Many commentators herald the ‘end of cheap food’, warning us that the global food systems on which we have come depend are increasingly fragile. The cost to other nations and the environment, and the impact on UK food producers, mean that in a few years we will not be living as we do now.
The Food Futures day conference at Redcliffe College, Gloucester asked what God wants us to learn and how we could personally change and adapt. We looked at what Scripture says about our relationship with food and those that produce it, and at what can be done to improve global production, food security, and patterns of trade. Not all of us grow food but we all eat it, and we explored the jungle of food ethics and whether ‘conscience in the supermarket’ is an adequate response to the coming storm.
Around 70 people attended this highly successful day. The conference was organised in partnership with Redcliffe College, CMS and the Agricultural Christian Fellowship. Andy Kingston-Smith (Lecturer at Redcliffe College and main organiser of the day), introduced the conference and Margot Hodson (JRI Director), chaired it.
Mike Rayner, Patrick Mulvany, and Ruth Valerio were the main speakers, and summaries of their talks appear below.
At mid-morning we had a “Coffee House” session with contributions from three Redcliffe College students, looking at food issues in the developing world.
Nathan from Uganda told a story from a man called Julius of a meal in Uganda in a time of food shortage. What should he do? Maybe he would have to stop fathering children. He knew people had died recently. Many families were having one meal a day. Droughts and floods made things worse. We need to do something.
Edith reflected on agriculture and missionary training. Africa Inland Mission (AIM) in Kenya are training Africans to be missionaries. This includes a course on dry land agriculture as it is very significant in the arid lands of Africa. At the college students have a small garden. Mission is not only sharing the Gospel but is also practical. Training needs to be holistic, and must include environmental awareness.
Ibeela from central Nigeria had experienced fluctuation in rainfall between 2006-9. Sometimes rains are late and there is drought, and sometimes too much and crops flooded. This has been a source of conflict. Action and prayer are needed.
Sir John Houghton gave us a short update on climate change after Copenhagen, and his recent battles with the sceptics.
In the afternoon we had workshops on the following themes:
“Human Population and Food” (John McKeown);
“Climate Change and Agriculture” (Martin Hodson);
“Aid and Development – missiological considerations” (Andy Kingston-Smith);
“How then do we eat? – the practical response” (Ruth Valerio); and
“Models of Agricultural Production – how to feed the world sustainably” (Christopher Jones).
“What the Bible says about Food”
Rev Dr Mike Rayner (Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, and British Heart Foundation), took us on an extended tour of the Bible looking at all aspects of the Bible and food. He even tried out some food on the conference attendees! There was a an American “cheese” which came out of a can, and bore little likeness to real cheese. And then a marvellous cake that Mike had baked specially for the conference- much better than the “cheese”.
Mike asked us to see food in a new light. We often take food for granted, but the Bible can help us see food in a new way. We need to change the way we act and how we eat and produce food.
Why is food important? It is essential for life, and is a pleasure. Sharing and eating food cements relationships. The invention of cooking distinguishes us from other animals. Cultures are defined by cuisines as well as languages. Religions have feasts and special foods, and for Christians food is important in the Eucharist. There are many ethical decisions to be made on food, particularly on the way it is produced and traded. Christians need to be humble on food ethics. Food is also the cause of crises. Food price increases are triggered by the global economic situation. We have a billion hungry people while many are obese.
Food is found in the Bible in the first and last chapters (Gen.1 v29 and Rev. 22 v2).Many references are symbolic (e.g. Adam and Eve). The Eucharist is also symbolic and it matters that bread and wine are used. In the early part of Genesis we see human behaviour as it should be. Mike translated Adam to mean “compost”! His job was stewardship, not to exploit but to conserve creation. Initially the primary task was gathering of plant based foods. Farming became essential after the expulsion from Eden. Then we had the murder of Abel by Cain, and Cain the farmer builds the first city.
Justice is a major theme of the Bible, and many stories relate to food and injustice to the poor (e.g. Amos). Injustice is linked to environmental catastrophe, and this is still the case; global warming hurts the poor more. Respect for animals was an important aspect, and the Jewish food laws are deserving of study. Most apply to meat. Are we omnivores? Mike does not advocate vegetarianism but cutting down on meat and eating it more reverently. He believes that we should eat meat but less of it to help save the planet. The eating of food is necessary and is a pleasure. In John‟s gospel two of the seven miracles concern food. God is the ultimate source of food, and this should lead to gratitude. In the wilderness Israel was taught not to be greedy over food. Food can and should be enjoyable. Jesus was accused of being drunkard and glutton. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus produced better wine and lots of it.
Food cannot be enjoyed out of its moral context, and Mike produced two types of food for participants to eat to illustrate this. Easy Cheese comes in a can. It cannot be bought in the UK but in the US. Its relationship to real cheese is doubtful, and it represents the reduction of food to its chemicals. This is nutritionally bad and not in the Bible! Mike also made a fruitcake for us as a gift, to the same recipe as he cooked for the baptisms of his daughters. It was delicious. There are five references to cake in the Bible. Comparing the two foods Mike said we should pay more attention to food taste and where it comes from. As we did at Redcliffe, food is to be shared. The Eucharist is about physical food, and is an act of remembrance. At its heart there is real food, reminding us of the incarnation. Ideally we should use real bread and from nearby, not from far away and mechanised.
The Earth’s problems are all interrelated. We have thought that whatever we do to the Earth it will supply us, but this is not the case. We need to look for justice for the poor, correcting imbalances in food availability and stopping unfair trading practices.
“How will farmers, herders and fisherfolk do it?”
