Is Francis the Pope of Food Justice?
Just months into his new role, Pope Francis’ image is already in stark contrast to his more detached and cerebral predecessor, Pope Benedict. First, Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the papal name “Francis,” in honor of the saint who gave up a life of wealth to live among the poor. Then he stated that even nonbelievers can be “saved,” and has shown a preference for the poor and disenfranchised—spending considerable time out among the people, blessing and kissing the needy and disabled. On Friday, though, Francis got a lot more specific, calling on the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to end global food disparities.
“It is a well-known fact that current levels of production are sufficient, yet millions of people are still suffering and dying of starvation,” Pope Francis told delegates to the 38th Biennial FAO Conference at the Vatican.
“This is truly scandalous,” he continued. “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table.”
Specifically, Francis called out what he called “financial speculation” that treats food like any other commodity and affects its global price, as well as the tendency to “look the other way” when presented with troubling needs like hunger. Everyone, he said, should have access to nutritious food.
Pope Francis may be thrilled by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to curb food waste by initiating mandatory composting. Earlier this month, the Pope attacked food waste in a speech in St. Peter’s Square on the United Nations’ World Environmental Day.
“Once our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food,” said Francis, who is known for living simply and even cooking his own meals. “Consumerism has led us to become used to an excess and daily waste of food, to which at times we are no longer able to give a just value. Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”
The Pope’s statements on food will come as no surprise to most Catholics. The church has formed robust positions in recent years on issues surrounding food, and the humanitarian group Catholic Relief Servies (CRS) believes that Catholics’ “commitment to the value of each human life should be reflected in both individual choices and in the policies and structures of society.” CRS’s principles emphasize the value of every human life, focusing on community-based solutions and small-scale farms; a special preference for the poor and vulnerable; workers’ rights; solidarity across national borders; and environmental sustainability.
In response to these principles, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and CRS recommend several short- and long-term solutions or recommendations to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing food-related crises:
USCCB and CRS have urged the U.S. to provide emergency funding to help hungry people in the U.S. and around the world secure food. More food aid, cash vouchers, and development programs are needed now to meet immediate and persistent food needs abroad. U.S. economic stimulus legislation should include help for low-income families in the U.S. who are impacted by the food crisis.
Long-term U.S. policy responses
Increase development assistance. The U.S. can partner with developing countries to engage in agricultural research, transfer appropriate technologies, build rural infrastructure, and promote sustainable agricultural development.
Change U.S. agricultural policies. The U.S., EU, and Japan should direct domestic agricultural spending toward smaller scale farmers and promote greater access to global markets for farmers in developing countries whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. USCCB and CRS have called for such changes in recent trade negotiations and in Farm Bill legislation. They have also sought increased domestic nutrition funding to help those impacted by hunger in the U.S.
Make food a priority in energy production. Increase supports for alternate sources of fuel that are not food based. Promoting access to food and sustainable agricultural practices should be prioritized.
Respond to adverse impacts of climate change on the poor. Many scientists feel that climate change is leading to an increase in floods, droughts and disasters. USCCB and CRS are calling for a prudent response to these events, which impact food production and access to clean water.
These commitments of Catholics to food justice may surprise many outside observers, and perhaps even a few Catholics. But if Pope Francis’ first few months are any indication, Catholics—and by default the rest of us—are going to hear about these issues for many years to come.