The issue of food has appeared in the headlines recently in a way not seen for some time. Undoubtedly prices have risen, in some cases very fast, especially in other parts of the world. So what is going on, and what might a Christian response be?
There are many factors converging at the present and the situation is complex but let us put things in context. Over the last 30 years we have enjoyed falling food prices. OECD figures for the early 1970’s show that the world wheat price was 600 $US per tonne and rice at 1,400$US per tonne. This is in contrast to the recent peak of 250$Us per tonne for wheat and 400$US for rice. Many economists predict that commodity prices will fall back and continue to fall over the long term.
Price rises in commodities over the last year were steep with wheat rising by 130% and rice by 74% but this was from a comparatively low base. That is not to minimise the problem that such rises cause, particularly to the poorest who spend proportionately more of their income on food. However for the average UK household the proportion of income spent on food has fallen over the last 50 years from 33% of average income to 9%.
The recent hike in food prices is due to many factors, including the rising cost of oil, speculation on the commodities market in view of the volatility of the dollar, a decrease in world food reserves and the rise in use of bio-fuels; rising population and changing eating habits. Discussion of the trading practices around food commodities is beyond the competence of the author but trading one of the essentials of life, food on the futures market does raise ethical questions about who is making the profit on such transactions and what this activity does to the final price paid by the consumer.
Agriculture in the developed world is very dependent on oil not only to drive machinery but to manufacture fertilisers and other agrochemicals. If, as many think, we have reached peak oil production then this cost will continue to rise, having an impact on production costs. Scarcity of oil will mean developing new ways of growing food which are less dependent on these chemicals. The pressure to grow more food will increase in order to feed a growing population.
At present the world population stands at about 6 billion but this is projected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. As living standards rise across the world so will the demand for different foods such as meat. For example in 1980 the Chinese consumed 20kg of meat per capita; this rose to 50kg per capita in 2007. Increased demand for meat could lead to an increase in growing feed wheat. Whilst a vegetarian diet produces energy more efficiently, how can we deny other people the kind of diet we have taken for granted for so long? Some land will not support the production of cereals, and areas such as the uplands are dependent on meat production so the answer is not necessarily either/ or but both/ and.
We only have so much land and some of it is at risk from degradation and most of that which can be farmed is being farmed; so some of the big dilemmas will occur around land use. In this country land is used in three main ways; food, fuel, and fun (leisure).
The use of land for leisure has seen an increase for example, in the right to roam and various environmental measures to ensure an attractive countryside for people to enjoy. Also in the review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) there was a decoupling of payments from production support to environmental schemes. This means that famers were no longer paid for what they produced but for the way they look after the land.
The USA and Europe have announced statutory targets for bio-fuel use. Self-evidently cereal grown to feed power stations, or to make bio-ethanol, uses land that cannot then be used to grow food. The Gallagher report released in July has called for a slowing down of bio-fuel use to ensure that the production is sustainable i.e. that it uses marginal and waste land. Also we need to develop second generation bio-fuels that will be more efficient and use technology such as bio-digesters which convert waste matter to energy.
The demographic changes we have mentioned mean that there is increasing pressure to grow more food. The World Bank estimates ‘that cereal production needs to increase by 50% and meat production 80% between 2000 and 2030 to meet demand. But this will need to be achieved in a changing climate and in a world where natural resources – especially water – are becoming scarcer;’
That asks a lot of an industry which is viewed by many as being somehow peripheral. To produce even more food on the same amount of land with increasingly unsettled weather and possible shortage of water will require the development of new techniques and new plant varieties. This will require investment in research and development on a large scale if we are to continue to feed the world.
So what can we do?
The problems seem so immense, what can we do as individuals? The one area not discussed so far is that of waste. As consumers we waste £420 worth of food per household every year, for families with children this increases to £610. Perhaps because food has been cheap for so long we have become careless with it. We could all resolve to cut the amount of food we waste through better planning. Food is also wasted in the retail industry in the pursuit of the perfect and the uniform.
The issues around food raise many questions for Christians, particularly at the moment, in terms of justice, land use, and climate change. As we look to Biblical material the first thing to notice is the holistic view that exists of creation. This is in contrast to the way much of modern society views the world, where humanity can be seen to be somehow separate from the rest of the created order.
