DESIGNPICS PHOTO | STEPHAN NAGY
The Ontario bishops encourage the purchase of locally-grown food.
Is there anything sacred about the soil? Is there holiness in meals we share? Does our Catholic religious imagination extend to how we nourish ourselves and our families?
The bishops of Ontario want people to think and pray about the food they pluck from grocery store shelves – to look past the packaging and consider how soil, water, energy and labour combine to provide us with everything from a five-course feast to junk food indulgence.
Fruit of the Earth and Work of Human Hands, the latest statement from the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, revives a conversation about farming and faith the bishops began in 1989 with their pastoral letter The People and the Land.
The new seven-page paper commemorates the 25th anniversary of the bishops' first call for Catholics to inject morality into their grocery lists.
"I don't want to think we just made a kind of commercial from the farmers. We tried to look at it from a theological point of view," said Eparch John Pazak, the Toronto Byzantine Rite Slovak Catholic bishop who chairs the bishops' social affairs commission.
Theology leads the bishops to endorse full union rights for migrant farm workers, advocate for smaller, family-run farms and stand up for supply management systems. Urban sprawl, a consumer mindset and global competition to provide cheap food is threatening the environment and sucking the sacred out of how we eat and live, according to the bishops.
"There's just no spirituality around food. It's just become very much the opposite of the spiritual," said Ignatius Jesuit Centre director Father Roger Yaworski. "Since we've lost the sense of the sacred around it, we're basically out of touch."
The bishops' stand in favour of collective bargaining rights for migrant farm workers is nothing new, but it does put the bishops in direct opposition to current Ontario law.
In Ontario, farm workers are left out of key protections of the Employment Standards Act. Migrant farm workers pay into Employment Insurance but cannot collect benefits. They are allowed to form an association specific to their farm, but may not join a union.
The bishops' pro-union stand is important, said United Food and Commercial Workers organizer Stan Raper, who co-ordinates the Agricultural Workers' Alliance.
"The majority of the migrant farm workers who come to this country and to this province are of Catholic faith," points out Raper. "They are Guatemalan workers, Mexican workers.
"The Catholic Church has gone quite a ways to make sure there's some spiritual access despite the isolation and rural types of settings that they're in. We certainly thank the Catholic Church, the dioceses in those rural situations where they've gone the extra mile. We see them as allies."
People need to seriously rethink how and why our desire for cheap food requires exceptions to the normal labour law that applies to everyone else, said Ignatius Jesuit Centre farm manager Heather Lekx.
"Our food system is totally dependent on a group of people who don't even live here," Lekx said. "Even local food is importing its workers."
"We want people to know the reason why we have migrant workers here is that we're trying to compete in a global market," said chicken farmer Ted van den Hurk. "When we do that we're competing with global labour rates."
Just as Catholic teaching dictates that farm workers have a right to organize and demand a just wage, farmers also have that same right and that means maintaining the supply management, van den Hurk said.
"There's a lot of economists out there saying we've got to trade away supply management because it's bad for consumers," van den Hurk said. "The Catholic bishops' statement speaks very clearly to that issue. Farmers, like anyone else, must have the right to organize their labour."
Van den Hurk is vice president of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and was one of the farmers consulted for Fruit of the Earth and Work of Human Hands.
Even if only 1.5 per cent of Ontario's population farms, we all eat. That means urban Catholics also have a responsibility for what goes into their grocery carts and how it gets there, according to the bishops.
"It should be expected that dumping of agricultural products from other nations would not be commonplace. Our own domestic producers have a prior right in the marketplace to supply products to the people of Ontario," the bishops write.
"Likewise, we must challenge the purchasing policies of the large grocery chains that dominate our food system."
Maintaining viable family farms isn't a matter of sentimental attachment to a vanishing lifestyle, but an urgent demand of degraded and disappearing ecosystems, according to the bishops.
"Farmers and policy-makers need to seek further models that promote environmental sustainability while strengthening farmers' economic viability and the infrastructure of farming communities. We call on all Ontarians to co-operate with farmers in stewardship of the land," the bishops say.
"The bigger the farm and the more ownership is external to the land base, you're not walking the land," points out Lekx. "Unless you have farmers who are smitten with their soil because they've taken care of it and it's given them so many gifts, we're going to have a very difficult time taking care of the planet."
Not everybody is going to agree with the bishops, but at least they're talking about an issue that rarely rises to public consciousness, Lekx said.
"The conversation is critical, because otherwise the conversation in happening behind closed doors in a big corporation that's buying the land," she said.
The food supply chain looks very different from the farmers' point of view, said van den Hurk.
"I remember my dad saying in 1975, 'Boy, we made a dollar a bird selling those chickens.' And you know what? That's what I make today," he said. "Back then, if (farmers) had $20,000 coming in a year they were quite satisfied. They could live on that.
"You know that I can't live on $20,000 a year. So you know that I have to be three or four times bigger to make an income equivalent to what we made in the 1970s. So we're just getting huge. As long as you want us to grow for the same price we did 30 years ago, we've got to be twice, three times, four times bigger."
Fruit of the Earth and Work of Human Hands and a workshop guide for parishes can be downloaded from www.acbo.on.ca.