It all started with the apple.
Adam and Eve were given one rule: Don’t eat the apple.
They had a simple choice to make: To eat or not to eat.
And then Satan complicated things with pride, envy, selfishness and the temptation of being like a god.
They messed up.
They ate the apple.
And now when I want to eat an apple, it’s not a simple choice anymore because the world is no longer a Garden of Eden. My mind is bombarded by questions:
- Organic or conventional?
- How much am I going to have to spend for this apple?
- Will the farmer get a fair portion of that price?
- U-pick sprayed 30 minutes away or triple the price for organic from another country?
- How far did the apple travel to get to me?
- What impact did the packaging have on the environment?
- Will washing help get the pesticides off?
- How did the growing impact the environment?
- Are there minerals and vitamins in sufficient amounts in the apple anyway?
- What about GMOs? Are they coming to apples?
- What was the condition of the workers who grew the apple?
- And how many do I buy? Eat? What’s my fair share for the world?
In Adam and Eve’s case, choosing the apple was clearly far more about morality than eating, more about obedience than sustenance.
But what about us?
When we lift a forkful of food to our mouths, when we place produce in our grocery bags, when we sauté spicy morsels to feed our family…are those moral acts, or just meeting basic needs?
Does food have anything to do with faith?
The Bible Told me to Do It
As a believer in God, the Bible is certainly one place I look for answers, especially to potentially moral issues.
So does the Bible say anything about what we should eat and why, from a moral perspective?
Although there are some “take and eat,” and “thou shalt not eat” sections in the Good Book, that’s not really what I’m talking about.
I mean are there ethical considerations or moral principles at hand whenever we pick up our forks, whether it’s to cut into a pork roast, spear an organic tomato, and everything in between?
If we look at food as something from the earth (which so far, it still is), then we need to explore man’s relationship with the earth to answer part of that question.
The creation accounts in Genesis “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” (Laudato Si, 66) All three have been broken by sin.
The first sin disrupted the harmony of the three because man presumed “to take the place of God and refus[ed] to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to ’till it and keep it’ (Gen 2:15).” (ibid)
Dominion vs. Domination
Dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28) was both a gift from God to man and a great responsibility entrusted to him.
God instructed this dominion to have certain qualities:
- Tilling – cultivating, plowing or working
- Keeping – caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving
Modern man has perverted this call to co-direct the earth with God in the same way Adam and Eve did in the first place: Trying to BE God instead of working beside Him.
Rather than care for the creation, we try to control it. This isn’t the way things should go.
Pope Francis is clear: “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (ibid, 67)
We were given dominion, yes, and “each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” (ibid)
Domination implies ownership, mastery, and use without concern for the future.
Dominion is fitting with the dignity of human beings, that we would consider the overall impact of each of our actions on society as a whole, both in the current generation and ages to come.
In that case, our call from God is to see the interconnectivity of everything in the environment – that when we fill our plates, we see not only the physicality of the food, but the story it tells:
- The farmer who grew it
- The soil in which it was cultivated
- The distance it traveled to reach us (and the fossil fuels used to do so)
- The packaging it came in and where that packaging ends up hundreds of years from now
- The chemicals used from seed to plant
- Whether the seeds themselves are genetically modified or not
Just because God gave humankind every seed-bearing plant and fruit from trees for food (Gen. 1:29) and later to Noah, “Every moving thing that lives” as food (Gen. 9:3) doesn’t mean that we should exploit the earth for the purpose of filling our bellies.
Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew in Laudato Si, 8:
“For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
Why am I referring to the Holy Father’s latest encyclical so much? After spending a few hours reading (and skimming) Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home, I’m convinced it is the document from which to draw when discussing this issue. Any pope who writes an encyclical to be added to the social teaching of the Church and uses the word “agrotoxins” and chastises the “throwaway culture” is one I look toward for wisdom.
Eating Food is Like an Onion
It has layers.
Many, complicated layers.
And it might be enough to make you tear up sometimes too.
I just said in my New Food Rules for Kids earlier this week that I didn’t want to moralize food for my kids – good and bad – but once you’re an adult and can see beyond the black and white of good and evil and into the extensive grey areas, food becomes mired in so many moral issues, we can’t escape it.
Here are just a few of the genuine issues intimately connected to our 3-a-day (or 5-a-day?) eating habits:
- Global warming
- Soil demineralization
- Pollution of air and earth
- Over consumption of resources
- Human rights issues
- Genetic Modification
I’d love to hear what you think about those layers. Do you consider any or all of them when you choose what to eat? Let’s explore more…
Does our Food Overheat the Earth? (the Global Issue)
When man discovered fire, it opened up a new world of culinary advancements.
Are we now overheating the earth, literally, by our food habits?
