The Global Dinner Table: How what we eat here affects lives everywhere

August 2, 2010


by Tim Schubert

Flourish magazine, Summer 2010

As typical members of society in the United States, we think very little about the food we eat. We rarely consider the source of our food, who grew it and how it was grown, its nutritional value, the environmental impact of its production, how it got from its source to our tables, who handled and perhaps processed it before we put it in our mouths. For better and for worse, our relative affluence has made it possible for most of us to be concerned with other matters. We are very concerned about the flavor and other sensual aspects of food consumption, and we notice the price, but beyond that, we are ambivalent or even thoughtless about the subject. 

As preparation for a class discussion on the meaning of food, I resolved, with the aid of a concordance, to consult every verse of Scripture that made any reference whatever to food or agriculture. This was no small task. I was both reminded and surprised to realize how much the Bible has to say about our nourishment and how we go about feeding ourselves. My thoughts immediately went to the idea captured in passages in Deuteronomy 8 cautioning the people of God that in their prosperity, they would be tempted to forget the source of their blessing and take the bounty for granted. I’m convinced that we are guilty of precisely the same forgetfulness as the Israelites. As a society, we need to reawaken our sense of gratitude for all the good gifts God bestows, especially our daily bread.

Issues of food and agriculture in Scripture
The Old Testament readily acknowledges our fundamental need for physical (as well as spiritual) nourishment, and it gives credit for earth’s edible bounty to our Creator as part of common grace (Gen 2:8-9, 16-17; Deut 8:3 & Mt 4:4).  The natural outgrowth of recognizing this state of affairs should be gratitude and worship, though instead we prefer to take full credit as self-sufficient, autonomous persons reaping the rewards for hard work. We should remember that “working the ground” was prescribed before the Fall (Gen 2:15), but after the Fall it became more burdensome and less productive because of the curse (Gen 3:17-19). Even a purely naturalistic assessment of agriculture reveals that human contribution and participation in the process falls far short of placing us in control in the strict sense.

Agriculture at the most basic level is husbandry of the photosynthetic process upon which all life on earth depends. This bold statement about the worth of green plants is not the slightest bit exaggerated.  Despite the curse, photosynthesis retains significant elements of the miraculous and transcendent, well beyond our full intellectual and physical grasp. Though the passage in Genesis (1:26-31) assigning mankind the role of stewardship dominion over the created order (“con-service” in Cal Dewitt’s terminology, or as “viceroy” in Pope Benedict’s) is variously understood to some degree, the job is ours regardless of whether we embrace it or not. Obviously, some do well in the role, while others do not. Failure can be in the form of obvious, deliberate greed and exploitation, but failure also arises out of simple ignorance and lack of reflection. Our affluence and detachment from the natural order puts many of us firmly in the second category of offenders. 

Two major New Testament themes with agricultural overtones bear mentioning. The first reflects the value of curses and blessings as they define safe boundaries within which we can conduct our lives and find fulfillment in the created order (Heb 12:1-2). Viewed rightly, a curse is a form of loving discipline given to remake us and direct us away from futility and harm. The usefulness of the curse lies in our attitude toward it. The second theme comes from a stirring passage in Revelation (22:2-3) that indicates that an actual Tree of Life orchard will line the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God in the New Order, bearing twelve crops of fruit, one crop every month. This verse reminds us that the curse will be lifted. Until then, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that humans’ role as stewards of Creation is annulled. Some of God’s redeemed no doubt are longing to faithfully serve in this stewardship role forever. But for now, we should accept the idea that agriculture, even that done with the greatest care, will always involve struggle and hardship, and we would be wise to allow that resistance to accomplish a good work in us.

The food crisis: global, local and historical
The global food crisis felt mostly in the Global South is perennial and obvious to all who take the time to notice it. Its cause and effect is not much debated—these areas remain poor because they cannot grow their own food, not the other way around. The ability of a people group to feed itself is the foundation for a successful civilization. 

So the problem of the food crisis is not simple scarcity. World food production supplies more than enough calories to sustain the global population, with about 15 percent to spare. But hunger persists largely because of political and economic barriers to food distribution. Additionally, attempts to move modern agricultural technologies into poor rural environments to make those regions self-reliant have repeatedly failed because the inputs are not sustainable when soils in poor areas are so depleted that they cannot make use of supplemental fertilizers, and water availability is not dependable.

Because we fail to deliver food where people are located, a death sentence condemns about 98,000 people every day. Beyond that benchmark of failure, malnourishment of approximately 1/7 of the world population (almost 1 billion people) robs them of a potentially more meaningful existence because they lack energy, physical strength, and intellectual capabilities. 

Simultaneous with this state of affairs, we in the West tend to consume more than is good for us, ironically just about the same amount as the hungry elsewhere are missing. How do we reconcile this with the admonitions of Scripture (Is 58:7; Ez 18:6,16; Mt 25:35, 42) to feed the hungry?

