good’. This would certainly include the environmental and recreational value of non-urban contexts.

More than just crops

Despite their different methodological starting points, both Helm and Andrieu agree that the ‘capital’ of the countryside consists of much more than simply the financial value of the physical goods farmers produce. They are critical of European economic policy that characterises the countryside’s value purely in commodity terms. The CAP has overlooked the role that small farms plays in providing employment, and as a means to protect the traditional character of rural landscapes. According to Andrieu and Helm, public funding, whether through subsidies or incentives to promote ‘public goods’, should be indexed to wider social benefits and environmental sustainability, and not simply used to reward production.

At this point it is worth pointing out that there is a third figure who has something to contribute to the debate. Pope Francis has often spoken of the dangers of economic systems that favour large-scale production models, especially in the agricultural sector. For this reason, Laudato Si’ affirms that civil authorities have a duty to ‘adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production’ (LS, 129). In the philosophical language of the encyclical, such measures are necessary to avoid destructive instrumental and technological uses of the natural world, but also to protect opportunities for work: ‘we were created with a vocation to work’ (LS, 128).

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

In each of these different voices advocating reform of agricultural policy, we can hear a desire to acknowledge the countryside as a multi-faceted common good. The ‘harvest’ consists not simply of crops, but also the intrinsic value of the land, and indeed the intrinsic value of its workers.

Jesuits against conflict minerals

This week yielded a breakthrough for campaigners against the importation of conflict minerals into the European market.  The EU has finally agreed to introduce legal requirements on companies to check their supply-chains.  Whilst the EU’s proposed regulations are not all advocacy groups like the Jesuit European Social Centre had hoped for, they are at least a start.  Below is a Q&A on the subject.  A bit more background on the Jesuit involvement is available in an article on the Jesuits in Britain website.

EU Conflict Minerals Regulation Q&A

What is the latest?

On 22nd November 2016, the EU issued a text for a proposed law (“regulation”) designed to restrict the importation of so-called “conflict minerals”. This is the fruit of years of campaigning by faith and civil society groups, including JESC. We have joined others in calling for the introduction of legally-binding obligations requiring companies to ensure that imported minerals are not linked to conflict or human rights abuses.

Why is it significant?
For the first time in history, companies will need to carry out checks on the origin of “3TG” minerals, namely tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. 3TGs are vital for a range of everyday consumer items like laptops, mobile phones, engines, and jewellery. Many 3TGs are sourced from regions of the world, especially Central Africa, which are affected by deadly conflicts. A tragic reality is that the trade in minerals often helps finance human
rights violations. The proposed regulation attempts to remedy this situation.

eu-conflictIs it all good news?

Sadly no. The final version of proposed regulation is severely limited in scope and contains a number of loopholes which will blunt its effectiveness. For example, in contrast to the EU Parliament¹s more rigorous draft of 2015 that reflected relevant OECD Guidance, the proposed regulation applies only to imports of raw minerals. Thus companies do not have to carry out checks for components or finished products containing 3TGs. Another weakness is that the regulation¹s provisions only “bite” when certain volume import threshold are reached, meaning that a great number of companies will escape having to comply with the legislation. Further problems arise from the ability for companies to outsource their obligations to certain private industry bodies. Worryingly, inadequate mechanisms exist to scrutinise these industry bodies.boy-digging_400

When happens next?

The proposed regulation will be voted on by the EU Council and Parliament. Once passed, there will be a lengthy “phase in” period before the legislation must be complied with by companies. Early indications suggest the regulations won¹t come into full effect before 2021. So in the meantime, faith and civil society groups will continue to apply pressure on political leaders and business leaders to support further strengthening of measures to combat the trade of conflict minerals regulation.

Laudato Si’ with Two Legs – Redefining what it means to be human

I recently delivered a paper at Campion Hall in Oxford to a group of Jesuits who are involved in academic teaching and research. Among the group were Philosophers, Historians, Sinologists, and of course, Theologians. Using the overarching subject of “what does being human mean today?”, we each tackled the question from the point of view of our respective disciplines. The following is an outline of my efforts!

A motley crew: Jesuits gather at Campion Hall

A motley crew: Jesuits gather at Campion Hall


Laudato Si with two legs?  Attempting to redefine the Common Good

Laudato Si’ is often referred to as Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical’. But is this an accurate description?

Certainly it deals with a host of ecological issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and the social costs of environmental destruction. And yet I would like to propose that at its heart Laudato Si’ is really an encyclical about humanity. In the face of enormous environmental change, much of which is anthropogenic, Laudato Si’ asks the question: How do we define the anthropos? The encyclical demonstrates that the causes of ecological degradation are rooted in anthropological presuppositions. Likewise, its vision for ecological conversion entails a process of redefining what it means to be human. To my mind the theological ‘ingenuity’ of Laudato Si’ is its extension of the principle of the Common Good to include a cosmic dimension. In a post-Laudato Si’ world, Catholic Social Teaching can no longer regard the Common Good as a fundamentally anthropocentric concept. Instead it must include the interests of all created entities. Humans are constituent of a ‘wider whole’.

