The Long and Short of It
Tonight I am teaching at Meadow Oaks Baptist Church where I’ve been a member for about 4 years. I am teaching about my journey and calling toward agricultural missions and understanding the role food plays in our lives, globalization and justice. This is a pretty concise summation of why food is so important, my theology of mission and how food fits into God’s mission for the world. By concise I mean I had to cut a whole lot of important stuff out. Luckily I have a wife who listens to me ramble and tells me which parts to cut and which parts don’t make sense. So this is both very long for a blog post, but too short to say everything I wanted.
The full text after the jump.
I would like to begin at the beginning, and by that I mean Genesis.
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. Gen 2:7-8, 15
In this creation account God is depicted as getting his hands dirty. God digs his hands into the soil to make human beings. God is a gardener. He plants and cares for the creation. Then God puts the human in the garden to “cultivate it and keep it.” Notice that this is before sin ever enters the picture.
The original intention of God’s creation was for us to be connected to creation and in particular to our food.
Some of you may have grown up at a time when most people were connected to their food. You may have gotten your vegetables, meat and milk from someone you knew by name, whose kids you went to school with. Most people today have not been so fortunate.
Growing up in Fredericksburg, TX I was more aware than most about how the sausage gets made, so to speak. I hunted with my dad and gutted deer. I was in 4-H and showed a sheep that was later auctioned off for slaughter. And yes, I did help in making sausage with an old hand-cranked meat grinder. Yet, I could not tell you where most of the food I ate came from. The grocery store was about all I knew.
After working at a camp in Colorado I met strange people called vegetarians. We don’t have these people in Texas and if we do they definitely live in Austin. But I decided to try it for a while. That was over 8 years ago. This is what started me down the road of thinking about my food.
As I read more and learned more about our food system I became convinced that our food is a hub that connects many of the most pressing issues that concern our world today. I would like to take some time to connect some of these dots for us, then share with you about the work at the World Hunger Farm and finally ask what this means for Meadow Oaks and what God is doing in this place.
Connecting The Dots
Why does what we eat matter? Isn’t it just personal preference, a matter of taste?
What we eat is causing an obesity epidemic and the rise of Type II diabetes. What we eat barely registers on our radar as we scramble to make meetings and soccer games. The way that our beef is produced creates vast cow cities that produce incredible amounts of pollution and toxic waste. What we eat is grown by migrant workers in the U.S. or poor farmers in developing countries. What we eat is mostly corn with an extra helping of oil. Let me try to unpack that statement a little to help us understand what we’re eating and what affect it has on the earth and the people who live here.
Let’s start with corn. The history of corn’s rise to power and plan for world domination would take too long to tell. Suffice it to say that we grow a lot of corn in this country. In fact we don’t know what to do with all of our extra corn. It turns out there was a lot we could do with it. Processes were invented to turn the raw material of corn into all kinds of additives and industrial ingredients for our food, HFCS, xantham gum, maltodextrin, emulsifiers and fillers. If you are reading an ingredients label on a package and do not know what half the ingredients are, chances are that many of them are derived from corn. Over time corn became no longer a food, but a commodity. It is now traded on world markets like a barrel of oil, not a bushel of peaches.
However, we are not the only ones eating corn. The majority of the meat we eat comes from cows that have spent most of their lives eating corn. God, however, did not design cows to eat corn. The pH of a cow’s digestive system allows it to live in symbiosis with a particular bacterium that breaks down the food in its rumen. An amazing feat of nature, that is, when it eats grass. When cows are fed corn, the pH balance changes allowing the growth of a particular strain of the E. Coli bacteria, which has caused the USDA to recall record amounts of beef from the market in recent years.
Not only are cows fed the wrong food; they are kept in conditions that are, let’s say, less than pastoral. Confined Animal Feeding Operations, known as CAFOs, are really vast cow cities. I will leave the gory details of these CAFOs to your imagination lest I spoil your dinner. The government regulates these “cities” as farms instead of factories, but the waste and pollution they produce is massive.
The industrial ingredients made from corn, particularly HFCS, have also been linked to the epidemics of obesity and adult onset diabetes, which is now known as Type II because it has become so common. Our food has a lot to do with our health. It seems simple, but sometimes we can’t see the potatoes for the fries.
Corn is used in building materials and packaging for…well…everything. Even with all these new uses for commodity corn, we still had too much. That is until 1994, when Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement. One result of NAFTA was that we could now dump the rest of our excess corn into the Mexican market. Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with the cheap corn and many were driven from the land. Those who didn’t find work in the city were forced to migrate north. This is partly what drove the growing number of immigrants into the United States in the 90s and early 2000s. Now many, if not most, of the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. are picked by migrant workers and we are involved in their lives by consuming the fruit of their labor.
Oil is the second main ingredient on our dinner plates. The produce you buy at the grocery store travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to plate. No wonder those tomatoes at the store are so pale and mushy. If you enjoy eating a nice healthy banana, I can guarantee that it was not grown in the United States. The machinery used to plow, plant and harvest all use petroleum. The fertilizer and pesticides are generally petroleum based. Our food is soaked in oil.
Modern technology moved farmers away from traditional methods of agriculture. Petroleum based fertilizers meant that farmers no longer had to rotate their crops or use cover crops to grow their crops year after year. The land no longer had the Sabbath that the Bible and science both call for. This has caused the increasing loss of topsoil, erosion of land and depletion of the nutrients in the soil. This cannot continue indefinitely. It has also contributed to the massive flooding that has plagued the Midwest in recent years.