Patrick Mulvaney (Chair of UK Food Group) is an optimist. He looked at the problems of world agriculture, and whether we would be able to feed the predicted 9 billion people by the middle of the century in a time of climate change and resource depletion. Patrick thinks we can by using a more ecological approach to farming.
He felt that agriculture was characterized by a number of disconnects, both in the developed and developing world. He sees disconnects between agriculture and the environment; between consumers and farmers or land and cities; and between policies and expectations. Patrick considered the question, “Who feeds us?” Most food is local not global. Most food is produced by farmers. The norm is local food production, and our system is the aberration.
His next question was, “How many species had we eaten in the last week?” He said there were five big species (wheat, maize, palm oil, rice, soya) sold in supermarkets, so we concentrated on just a few species. But some eat 50 species or so in a week, and about 7-10 thousand plant species are eaten by people. Of these, however, very few dominate food systems. We have all our eggs in few baskets, and we need different varieties for different environments. Unfortunately breeds are being lost, biodiversity is being decreased and the future is bleak.
World agriculture has to be seen in the context of a number of factors: agricultural biodiversity; soils; water; climate change; agricultural development aid; and human population.
Patrick expanded a little on some of these factors. Trade in virtual water is vast and tends to be from poorer drier places to richer humid places. Climate change could cause an increase of 3oC or more in the tropics this century. The contribution of agriculture to climate change is large: the food system 15-18%; land transformation 15-18%; and 10% from transport and other factors. The total contribution from agriculture alone is 30-50%. On human population the irony is that as population increases less are involved in agriculture. By 2050 we should reach 9 billion or so. Since 1985 the rate of increase is getting less. In the past 40 years we have fed the increased population, and we should be able to feed the next 40 years of increase.
To solve the above problems Patrick believes that we need better managed and more biodiverse agricultural systems. These are capable of a 30-100% yield increase. To illustrate this Patrick introduced us to three problems and their solutions:
1) In East African maize crops stemborer moths and the weed Striga, which weakens the roots, are important pests. The problem can be overcome by intercropping Desmodium between the maize rows. This releases chemicals that put off moths and controls Striga.
2) Drought in the Caribbean had led to successive harvest failures. By using rainwater harvesting technology, and drought tolerant varieties rapid results were achieved. In one year there was an engaged community, carbon in the soil was managed, and poverty alleviated.
3) In the UK, Professor Martin Woolf has shown the benefits of multi-cropping of varieties include increased productivity.
We need to aim at a low carbon, biodiverse, resilient ecological food provision, which can feed 9 billion people. It can be done.
Most government emphasis is on monoculture because it pays the rent. Power pushes us towards unsustainability. Now 67% of seed production is controlled by just 10 companies. Patrick then outlined moves towards food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007). Patrick felt that food security was really how to control people through food.
The European Food Declaration was about to be launched, and this seeks to redress some of these problems. There is a sense of urgency as we need to rewrite the economic, political and social rules. We need to rewrite the rules to prevent the multinational companies from taking over. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) suggested 22 ways of moving towards more agriecological systems. However, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has failed to implement any of the IAASTD recommendations after 4 years.
Patrick ended by quoting Colin Tudge “Agriculture is NOT a business like any otherit beats the drum of biology.” The PowerPoint slides for Patrick‟s presentation are available.
Ruth Valerio is author of “L is for Lifestyle” and leads A Rocha UK‟s “Living Lightly” programme. She began by explaining to us her virtues ethics. She believes that these are important in under-girding our decisions on the sort of food we eat. Once she had established her ethical basis then she went on the consider the practical outworking of the ethics in what we should buy and what we should eat.
Ruth said there were many issues concerning food including: ownership; diet and health; animal welfare; high energy input; pesticides; climate change; agrifuels; waste; genetically modified organisms; and the IMF and economics.
But what is the right way to live? Ruth introduced us to seven key virtues:
1) Humility in every area of our lives. We do not have all the answers, and are finite. Technology may provide some answers, but not all. The opposite is pride.
2) Frugality is the opposite of our present culture, “because I‟m worth it”. Ruth cited as an example asparagus in winter. Do we really need this? We should recognise the Earth‟s limits. The opposite of frugality is wastefulness and greed.
3) Generosity. We can think everything is negative. Food is enjoyable. We should celebrating the good things that God has given us, and always be thankful.
4) Justice is right at the core of the Biblical message. For humans and all inhabitants of this world. We need knowledge, and to become intelligent informed consumers. Is it fair??
5) Courage. Much goes against the flow of our culture and involves having the courage to re-write rules. Do you have to be a “Hippy”?
6) Hope and Patience. We need to make decisions reflecting the future. Patience is needed to keep going in the face of cynicism and despair. Ethical food is not a fad.
7) Love undergirds everything. We should be selfless and ask God to break us up. “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” (Aldo Leopold)
Having set the ethical framework Ruth then asked what are the right practical things to do? She felt we should reconnect with the food we eat, re-skill, and increase knowledge. We should eat food that is as unprocessed as possible, and support local food businesses by moving away from supermarkets. We should buy food from non-intensive schemes such as organic, those Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), free range, and when buying from abroad buy Fair Trade or Waitrose Foundation. Organisations such as the Soil Association and Food Matters need our support. Finally, Ruth was clear that we need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy that we consume. Quite a large reduction needed twice a week at most.
￼The picture shows (left to right): Mike Rayner, Ruth Valerio, Margot Hodson (Chair), Patrick Mulvany and Andy Kingston-Smith (Redcliffe College).
The original brochure for the conference.