Let me explain this new understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment by means of reference to three prominent themes running through the rather long and sometimes dense text of Laudato Si’.

Theme 1 – All creatures possess intrinsic dignity

The use of St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures in the opening paragraph of Laudato Si’ draws on an ancient stream of Christian thinking to poetically affirm the inherent value of all created things. The earth is not a resource but a common home, ‘a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us’ (LS, §1). As the encyclical makes clear, Pope Francis did not need to go back to a thirteenth century saint to find support for this idea. His two immediate papal predecessors promoted respect for the non-human world by developing notions of responsible stewardship, the role of humans as co-creators, and the need to preserve the divinely ordained ‘grammar’ of the natural world.

And yet the ‘green theology’ of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI is premised on a sharp ‘separation’ between humans from the non-human world. They are reluctant to make any claims that imply non-human entities possess an intrinsic value. Why? Because, particularly in Benedict’s case, there is a fear that it would give credence to pantheistic beliefs that God is somehow confined to the totality of creation.

Francis brushes aside such concerns! According to Laudato Si’, humans ‘are not disconnected from the rest of creatures’ (LS, §220) but are joined by ‘unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect’ (LS, §89). Francis even refers to the intrinsic dignity of the world (LS, §115) – a radical move given that until now, Catholic Social Teaching has only used the term ‘dignity’ in relation to human beings.

So what gives Francis the confidence to speak about the intrinsic dignity of non-human entities? In other words, what are the sources influencing Laudato Si’? The text does not give us any immediate clues. Yet it is highly relevant that the only twentieth century theologian referred to in the document are Romano Guardini and Teilhard de Chardin. A Guardinian critique of the instrumentalisation of the natural world is a central theme in Laudato Si’. More controversially, is the way it alludes to Chardin’s idea that all creatures are propelled by an internal principle that Chardin calls, ‘life’s zest’. Hence Laudato Si’s statement that ‘the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all crea¬tures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God’ (LS, §83). Can we also see the influence of two of Teilhard’s disciples, Thomas Berry Leonardo Boff? Berry and Boff posit an intrinsic value of all entities on the basis of their possessing a subjectivity or interiority that enables them to participate in the cosmos-creating endeavour. There is more than echo of this in Laudato Si’s claim that ‘the Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge’ (LS, §80).

Campion Hall, University of Oxford

Campion Hall, University of Oxford

Theme 2 – Integral Ecology

The second strand of Laudato Si’s strategy for redefining a concept of humanity that is better equipped to respond to ecological challenges lies in its emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. ‘Integral ecology’ shows that the cosmos is a single interdependent life system, of which we are a constituent part. The title of the encyclical testifies to this. The planet is a ‘common home’, a place inhabited by humans and other creatures alike. As Pope Francis puts it ‘the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible rich¬es of God’ (LS, §86). Furthermore, ‘our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material uni¬verse speaks of God’s love, his boundless affec¬tion for us. Soil, water, mountains, everything is, as it were, a caress of God’ (LS, §84).

But why the term integral ecology rather than simply human ecology as championed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI? The answer is that the essentially anthropocentric concept of ‘human ecology’ does not capture truly dynamic nature of the relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Integral ecology on the other hand conveys a sense that human ecology should be understood within a wider cosmic common good. The term also reveals the possible influence of those creative interpreters of the Teilhardian tradition, Berry and Boff, who speak of there existing between all creatures, communion and connectedness.

The language of communion enjoys a prominent position in Laudato Si’ and its associated notion of ‘care for creation’ replaces that of stewardship imagery. The word ‘stewardship’ is used just twice in the Encyclical. Here we can see a shift in the guiding environmental ethics. Explaining the transition, Cardinal Turkson, one of Laudato Si’s key architects, comments ‘Good stewards take responsibility and fulfill their obligations to manage and to render an account. But one can be a good steward without feeling connected. If one cares, however, one is connected. To care is to allow oneself to be affected by another, so much so that one’s path and priorities change’. A duty-based ethic has been replaced by a more affective, virtue-based ethic.

It is interesting to note that the shortcomings in the doctrine of stewardship and the attractiveness of a more ‘affective’ virtue-based model of care for creation were identified by Berry as far back as 1989.