A glance at humanity’s growth over the last 10,000 years of human history should give us a sense of unease concerning our food security.

World population over time.

Though our present problem is mostly food distribution, the rapid population increase points to potentially catastrophic food shortages; modern agriculture will be hard-pressed to meet our needs even without predicted environmental upsets. Civilizations such as the Mayan of the Yucatan of Mexico and the southwestern American Indian cultures closer to home met their ends as a result of failing agriculture. These and similar grim tales portend a comparable fate for Western civilization if we cannot find some way to build a consistent margin into the food supply.

The uniqueness of the agricultural economy
Consider these interesting and somewhat startling facts and figures concerning population, diet and agriculture over just the last two to three generations in America:

Then Now
World population 1950 – 2.5 billion 1999 – 6 billion

2008 – 7.5 billion

% of population engaged in agriculture 1885 – 50% 1985 – 3%
Household income spent on food 1900 – 50% 1980 -15%

2008 – 9%

Farm efficiency 1920 – 1 farmer feeds 20 2008 – 1 farmer feeds 130
Corn yields / acre 1920 – ½ ton, or 20 bushels 2008 – 5 tons, or 180 bushels
Typical American diet 1945 – 125 lbs meat annually, 2400 calories / day 1980 – 195 lbs of meat annually, 2700 calories / day
% of income spent on health care 1960 – 5% 2008 – 16%

From a modern economic standpoint, agriculture has enormous influence on civilization. Agricultural products were the first form of wealth, spawning economic organization and specialization of functions among laborers. Capitalism and the Industrial Age arose out of agricultural economics, and agriculture in one form or another still provides the foundation for any workable national or global economy as well as a flourishing society. As agriculture scales up to meet greater demands, the “food factory” mentality, with its emphasis on inputs and outputs, now predominates. Consolidation in the extreme operates from production to processing to distribution to sales, with each new level driven by economy of scale and an assumed motive to cater to consumer demand and convenience. It is easy to understand why we are no longer cognizant of food matters; if you’ve got money, food just happens.  We don’t even have to prepare it if we don’t want to, or, sadly, if we don’t know how. How strange and out of control this process must seem to the persons who faithfully grow our food for us.

The wholesale attempt to press the agricultural economy into the mold of the economy as a whole has had one glaring and initially unforeseen consequence. By producing food where it can be done cheapest, shipping it to where the demand is highest, and using futures to stabilize supply and price, profits are maximized and the scale of agriculture has swollen to the point that the smaller family farm is no longer a viable option. Without deliberate protections, many versatile, highly skilled farmers and their privately owned land parcels get absorbed into this vortex of consolidation and then eliminated.

Conventional economic principles do not apply perfectly to agriculture. The agricultural economy has unique features that separate it from the larger economy, features we ignore at our peril:

  • Continued scaling up is not always possible or advisable. Crops and animals can’t prosper in a monoculture. Huge expanses of a single plant species and concentrated animal feeding operations are unhealthy from both an environmental and a community plant/animal health perspective. In animal agriculture, the conditions of large-scale feedlots and slaughterhouses transgress the ethical boundaries of most members of the community. Crop security from start to finish is less manageable on this grand scale. The need for cheap and abundant labor on demand at harvest time puts a temporary but enormous strain on the work force for crops not amenable to machine harvesting. Distribution from areas of concentrated production to consumers in various locations uses non-renewable fuels.
  • Additional externalities (costs not directly accounted for) accrue as a result of attempts to scale up agriculture. For example, the costs of manufacturing and using modern synthetic fertilizers and pesticides require much non-renewable energy and have enormous potential for pollution and environmental upset. Additionally, inefficient water use and soil erosion squander two of the fundamental natural resources for a viable civilization.
  • Perishability and susceptibility to contamination of the scaled-up crops limits the options available to the producer, putting them at the mercy of distributors, processors, and purchasers.
  • The raw food product (which is in excess in most of the developed world and thus of reduced value to the producer, according to laws of supply and demand) is amenable to considerable processing for consumer convenience, but more importantly, as it turns out, for added profit to the processor. We end up spending unnecessarily to consume more than is good for us (47% of us are now overweight or even obese), which results in significant and costly obesity-related health problems (estimated at $56 billion every year). All this uses far more calories to produce than the product provides in return in the form of food value.  Our food habits unnecessarily and unsustainably “mine” the earth of its resources.
  • These developments naively transfer the trust and control over what, how and even where we eat to persons guided almost exclusively by a profit motive. We are losing the pleasure and skill of cooking for one another and eating fewer meals together in community. Carried to its logical conclusion, a comparative advantage agricultural economy would put the U.S. into a position of importing much of its food, and struggling to inspect that commodity for wholesomeness and safety. The U.S. already imports about 15% of its total food supply, but it has the capacity to inspect, with mixed success, only about 2% of what is imported.