Global warming is impacted, we think, by many human actions, including deforestation for agricultural purposes and fossil fuel usage – both of which have myriad other consequences to the earth as well.
When the average American meal has traveled over 1500 miles from farm to plate (source), the amount of fuel both used (non-renewable resource) and emitted into the atmosphere (pollution, global warming impact) is a serious consideration when lifting that fork.
Fossil fuels are also used in plastic packaging, a problem compounded by our disposable society and further impacted by our over-consumption. Most Americans do not really seem to care if we throw away food (and plastic).
Many government regulations for food service and charities, along with the tendency to make too much for fear of running out, causing untold pounds of perfectly good food to be completely wasted at the end of each day.
Pope Francis is infinitely clear on the fact that our use of the earth is not only a moral act, but a sinful one in the current landscape:
This sister [the earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.
The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. –Laudato Si, 2
To Till and Keep or to Ravage and Destroy? (the Soil Issue)
While our most maltreated poor groans in travail from the soil, our children are starting to join the chorus as they are sickened by the very food that should sustain and nourish them.
Lydia Shatney wrote about the general ill health of our children recently, and in a surprising turn, she blamed not overeating, junk food or obesity, but the poor nutrient content of the soil (among other things). Over the last century or so, the nation’s farmlands have been demineralized by a number of ecological impacts, including not rotating crops, over farming (not giving the soil a rest – like the Bible says!), and the use of chemical fertilizers.
Even when we are eating wholesome fruits and vegetables, we aren’t getting the nutrients people did in the past eating the same foods.
And we vote with our dollar, and thereby with our stomachs.
The food we choose to buy directs the food that is grown and the way in which its grown.
So even if we aren’t farmers ourselves, we are still responsible in that interconnected way for the health of the earth – literally. And in that interconnectivity of the earth, that soil – and what farmers put on it – is responsible for our health.
Our fertilizers are causing a toxic algae bloom where the Mississippi runs into the Gulf of Mexico, impacting both human and aquatic life as well as economics (sources: 1, 2, 3); Roundup (glyphosate), the most widely-used herbicide in the world, is likely carcinogenic (source); and what scares me the most is what we don’t yet understand about how the chemicals used in fields may impact our health.
Why God Allows us to Eat Meat (the Animal Issue)
The documentary Forks Over Knives swept a good portion of the nation, and although its impact wasn’t enough to actually decrease the supply/demand balance for meat, many Americans explored vegetarianism after seeing how animals are treated and the impact animal farming can have on the environment.
The fact remains that God gave humankind animals to eat in Genesis, and we can only get Vitamin B12 – a necessary nutrient – from animal products. Many vegans and some vegetarians end up B12 deficient (source).
So what’s the balance when it comes to animal products in particular as a moral issue?
Conventional animal farming may negatively impact the environment more than plant farming because of the miles the food for the animals travels, the immense amount of waste that must be managed in a concentrated area, and the fact that many pounds of crops must be raised for one pound of animal meat (and the chemicals involved in that agri-system multiply as well of course).
Traditional animal farming is a bit different though – grazing animals require no fossil fuels to ship their corn, no chemicals to grow it, and their waste is returned to the earth as its own fertilizer. There still may be more impact on the earth to eat a pound of grassfed, organic beef or chicken than lettuce, but how the animals you’re eating have been raised is a definite consideration when eating morally.
So is what part of the animal you eat.
Let’s imagine for a moment the vast plains of the American landscape as white settlers were traversing westward. The Native Americans hunt buffalo, and when they make a kill, what do they get from the animal?
Clothing and shelter from the hides, tools and weapons from the bones along with nourishing soups, meat for the winter from the muscles, organs eaten immediately for vitality.
Every part of the animal was utilized, and the Creator was thanked.
As we all know, the path of the white settlers was quite different, and the over-hunting and wasteful use of the great beasts has rendered them far less prolific.
Our modern society is so disconnected from its food sources that people don’t even consider what part of the animal they’re eating and whether they’re stewarding the environment by using the whole thing. Our penchant for only boneless, skinless chicken breasts, ground beef and steaks – the parts that are easy to cook and easy on the palate – makes us very similar to the ravaging white settlers killing off the bison of the Great Plains.
Perhaps it is a moral act to eat liver. To use the heart in your ground beef. To ensure that your family is getting adequatefrom the hooves, skin and cartilage of the beast. When is the last time you thought about how you used the skin of an animal?
Make broth from the bones. Vital Proteins will extract easy-to-use gelatin from the hides and help you use the whole thing (use code VPKS10 for 10% off). And visit my freezer, where I have quite a few packages of liver that I’m terrible at using. But I know I should!