I could go on. We haven’t even touched on the causes of poverty and hunger, biodiversity, or the role of women in agriculture, but I think you get the picture. Food is connected to our health, the environment, immigration, flooding and almost every aspect of our modern life. Michael Pollan wrote an Op-ed in the New York Times during the last election warning both candidates that if they wanted to actually implement their policies concerning health care and the economy, they would quickly find that they had to deal with the issue of our food system.
I have sometimes been naïve enough to think I could do something about all of this. I am also foolish enough to believe in a God that actually does the impossible. So I felt God calling me to do something about the problems I saw connected to our food and its production. We have done some things in our family to try and change our eating habits. I try to buy fair trade coffee when I can to support farmers. But honestly there are not a lot of sources for local food in our area. We bought four tomato plants one year and got a sum total of one tomato from them before killing all the plants. Some of you have probably been there. Both of my thumbs are brown at best, if not a darker shade. If we were really going to tackle this calling for our family we were going to need some help.
I knew about World Hunger Relief, Inc. from my time at Truett. We have visited at least once a year for Farm Day either in the Fall or the Spring to see friends, tour the farm, pet the goats and dream about a life where we could provide the kind of food we wanted for our family. I applied for an internship last May as my time in seminary was finishing and found out in November that we were accepted.
Now that we knew what we’d be doing after seminary, the reality of what this move meant began to sink in. The farm provides a modest stipend of $300/month for interns that manage one of their enterprises. We could eat whatever food the farm provided plus some staples. We would have a place to live and a little help with health insurance. Anything else was up to us to take care of.
Moving a family of four from a nice house and secure income, to a small apartment in close proximity to people who share our food and our toilet was a scary prospect. We haven’t always known quite how it was going to work out, but again and again God has been faithful to provide for us and confirmed this calling through words of encouragement and reminders that this was for real.
The farm teaches sustainable agriculture and international assistance in order to train people for mission work both here and internationally. They have interns from all over the country and often the globe. The only machinery used for farming is a tractor. It is geared toward conditions in the third world where industrial machinery is not available and has often devastated local agriculture when it was introduced. I will be in charge of their local education program, which involves visiting schools or organizations to teach about the work the farm does, as well as lead and coordinate groups that visit the farm. I will be in charge of a small demonstration garden for education purposes.
The World Hunger Farm, like others, tries to mimic the function of plants and animals in the ecosystem to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. One example will illustrate this principle The chickens at the farm live in a mobile chicken coop. They come behind the cows several days after they have grazed a pasture. They wait several days and not more because that’s when the larvae in the cow patties are nice and fat and juicy. When the chickens come clucking out of their coop they scratch furiously at the cow patties to get their dinner, meanwhile spreading out nature’s fertilizer on the field. They are also defecating madly, adding their own nitrogenous waste to the mix, creating even more fertile soil. The cows, chickens, grass, larvae and sun are involved in an intricate dance. A dance that God created, and one that works pretty well. Farming this way can produce yields of 3500 pounds per acre. Industrial methods often max out around 2000 pounds per acre. One major difference is that industrial ag uses a monoculture approach, farming one crop for miles and miles. Poly or permaculture farms animals and plants in a symbiosis that makes it possible to produce much more per acre.
We don’t know for sure where God will take us after the farm. We have already applied with a missions organization to go overseas, but there are lots of opportunities here at home as well, such as urban gardening, farm to school programs, community gardens and advocacy work to change farm policy to name a few.
What does this mean for Meadow Oaks in Temple, TX? Wendell Berry said, “Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act. And that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
The first step is to recognize that what we eat matters. The food we buy and eat affects people in our country and around the globe. Your Big Mac or the sushi at Nami connects you to the people who grew, harvested, processed, shipped and prepared that food.
The next step is to find better alternatives. There are local sources of food at farmer’s markets and through CSAs. Localharvest.org is a good resource for locating these.
We can also grow our own food. Americans spend billions keeping our small plots of land well fertilized and trim so the neighbors don’t frown at us. What if we diverted some of that energy to growing food?
We must also reclaim the practice of eating seasonally. That asparagus you get in December is not only out of season and shipped from Argentina, it is pale, lifeless and tasteless. There are lots of ways to store seasonal produce for winter months. This is knowledge we discarded for convenience.
Finally, what you cannot get locally and seasonal, such as coffee or bananas, consider purchasing fair trade, where the farmers in other countries receive a living wage and give back to their communities for the crops they produce.
The truth is that moving towards a local sustainable food system creates connections to our communities and creation that have been severed. It’s not just about better food, it’s about better communities and caring for the earth. This is God’s purpose in the world. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Ro 8:19, 21). Creation itself is part of the redemptive work that Jesus did on the cross. Easter and resurrection is not just about people, but all of creation. This is part of the work we are called to do as “ambassadors of reconciliation” as Paul says. We witness to the kingdom of God whose purpose as N.T. Wright puts it is “to set the world to rights.” Eating ethically is one way that everyone can impact a broad range of areas that are crying out for the justice of God’s reign.
Tom Sine says it well in his book Mustard Seed versus McWorld. He points out that,
[We] allow modern culture to arrange the furniture of our lives: forty- to eighty-hour work-weeks, single family detached housing, congested time schedules for our lives and children…. The problem with this is that we not only sanction giving our first allegiance to decisions about where to work, live, and rear our young; we permit modern culture, as part of the deal, to define our notions of the good life and better future.
When we allow the kingdom of God to rearrange the furniture of our lives, we cannot do the things we’ve always done. We are forever changed, and then we are able to change others.
I would like to conclude with a prayer I found online called the pre-consumption prayer. Ask yourself how your buying and eating would be different if you prayed this simple prayer before buying or eating anything.
May the food we eat, feed those who farmed it.
May the things we buy, support those who fashioned and shipped and sold them.
For everything we enjoy from your good earth, God, thank you. Amen