Pope Francis’s critical focus on sustainable agriculture

When it first came out, I did a lengthy “socialized reflection” on the praxis implications of Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. I felt that this apostolic exhortation to the faithful presented a unique opportunity to the left to begin working with Francis, despite his failure to deal with birth control and choice. However, in addition to maintaining solidarity with humanity and particularly women on the need for birth control and choice, the left needed to understand Francis’s social doctrine within the context of Jesuit history and scholarship to avoid a purposeful minimization of its implications by the right. So, I did my best (a) to summarize some aspects of pertinent Jesuit history and (b) to discuss how Francis was in many ways repeating deeply held views that the Jesuits have been fleshing out since Vatican II, the advent of liberation theology, and the vicious right wing response to liberation theology.

Now Pope Francis has written a message of love and challenge to the entire world, Laudato si’. How should the left respond? That is a complicated praxis issue that I will not attempt to address in detail in this piece. Rather, I merely want to make one general point and to give a specific example of how his work and the left’s, cautiously together, hopeful, and prudent, is just beginning.

The general point I will make is that Francis is, with the huge exception of population, being “holistic” in his approach to environmental problems. Environmental problems tend to be looked at in developed countries as single issue right versus left “green” scientific and political phenomena only, without looking at the underlying economic, social, and cultural factors, including the dependency of capitalism on cheap fuel to generate profits and so-called “growth.” I have pointed out, somewhat humorously, in the context of Cuban agriculture and Cuban-U.S. relations that holism is a critical approach that the left has to offer the world. It is wonderful to see the Pope effectively endorsing this approach, as he also began to do in Evangelii Gaudium.

We know the right is not interested in holism. But how holistic is Francis’s holism? How holistic is the left’s holism? While continuing to criticize Francis on birth control and choice, there is a need for the left to come to a better understanding of the strengths and, yes, even some weaknesses of Francis’s much more scientifically-based document. Obviously there is the population issue to which Francis has blinders. But critique should not stop there. Please allow me to give a specific example with which I have some familiarity.


As a democratic socialist with a background in agricultural science, I will in the remainder of this piece focus on some specific concerns of a technical nature. While these may seem mundane, they are critical to human survival and hence critical to intelligent stewardship of the Earth’s nonrenewable resources.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. It is mentioned in two places in Pope Francis’s generally excellent encyclical, both from the vantage point that methane use and release plays a role in global warming (paragraphs 23 and 24). Similarly, although most people probably do not notice it, the Pope only referred to fertilizers once, and then only to point out their pollution contribution (paragraph 20). I agree with what the Pope said on these points, but I wish he had made a couple of other critical stewardship points relating to methane and fertilizers.

I agree completely with the analysis of Bob Thurman in The Pope Hits a Triple. Francis would have hit a home run if he had been honest about population. The population analysis in the encyclical is woeful (paragraphs 50 and 95), which undercuts significantly the value of the document as a basis for holistic human stewardship. The Pope’s principal of stewardship is fantastic, and his explicit rejection of a flawed religious conception of humanity’s relationship with nature is excellent, but his failing to honestly acknowledge the stewardship implications of population growth is a huge mistake:

116. Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.

I want to add a couple of points to Bob’s excellent critique, one negative and one positive. First, the negative one: Francis either was unaware of or chose not to acknowledge two particular resource scarcity issues which every farmer, whether conventional, traditional, or organic, is aware of, and which are of huge importance to supporting the high human population unless other drastic changes are made. Because of the high human population, current agricultural practices, diets in developed countries, and existing methods of food distribution, humanity currently uses vast amounts of methane to produce nitrogen fertilizer and vast amounts of phosphate ore to produce phosphate fertilizer. Meanwhile, the U.S. in particular is planning to burn through its natural gas for energy production, which will in the long term threaten nitrogen fertilizer production. Similarly, the world is, with little public awareness in the U.S., facing “peak phosphorus” at the same time we are growing in dependence on plundering of Western Saharan phosphorus by the King of Morocco.

Here is some information on peak phosphorus written in 2009. I do not at all agree with the writer’s use of the term “preoccupied” with respect to climate change, which in fact is our foremost existential threat as a species. But his discussion of P and N is sound and will be ignored at our collective peril:

While modern society has been preoccupied with concerns about international terrorism and climate change, which is an enormous social and environmental problem intimately linked to combustion of fossil fuels, the real show stopper of ‘‘Peak Phosphorus’’ has attracted little attention. However, as eloquently stated by Isaac Asimov:

“We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation – but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement”.

Ominously, food riots were a common scene in many developing countries throughout most of 2008.

… The importance of developing techniques, technologies and processes to capture and recycle phosphorus, and to lesser degrees, nitrogen and other useful molecules (e.g. methane), are critical to the future of mankind. While the global threat of climate change must be addressed, the issue of looming phosphorus shortages, exacerbated by a global population of 6.7 billion humans, 63 billion livestock, and increasing demands from the biofuels sector, has substantially raised the stakes on this issue.

(Ashley, ICNRWS) (italics in original).

Here is some information on nitrogen fertilizer:

The history of nitrogen as a fertilizer is in some ways similar to the future situation facing phosphorus. Before the industrial revolution, animal manure was the main, if not the only, source of both nitrogen and phosphorus as fertilizers.