Theme 3 – The Cosmic Common Good

We thus arrive at the third strand under consideration. I believe that the way Laudato Si’ develops intrinsic value and integral ecology is part of a bigger project to formulate a principle of the Cosmic Common Good. In contrast to his papal predecessors, Pope Francis is not anxious to ascribe to non-human entities a role and value that is tightly bound to humans. The Laudato Si’ vision of integral ecology expands the Common Good to encompass not simply the human good, but as the common good of the cosmos containing humans and other beings alike. Within the ‘wider whole’ of creation, elements of the non-human world possess not simply an instrumental value, but an intrinsic value too. Thus Francis posits ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face’ (LS, §233).

But wait, is this pantheistic or at least panentheistic? I think Laudato Si’ steers a middle path between ‘deep ecology’ or what we might call ‘thick panentheism’ on the one hand, and an unhelpful confrontational anthropocentrism, on the other. There are many instances in the Encyclical where Francis upholds an understanding of God as ultimately transcendent and of human beings as possessing a unique worth and having a distinctive role in ‘shepherding’ other creatures to their creator. Here therefore, he parts company with the bio-centrist and panentheist outlook of Berry and Boff for whom human beings do not necessarily have a privileged salvific position within creation. Nevertheless what we might regard as Laudato Si’s ‘thin’ version of panentheism follows a Teilhardian and essentially Pauline conception of all crea¬tures ‘moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God’ LS, §83).

Conclusion – An expansive concept of the Common Good

To conclude, what does Laudato Si’ tell us about what it means to be human today? It demonstrates that ecological conversion is a process of recognising the inherent worth of all created entities, each possessing an intrinsic value. It shows us that the empirical reality of the interdependence of all living entities has a theological and spiritual significance with an ethical dimension. In summary, it leads us to an expansive and cosmic conception of the Common Good.

Duty free? virtue ethics in Laudato Si

Here’s a link to an article I wrote for Thinking Faith, a superb online journal run by the British Jesuits.

In summary, I argue that (1) the ecology encyclical deliberately avoids “stewardship” language to explain how we relate to the nonhuman world (2) its focus on “care for creation” is instead based on virtue ethics rather than duty-based ethics (3) there’s been a similar shift within secular philosophy.

I conclude that there’s a good opportunity here for dialogue with all “philosophers of good will”.


Laudato Si – Green Jesuit’s 2 Page Summary


An “urgent challenge to protect our common home … to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” [13]. Thus introduces Pope Francis’s plea of Laudato Si, a text of such landmark significance that it may well become one of the most important sources of Catholic Social Teaching since its inception with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

Both the title of the encyclical (“On Care For Our Common Home”) and its opening quote from St. Francis’s canticle establishes the focus of this text.

It’s all about relationships.

In the introductory section, Francis, following his Thirteenth Century namesake calls the earth, our “common home”, which is like our sister and our mother. But we are damaging this familial relationship as we harm the environment. In so doing we are damaging our relationship with other humans, particularly those least equipped to defend themselves, the poor and future generations. We are forgetting our interconnectedness with the earth that sustains all life and those around and ahead of us who depend on our good stewardship of the gift of creation.

Given the universal nature of our common home, Francis makes it clear that the encyclical is addressed to not only members of the Church but is vehicle to “enter into dialogue” with all people who are “united by the same concern” [3, 7]. Such a global target audience explains the immense range of sources the encyclical draws on. Theologically, the document looks to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, but also to Eastern Christian traditions. It even quotes a Sufi Mystic. Twentieth Century thinkers Teilhard de Chardin and Romano Guardini deserve special mention. Secular documents are referred to too: for example the Rio Declaration, 1992 and the Earth Charter, 2000. The reader is also struck by the many references to previous papal writings, particularly those of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The relationship between Francis and his predecessors on ecology is strong.

imageAfter a comprehensive introduction, the encyclical divides into six chapters, each examining different aspects of the rupture between humans and creation, and the prospects for healing this relationship.

The first chapter “What is happening to our common home?” looks at the various symptoms of environmental degradation. The impacts of climate change are considered alongside issues of the depletion of freshwater and loss of biodiversity. There is no substantial discussion of the science of global warming; instead it simply points to the overwhelming consensus concerning the negative impact of carbon-intensive economies on the natural world and human life: “Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” [36]. The encyclical firmly posits that a truly ecological approach is also inherently social: an approach that simultaneously hears the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. The social and environmental impacts of mining is cited as a prime example of this. In many places within the text, Francis lauds the achievements of the environmental movement, whilst at the same time, critiquing elements within it. He forthrightly dismisses the idea that population growth is to blame for environmental damage; such a suggestion is often a way of refusing to reduce overconsumption by the affluent. Later on, the encyclical states that abortion can never be viewed as a justification for the protection of nature.

