What has food got to do with faith and justice? Lots, it turns out. We take food for granted, yet eating represents one of our most powerful engagement with the natural world. It remakes the physical landscape, determines how we use land, and defines core components of our lifestyle. How we source our food has a profound effect on global justice, carbon emissions, and hunger prevention.

Cheap, oil-reliant food is dishonestly priced; it is in fact unconscionably expensive. Increasingly, that cost will be faced not only by the developing world but by ourselves. Why is this and what can we do about it?

Walking with Food

What would you find if you walked with your food on its journey to your table? Take that apple in front of you. Some apples you buy are New Zealand grown but others have a ‘produce of USA’ or ‘produce of Philippines’ sticker on them. Chances are apples grown overseas started life on a large plantation where workers are poorly paid. They use chemical fertilisers (made from natural gas), and pesticides (made from petroleum), which can cause cancer in those who work the field. Things get a little crazy when we pour in the fossil fuel components, including fuel for machinery to spray the herbicides and pesticides, and harvest and transport the product. Freighting to New Zealand incurs massive oil inputs: 97 calories of transport energy are needed to import one calorie of asparagus by plane from Chile! Delivery in refrigerated trucks is oil-based. Much packaging is oil-based. We drive to the shops, to buy, often several times a week.

Eating Oil

In 1940, 23 calories of food energy were produced for every 10 calories of fossil fuel energy input. Now, we squeeze only a single calorie of modern supermarket food for the same input. The way we choose to feed ourselves pumps out more greenhouse gases than anything else we do; as much as 25%. One shopping basket of 26 imported products can travel up to 200,000 kilometres and release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as an average four-bedroom household does through cooking in six months. Imported food could join a frequent flyer programme.

Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. And within a few years of cheap oil production peaking and becoming more expesive, the price of food will skyrocket because the cost of irrigating and fertilising the ground and the cost of storing and transporting it will soar. As food commentator, Michael Pollan says, we need to wean the food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

Pollan points to alternatives which can work. The power of creative polycultures’ (agriculture using multiple crops in the same space) to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proven in large farms (of up to 6,000 hectares) in China and Argentina. There, farmers traditionally employ a rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after grazing cattle, farmers can grow grain — while applying no fossil fuel fertiliser and few pesticides: pasture weeds can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides unnecessary.

A Level Ploughing Field

Our part in the looming global food crisis is a question of lifestyle, of working out our personal connection to what is wrong in the light of Jesus’ call to righteousness. Imagine walking through that food production system. You’d pass pollution, poverty, and disease in the Niger Delta where the oil is drilled. You’d pass workers using cancer-causing chemicals in the Philippines. You’d pass the cramped conditions in food processing factories in Asia. If you had to walk that journey, would you still eat that food? How could you change that food journey to one you’d be proud to walk?

An interesting social movement has emerged in the last few years — the 'food movement'— that recognises that industrial food production needs reform because its social, environmental, public health, animal welfare, and astronomic costs are too high. Markets for alternative kinds of food—organic, local, pasture-based, humane—are thriving as never before.

Personal steps

  1. Maybe you could: Decide to reduce your meat intake by 75%—an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as 20%—while freeing land for growing. Even one extra meatless day a week (if we all followed suit) would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 200,000 midsized cars off New Zealand roads for a year.
  2. Observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving.
  3. Weed it and Reap: Become a ‘Local-vore’. It may seem small, but backyard gardening is possibly the most radical contribution you can make to global hunger prevention! Begin to unplug from the industrial food machine. Experience how growing food works, how precious and necessary soil, water and compost are. Come to appreciate how God’s good earthworks. You’ll dwell more on issues of food and justice, develop skills and habits of mind, and enjoy the food along the way. Local movements to live more sustainably, resiliently and locally are popping up in New Zealand. Join or start a “Transition Town”, an excellent way to meet your neighbours and strategize around developing local food resources and community building. Or hook your gardening  efforts up with “Ooooby” !

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