In the Old Testament particularly we see the whole of creation, including the land and the soil, joining in the praise of God, see for example Psalm 65:12-13, Psalm 66:4, Joel 2:22. We also are shown God’s care for the whole of creation. Conversely the prophets warn how Israel’s lack of faith towards God has consequences for the rest of creation, see for example Hosea 4:1-3. In Romans chapter 8: 19-22, Paul writes of creation groaning and waiting for the completion of the Kingdom through the liberation of the children of God.
Food also occupies a key place in the Biblical narrative. From the creation accounts we are told that humanity’s primary purpose is to till the ground to produce food. This is food to feed the world not just certain favoured individuals. Leviticus (19:9) gives instructions about leaving the margins of a field for the poor and the alien. We see this put into practice in the story of Ruth.
Another key biblical theme about food is one of thankfulness. This begins in Deuteronomy when the people were commanded to take the first fruits of their harvest and give them as an offering to God. In the gospels we see Jesus regularly giving thanks for food, for example in the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognised Jesus when he took the bread and gave thanks. Thanksgiving is about more than being grateful: it is to understand food as gift of God.
‘To understand daily bread as gift is a crucial part of what it means to live under grace rather than, as Paul puts it, under law. To know food as gift is not only to be aware of the immense amount of labour, of justice and injustice, which lies behind everything we eat. It is also about our self understanding.’ (Gorringe,T 2006 p59)
So thankfulness leads us into thoughts of justice, but this goes further than the concept of fair trade. Timothy Gorringe (Gorringe, T 2006), develops the idea of ‘just food’. He affirms that ‘just food’ is not wasted, it is food that is targeted at the common good; food that repays the grower with a fair price; and food that is grown in a way that respects the ecosystem. So just food involves the whole of the created order and makes sure everyone receives their fair share.
Food is also about communion with God. In Genesis 18, Abraham hosts God in the form of the three angels. The people of the Exodus are told that the promised-land will flow with milk and honey. The Kingdom of God is often likened to a feast, particularly in the Gospels.
‘Further the growing and sharing of food forms either backcloth or foreground material of the majority of the parables of Jesus. Even in his Resurrection appearances Christ eats with his disciples, first at Emmaus and later on a beach. By contrast in the Church since the late Middle Ages the growing and eating of food has become marginal to the worship and teaching of Christians.’ (Northcott,M 2007,p118)
The development that Northcott articulates is puzzling given that at the centre of most Christian worship lies a meal, the Eucharist; a meal in which bread is taken blessed and broken, a place of communion with God. If we reaffirm the Eucharist as a meal, ‘it becomes for us first of all a parable of how all created life is meant to be, i.e. offered, blessed, enjoyed in communion with God and one another.’ (Peter CSWG,)
This echoes the holistic view of creation mentioned earlier and is perhaps the clue to sacramental living. From this very brief review there appear to be many issues around the subject of food for the Christian, including; justice and fairness, the care of creation and our relationship with God. We should not be surprised, however, since we worship an Incarnate God who in Jesus inhabited the material world, and who uses the ordinary things of the earth, water, bread and wine as vehicles of grace.
For further information, or if you and your church would like to discuss these issues please contact: Rev Elizabeth Clark (Rural Officer, York and Hull Methodist District), Revd Canon Leslie Morley (Rural Officer, Diocese of Ripon and Leeds)
Walter Bruggeman 2002 The Land, Fortress Press
Timothy Gorringe 2006 Harvest SPCK
Ivor Macdonald 2005 The Land of the Living VBM Publishing
John Madeley 2002 Food for All Zed Books
Michael Northcott 2007 Spirituality Creation and the Ecology of the Eucharist John Knox
Peter CSWG The Thursday Agape Meal, in the journal of the Community of the Servants of The Will of God
Does your church have a ‘food policy’ e.g. using Fair Trade products and locally sourced foods at church events and taking care about wastage?
Are members of the congregation encouraged to think about food justice when they shop?
What can you do to recover the concept of thankfulness for food?