Moving beyond the curse
Considering all this, one wonders how we allowed ourselves to get into this precarious muddle. We have proven once again that success, prosperity, and affluence have a way of taking our attention away from the source of our blessings and making us complacent, selfish, and inconsiderate. As we come to our senses, I suggest we consider the following possible remedies. There are many more, though no single solution or dramatic corrective is possible. We got into this predicament incrementally, and getting out of it will no doubt follow the same process:

  • Return to the smaller diversified farming operation to replace some widespread industrial farming. A successful diversified farm will raise much perennial forage for animals. Meat—which should be produced and eaten in moderation—provides a nutritiously dense food source from domestic animals able to concentrate protein from forages on land not productive enough to grow grains, vegetables, or fruits that we eat directly. Forage and “wastes” (a poor term for the material unfit for human consumption resulting from agriculture) feed livestock or improve soil tilth and fertility over time to a condition that supports some grains, possibly vegetables, and fruits for local sales. Some reliance on large scale farms using artificial fertilizers and pesticides is vital to feed the global population, but diversified farms devoted to recycling all animal and plant wastes, building soil fertility naturally, reducing soil erosion, and using water more conservatively have a significant and expanding contribution to make and are much more sustainable. These new, smaller farms must be profitable, so we should be willing to spend more on our unprocessed local food to cover the externalities of this or any other kind of agriculture. Only those who can afford to take risks can do so. Sustainability applies to all aspects of the agricultural enterprise, environmental and economic.
  • Promote urban agriculture, especially of fruits and vegetables. Grow it yourself, trade and barter, or buy it locally. This idea has many benefits. Regrettably, most of our human settlements have occupied the best and most fertile agricultural land in their locale.  Unrealistic supermarket quality standards for produce result in the waste of perfectly wholesome foods. Reinvigorating agriculture in open urban spaces and landscapes will reduce food transportation costs, promote community spirit, beautify living spaces, align with the trend toward smaller and more diverse cropping systems for pest management advantages, reduce waste of food and production resources as we accept imperfect but wholesome produce, and reconnect much of the population with the natural world, the source of its nourishment.
  • Discourage the cultivation of food grains for biofuels. The recent frenzy to grow more corn for ethanol to supplement American vehicle fuel supplies had the unfortunate consequence of driving up both corn prices and the prices of other staple food grains that are now being grown in lesser amounts. The effect was a temporary windfall for grain farmers, but an economic disaster for those living on a dollar or two a day. Western culture squanders much non-renewable energy anyway, so a combination of greater reliance on muscle energy, conservation, and alternative energy from non-food sources (algae and cellulosic crop/wood wastes, for example) are much better ideas.
  • Try to reduce the amount of trash furnished to the “waste” stream. Compost kitchen scraps and yard material (leaves, grass clippings, tree limbs) to fortify local soils. Recycle as much paper, plastic, metal, and Styrofoam as the system where you live will permit. Reuse and repair what you have so that you leave a light mark on the environment. Pass usable items on to others instead of throwing them away.
  • Reflect upon the food and agriculture lessons of Scripture. So many thought-provoking and edifying themes are in the Bible: fasting, pruning, gleaning, sowing seed on good ground, unless a seed dies it cannot bear fruit, if you don’t work you don’t eat, you reap what you sow, wheat and tares, mustard seed faith, the garden settings for the most important events in history, the Lord’s Supper, etc. Our relationship with God, people, and creation is clearly portrayed in these allusions and metaphors.

When we recognize that we do in fact face a food crisis on numerous levels, even in the West, we will need to think more deeply about our circumstances. This reflection, undergirded by moral resources like Christian Scripture and the tradition that flows from it, can help us in renewing our perspective and re-directing our course. Of course looking outside ourselves to a source of wisdom and guidance like the Scriptures reminds us that our physical nourishment, as important as it is, is surpassed by a need for spiritual nourishment that has everlasting consequences. But, as is true in so many other experiences as part of creation, the physical is where the spiritual is expressed and worked out. We could do no better than to pursue ways to keep the physical and spiritual together.

Dr. Tim SchubertDr. Tim Schubert is a graduate of the University of Missouri – Columbia, where he received his B.S. in Forestry and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Since 1980, Dr. Schubert has served as a plant pathologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Gainesville, FL. In 1987, he was appointed as administrator of the Plant Pathology Section. Tim specializes in the diagnosis of plant diseases, especially those caused by fungi and abiotic (non-living) agents. In recent years, he has served on several state and national task forces to address the causes, impact, and disease management guidelines for a variety of plant diseases. Tim lives in Gainesville with his wife Mary Lou. They have three grown children. They have been members of Creekside Community Church for almost 30 years and also enjoy the fellowship at the Christian Study Center of Gainesville.

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