What I Eat Might Hurt You (the Human Issue)
Bethany’s excellent post a few weeks ago, “Why I’m Tempted to Ditch the Organic Foods Movement,” included a very thought-provoking exploration of the morality of food, including Bethany’s realization that her purchases and her consumption affects people, real human beings, in an immediate and economic way around the world.
She included points about human rights in other countries, child labor, and fair wages. The comments are equally fascinating, with quite a few chiming in to further grey up the grey areas. They discuss the value of children working to sustain their families, if that’s the only choice there is. The fact that not all child labor is a bad thing. That some work is better than no work at all for the very poor. And even that buying local food doesn’t ensure you are not contributing to poor labor conditions. They’re worth a read.
Laudato Si also has more to say about the interconnectivity of eating and social justice, the call of God to humans to care for the entire world, both human and environmental landscapes.
Saint John Paul II said:
“God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. (1991 Encyclical letter: Centesiumus Annus) These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. (1988 Encyclical Letter: Sollicitudo Rei Socialis)
“It is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. (Homily at Mass for Farmers, 1980) “This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.” (Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace)
That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”. (paragraph 95)
I am humbled by this:
The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Laudato Si, 105
Is our technology going faster than our earth can keep up? Are we valuing progress at the expense of social justice and Christian values?
Each bite is an opportunity to reflect…
When a Dinner Date Becomes Torture (the Hospitality Issue)
Our family tries our best to eat wholesome, nourishing foods – which means we eat radically differently that most other families around us. It also means food preparation takes a LOT of our time and energy in the household.
I’m saddened that sometimes, food can be a hindrance to hospitality, which is another mandate from Scripture. We should be hospitable and open our homes to people, and we should be gracious guests when we visit others.
I find that dinner and party invites can be a source of stress, wondering whether we should just stay home because the food won’t be healthy for my family. I’ve also felt like I didn’t want to host company from time to time because of both the time and money expense of the food we choose to eat.
I know the Lord wants us to be in community, and I’m saddened that trying to eat morally can cause tension in this area. We live in a fallen world, though, and there’s no perfect answer! I’d love to hear about your struggles and solutions to the hospitality/real food issue.
The Holy Father on Genetic Modification of Crops
I was pushing through the Laudato Si document to find sections specifically on food and farming, when around page 100, I found a few paragraphs focusing on genetic modification in particular.
I was entranced.
Here’s a quick rundown (any emphasis is mine):
- Saint John Paul II wrote, “Scientific and technological progress [is] evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action.”
- But he cautioned, “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas.”
- The Church does value molecular biology, genetics, and its application in agriculture.
- But John Paul also said, “This should not lead to ‘indiscriminate genetic manipulation’ which ignores the negative effects of such interventions.”
- And, “Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order ‘to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God.'”
- The current Holy Father, Pope Francis, comes back with this zinger: “It is difficult to make a general judgment about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application.”
- He goes on to compare genetic modification to domesticated animals and crossbreeding species, as well as noting that GM advancements began with observing natural bacteria that spontaneously modified plant genomes, but pointed out that it is a slow process in nature.
- Paragraph 134 begins: “Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals [meaning grains, I assume] may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.” Including:
- Economic/social justice: Land falling into the hands of a powerful few and exploiting small producers and running them out of business.
- Environmental/ecological: GM crops destroy the “complex network of ecosystems, [and] diminish the diversity of production.”
- Ethical/economical: The dependence of farmers to buy seed from producers because of infertile GM seeds.
I’ve been conflicted over the years about genetically modified foods, to be honest. Some people are so fiery about them, that they’re the ultimate evil and to be avoided at all costs, while others of course think that GM foods are the answer to world hunger. Morality abounds with this topic.
Personally, I have always felt that we can’t be playing God…so it’s a bit shocking to me that two popes are saying that genetic modification may be just another way human creativity is manifested (but with cautions, thank goodness).
The difficulties Pope Francis elucidates in paragraph 134 are significant, and the ethics of genome manipulation and interspecies merging aside, there may be enough moral tangle to catch GM foods in the web of “no” anyway.
Because so much is unknown and there are so many difficult questions surrounding GMOs, I prefer to avoid them whenever I can, but I’m not militant about it.
Being militant about certain foods is in itself a tangled question.
But What if Eating the Perfect Food Becomes Your Idol?
All of these questions can very much become consuming of time, energy, thought, and stress.
The hospitality issue begins to touch on the dark side of eating morally – not that we might eat incorrectly and in so doing contribute to the devastation of the environment, but that we might eat too correctly and err in idolism.
We might make food more important that our prayer time. Spend more money than we have and hurt our family or leave the Church short. Mistreat others because they don’t eat the way we do. Feel superior because of our food.
Or simply hurt ourselves, ironically damaging the temple of our body by stress, when all we’re trying to do is respect our body and the gift of the earth.