The second chapter, “the Gospel of Creation”, considers the world the way that God intended it. The chapter surveys the rich scriptural traditions to show that there is no biblical justification for “a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” [68]. Likewise, there is no room for misanthropic versions of environmentalism since reverence for nature is only authentic if we have compassion for fellow humans. A person who is truly concerned about the trafficking of endangered species is automatically concerned with the trafficking of humans.

The third chapter “The human roots of the ecological crisis” examines the twin notions of what it calls the “technocratic paradigm” and a “modern anthropocentrism” borne out of a view that sees nature as a mere given, devoid of any spiritual or transcendental value. These notions have led to the misplaced ideas that the earth’s resources are infinite and that economic growth and technology alone can solve global hunger and poverty. In reality however, a purely materialistic view of reality has not only resulted in disregard for the environment, but also undermined the worth of a human life, especially those forms viewed as having little or no utility — human embryos, the poor, or people with disabilities. At the heart of consumerist and profit-driven economic ideologies is a wrong-footed idea of dominion. The result is exploitation, and a throwaway attitude towards nature and human life itself. The encyclical calls for a bold cultural revolution in our attitude to development and progress. It puts it rather bluntly: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” [114].

In the fourth chapter, “integral ecology”, the encyclical charts a path to recapture awareness of the interconnectedness of creation. To do so, it is essential to appreciate the impact of environmental degradation on “cultural ecology”, for example those social networks and ways of life which are bound up with the environment in which communities are placed. The experience of indigenous peoples is specifically referred to in this regard.

The fifth chapter, “Lines of approach and action” sets out various international collective actions needed. It highlights the imperative to switch from fossil fuels ti renewables, with the use of government subsidies where appropriate. It identifies the need for international agreements and legislation not only in relation to climate change but also biodiversity and the oceans. Carbon credits are criticised as “an expedient which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” [171].

The sixth chapter, “Ecological education and spirituality”, shifts attention to the individual believer, families and communities, and invites them to make a difference in small but tangible ways. Consumer choices, cultivating ecological virtues such as reducing wastefulness, and environmental education for the young are explained as practical steps leading to a deeper, spiritual “ecological conversion” through which the follower of Christ recognises the true worth of all created entities. The statement “God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore” [221] stands in the hallowed natural law tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas that every creature has in its nature an end, a telos, which humans should respect and honour. The intrinsic value of non-humans is noted when the encyclical states that the “ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” but rather in the Risen Christ who embraces all things [83].

Reconciling the Eco-estranged?

imageIt’s hard to believe that the run up to a church teaching document could create so much of a buzz. Yet not a day passes without various news items concerning the forthcoming ecology encyclical, which the Vatican has confirmed will appear in June. What’s more, it’s not just readers of the Catholic Herald, the Tablet or the National Catholic Reporter who are lapping up the latest tidddbits about what the Pope might possibly say. There’s also considerable interest from civil society and the business world.

And the Vatican is certainly making the most of attention from secular quarters: so much so that it makes me wonder whether the delay in the encyclical’s publication was a deliberate ploy to stimulate cross-sector engagement.

Take the example of two conferences sponsored by the Holy See in the past month. On 29 April, experts from the worlds of science, politics, business and academia joined religious leaders in a conference entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave the opening address. Last week witnessed a meeting on “The New Climate Economy: How Economic Growth and Sustainability Can Go Hand in Hand” in which cardinals shared a platform with the CEO of Unilever, directors of HSBC and the former President of Mexico.

So what’s behind these forums and the considerable effort to get different “actors’ on the world stage talking to each other? I think a clue is to be found in Francis’ words to the COP-20 in Lima last year. He said that that the challenges of climate change can only be confronted through “collective action” which overcomes mistrust and fosters “a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue”.

imageIs Francis revealing his Jesuit-ness here? When the Society of Jesus is at its best, it helps build bridges and act as a conduit for dialogue. “Reconciling the estranged” is how the Society’s foundation document the Formula of the Institute (1550) puts it. I think the Pontiff is asking the Church to take up the challenge of acting as an agent of reconciliation on this matter. Sadly the whole issue of ecology is characterised by divergence.  So we get polarisation over the causes of climate change.  We get the perennial argument that we must choose between economic and environmental interests.  And then there are disputes over the obligations of rich countries versus poorer ones.

But do business and civil society leaders who the Vatican is dialoguing with really count among the “estranged”? Well, to the extent that the various “actors” in environmental debate are prone to simply talking past each other, they are. A major message emerging out of the recent conferences is that the type of collective action required to avert ecological meltdown involves governments providing global governance frameworks and for business to bring the requisite enterprise and innovation to find solutions. So the Church can help shepherd this collective response and forge what Pope Benedict termed “fraternal and economic development” (Caritas in Veritate).

All in all, we can agree with Nigel Baker, British Ambassador to the Holy See who comments in his blog, “Pope Francis’s encyclical is likely to provoke and challenge”.