Food, Faith, and Farming

red and green apples in brown wooden box

The facts, statistics and trajectories on agrarian issues, farming debates and the wide-ranging subject of food are difficult to ignore and often overwhelming. In a world population of 7.5 billion, which shows no signs of an imminent plateau, the resources of the world remain steadfastly finite. Furthermore, this finite world is increasingly a fragile one: seven million hectares a year are lost to desertification; more than 1000 breeds of animal have been made extinct in the past century; 80% of disease in the third world is water-based. But within these damning figures are the crucial questions for us as human beings to reflect upon, the questions which transform our attitudes to creation from the purely pragmatic to the inherently worshipful. From the works of several prominent theologians and farmers, there are several pertinent questions raised, some practical and others theological, on how to treat the world we live in and which was created for us.

‘They would ask what would nature help them to do there?’[1]

Wendell Berry, a farmer and lay theologian, conveys both a sadness and a frustration at the agricultural situation in his writings, lamenting that he lives

in a part of the country that at one time a good farmer could take some pleasure in looking at…now the country is not well farmed, and driving through it has become a depressing experience.[2]

For Berry, the increased specialisation in produce and industrialisation in farming demonstrates the absence of people knowledgeable enough to understand and care for the land, as well as to recognise the dire state of the world in its present condition. This ignorance of how to tend to the land is characterised by the refusal to consult nature on how to act, which Berry describes as ‘a dictatorial or totalitarian form of behaviour’[3] and that we should be asking nature what she can permit or help us to do on the land, as opposed to making demands on it as is currently the situation. These questions of nature, which Berry urges us to ask, raise the debate of ownership versus stewardship. It seems that the present condition sees us abuse our tenants’ rights and ignore our tenants’ responsibilities for taking care of the land. Berry comments that human beings will not recover Eden with our current assault tactics; as the idiom goes, “do not bite the hand that feeds.” We have bitten once too often; the hand is stopping feeding.

‘Does the way trade is organised in our area reflect love of God and love of neighbour?’[4]

It is not just nature and the land that needs respect and love shown to it; those who work the land to the best of its and their ability are often neglected in the capitalist economy promoted by the world’s most powerful governments with the result that ‘human values remain uncosted.’[5] Biologist Colin Tudge sharply critiques the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for spearheading a transition to a single, global market and yet trying to deny its power, influence and hence culpability by arguing that it is dependent upon support of the consumer. Yet, 3.1 million children die each year from malnutrition, workers on land grab affected areas in Ethiopia are paid just $2 a day and 14.9% of children under 16 in Devon are living in poverty – ‘but all this reflects, and is entirely dependent upon, public will, apparently.’[6] In his rhetoric on economics, Aristotle employs the Midas parable to illustrate the distinction between wants and needs and how, as demonstrated by the tragic eponymous hero, greed eventually kills. No clearer is greed evident than in Exeter’s Morrisons Supermarket. For 49 pence, the customer can buy half a pint of skimmed milk. Quite how 49 pence covers all that goes into dairy farming and gives the supermarket giant a profit, is anyone’s guess, but it is no wonder that ‘farmers speak of a ‘master-servant’ relationship with supermarkets.’[7] To buy milk in Morrisons is not to love your neighbour, rather, it is to worship the false idol of the oligopoly that is Britain’s grocery market.

‘And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’[8]

How Christians should respond to the world is found in scripture and is eloquently articulated by Ellen Davis who argues that, as the land came first and Adam, (or dust or compost), came from the land, ‘brownish red is the skin tone of both the people and the earth.’[9] Thus, agrarianism, concern for the land and respect for it – reverence for it – is established from the very opening chapters of scripture. As Davis expounds, ‘Israelite farmers knew that they survived…by the grace of God’[10] when they found themselves in semi-arid land before they reached Canaan. However, YHWH makes clear before the Israelites eventually enter the Promised Land that it is ‘a land that the LORD your God looks after…if you will only heed his every commandment…loving the LORD your God, serving him with all your heart and all your soul – then he will give the rain for your land…he will give you grass in your fields.’[11] The writers of Deuteronomy continue, urging the Israelites to obey these ordinances, to teach them to their children and paint them on their fence posts. Today, creation is taken for granted and yet, God has not ceased watching over us to see how we are treating or mistreating the land he created and then gave us.

The world as human beings currently treat it, is not doing justice. Set out in the Bible are clear instructions on how to work the land and that first step is to worship the God who gave it to us, where thankfulness is sacramental and trade is just and grace is recognised as creation’s and our sustainer. And what does the LORD our God require of us? To do just buying and trading, to love local: land, farmer, produce, and to walk and work on God’s land in worship.

[1] Berry, W., Bringing it to the Table, (Counterpoint, 2009), p.8. [2] Ibid., p.3. [3] Ibid., p.7. [4] Gorringe, T., Harvest, (SPCK, 2006), p.51. [5] Tudge, C., So Shall We Reap, (Penguin, 2003), p.295. [6] Ibid., p.280. [7] Gorringe, Harvest, (2006), p.43. [8] Micah 6:8, (NRSV). [9] Davis, E., Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.29. [10] Ibid., p.26. [11] Deuteronomy 11:10-14, (NRSV).

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