The industrial revolution led to reduced reliance on animals while also contributing to the growth of, especially urban, population. With many European nations near the point of starving, guano, discovered on the islands off the Pacific Ocean coast of South America was imported and used as fertilizer. After the guano resources were exhausted, only limited supplies of crystalline nitrogen were available and became the cause of wars between Chile and Bolivia (Leigh, 2004). In 1798, Malthus wrote his historical thesis, ‘‘Essay on the principle of population’’ on the eventual fate of man due to quadratic growth of the population while food production was increasing only linearly. The development of the Haber-Bosch process in the 19th century for industrial fixation of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms to form ammonia saved the world from nitrogen deficiency. The process requires high pressure and high temperature and metal catalysts using natural gas as feedstock. When natural gas is depleted a new challenge or a price increase may result, and the process may be switched back to using coal gas as the feedstock. According to Leigh (2004), the secret of how plants and algae fix nitrogen still needs to be discovered. While nitrogen could be ‘‘fixed’’ from the huge reservoir in the atmosphere, there is no such reservoir of phosphorus other than deposits of ore.

Nitrogen can be recovered from wastewater, but the cost of recovery far exceeds that of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere. Attempts were made more than 30 years ago to remove ammonia and phosphorus by adding lime to the effluent containing ammonia, and raising the pH above 11.5. The phosphorus could be precipitated in the form of calcium phosphate (hydroxy-apatite) and the ammonia was stripped from the liquid in a closed loop reactor, and dissolved in sulfuric acid to form ammonia sulfate which could be recovered. This is method was not economically viable and is no longer practiced. However, as mentioned above, some ammonia can be precipitated with phosphorus in struvite at low cost.

(Barnard, ICNRWS)

Second, from a positive standpoint, even though Francis did not discuss where nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer comes from, he did emphasize the need for sustainable agriculture, including the role of small plots:

129. In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of smallscale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

I do not endorse Francis’s apparent optimism toward the capacity of “business” in general to be socialized, but in any event the totality of the document shows he is doing the opposite of endorsing the status quo of the 1% dividing and ruling our world today. As a proponent of workers’ gardens wherever they can be set up, I am glad that he is speaking out on the issue of the need to support small producers. And I agree with him wholeheartedly that truly, much can be done:

180. There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations. It is also true that political realism may call for transitional measures and technologies, so long as these are accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments. At the same time, on the national and local levels, much still needs to be done, such as promoting ways of conserving energy. These would include favouring forms of industrial production with maximum energy efficiency and diminished use of raw materials, removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting, improving transport systems, and encouraging the construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing their energy consumption and levels of pollution. Political activity on the local level could also be directed to modifying consumption, developing an economy of waste disposal and recycling, protecting certain species and planning a diversified agriculture and the rotation of crops. Agriculture in poorer regions can be improved through investment in rural infrastructures, a better organization of local or national markets, systems of irrigation, and the development of techniques of sustainable agriculture. New forms of cooperation and community organization can be encouraged in order to defend the interests of small producers and preserve local ecosystems from destruction. Truly, much can be done!

However, one cannot be too optimistic that these good potential things actually will be done, of course. And while I don’t think you will find a stronger proponent of sustainable agriculture than me, we are not anywhere near there yet. It is terribly shortsighted, foolish, and potentially suicidal for the U.S. to burn through its natural gas reserves for energy production when so much is at stake for the survival of humanity.

Unless we become really good at renewable energy and recycling N and P for the benefit of the billions of people on our planet, grim choices will be upon us, whether we know it or not. Dawson et al. have stated:

A long-term strategy for global food security depends critically on N availability, which in turn requires that adequate supplies of methane are reserved for this function. Methane use may need to be conserved and ring-fenced from general energy provision since, albeit less conveniently, the energy deficit left by deploying methane for this purpose can be made up by other means.

But this does not mean we do not have good options now. Far from it. Dawson et al. also describe the potential for capturing flared natural gas from oil wells, because “the amount flared is similar to the total amount of natural gas, or gas equivalent, used by the global fertiliser industry.”

In summary, while the Pope has much room to grow, obviously in terms of his attitudes toward birth control and choice, and maybe even some things to learn about agricultural science in terms of scarce resources that yield N and P for modern fertilizer, he is absolutely correct that we must place a high priority on developing and implementing sustainable agriculture and look at the matter holistically. “Sustainable” agriculture to be worthy of the name cannot be viewed in isolation. It must be meaningful and sufficient in practice for all people everywhere. It must not be merely written down on paper or the privilege of the wealthy few with access to high-priced food. Rather, it must be integrated with economic needs to ensure fair distribution of abundant and healthy food to the mouths of each and every person on the planet. This work should go on in coordination with the critical obligation to holistically address Global Warming, other human economic needs, other environmental problems, energy conservation, and the other enormous challenges that we face.

Thank you Francis. Keep up the good work. To the extent you do, the left should be strongly with you.

Now about where babies come from, who should control women’s bodies, and the need for compassionate and humane curtailment of the growth of the human population …


Ashley, K., Barnard, J. L. 2009. International Conference on Nutrient Recovery from Wastewater Streams (ICNRWS), Ashley, K., Mavinic, D., Koch, F., eds., IWA Publishing, London, UK.
Dawson, C. J., Hilton, J., 2011. Fertiliser availability in a resource-limited world: Production and recycling of nitrogen and phosphorus. Food Policy 36:S14-S22.

See also the many references in my technical report on nutrient scarcity and soil, which, in holistic fashion, inspired and is at the end of my socio-political pamphlet, A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens/Un camino de bobina a jardines de trabajadores

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