Nothing is simple in this fallen world, and food has become one of the most complicated and painful matters that I contemplate.
I received this comment not too long ago from a reader with an interesting and important perspective:
We’re missionaries overseas. Most of what is “hot” right now in the USA is unavailable to much of the rest of the world. So many people living in the USA take for granted that they can get so many foods that are healthy for you (coconut this or unrefined that, grass fed, non GMO, etc).
We, on the other hand, have live (and have lived) in places where people are just thankful for something to fill their (and their children’s) bellies for a few days.
What can I say?
I think all this focus on the right, natural, non-GMO, Paleo, no grain, food is just another idol we Christians (especially in America) worship in our lives. It’s true. Families who will not eat certain foods…what if they were invited to someone’s else’s home for prepackaged whatever for dinner? Would they be grateful? Would they live out the WORD and thank God for the food and, more importantly, the fellowship?
It is all a very unfortunate thing and many bloggers and foodies thrive on the foods that are “hot.” It is a prosperous business, isn’t it? Why can’t we regain perspective? I mean, God’s perspective? Thank you for your patience.
It’s certainly something I’ve thought of, many times. My response:
What we also must keep in mind is that some of this stuff we’re actually fighting against – like GMOs and mistreating the land by demineralizing the soil with chemicals – is that really how God intended us to steward our resources?
He gives quite a few “agricultural” lessons in the Old Testament, like allowing the fields to go fallow every 7 years, for example. That was to keep the soil and the people healthy. In the countries you’re serving (God bless your sacrifice!), you likely don’t have GMOs or chemical pesticides available either, so you have far less to worry about with the quality of your food.
And the surprising reply:
Katie, you are correct. We must be good stewards – of resources, time, family, and what we’ve been entrusted with. In every country where we’ve lived, big developed nations (such as the USA) are taking advantage of the poor income (among other things) to exploit the land, farmers, do research, and grow their crops (at much lower costs than in the USA).
And yes, our produce and grains are sprayed and affected by GMOs as well. And there are NO regulations, no parameters, no limits. We see the rapidly declining health of those among whom we minister. It is scary.
It is maddening, really. We are certainly responsible for how we feed our families, how we care for our health, and how we manage our lives. I totally agree…but my point, rather, is to put things in their right perspective.
It’s a complicated problem everywhere.
The Pope’s Solution – Conversion
Matters of morality – which I believe food unequivocally IS – require the person of Jesus Christ to lead us in the right direction.
The Holy Father agrees, speaking of those with little concern for the environment and their role in stewardship:
What they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (Laudato Si, 217)
How this looks practically:
Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.
A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle.
Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.
All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity. (211)
I’m so proud that the mission of Kitchen Stewardship has ALWAYS been to teach people how to practically care for the environment and their bodies, as good stewards of God’s gifts of creation.
So we flip to the positive – yes, making food choices can be ethical or unethical, can even lead one to sin. BUT doing small acts of service for the environment can also be an act of love, a gift from us to God, a prayer from our hearts to Heaven.
Pope Francis also has recommendations for macro level change:
Political activity on the local level could also be directed to modifying consumption, developing an economy of waste disposal and recycling, protecting certain species and planning a diversified agriculture and the rotation of crops. Agriculture in poorer regions can be improved through investment in rural infrastructures, a better organization of local or national markets, systems of irrigation, and the development of techniques of sustainable agriculture. (180)
And his practical solution to the harm of conventional agriculture:
There is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing small holders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. (129)
I hope and pray that more people in positions of power will both acknowledge the state of our earth as a crisis and offer practical solutions – which they are also willing to put into action.
Let us pray for our nation’s leadership, the decisions they make that affect the global society and environment, and for our own little homes and families, that we may take as many baby steps as we can to eating morally, to living out our faith in each purchasing decision, to remaining cognizant of the impact of our day-to-day lives on others around the world.
Let us be examples for our children by keeping the earth our grandchildren will inherit in mind with every action.
Let us eat mindfully, but not obstinately – choosing our food with our interconnectivity with the earth and its people in mind but also balancing our own mental health and the communities in which we live and play.
Let us make global change by changing our own homes, one good decision at a time.
Is Eating a Moral Act?
After this, I would say yes, most definitely, it is.
Is it a black and white issue of good and evil?
Not since the Garden of Eden, to which we all yearn to return.
Other KS posts on food and faith
- Just Food…because it’s not just food…you know?
- Trust in the Promise of your Meal Blessing
- Soul First, Body Second
- How to Pray Constantly (in the Kitchen)
- More than Calories…Slow Meals to Feed your Family’s Soul
- Sharing Food When You’re a Real Foodie
- Does Being Too Strict on Food Take the Joy out of Family Life?
- The Ultimate Traditional Real Food
If you’d like a few more choice nuggets from Laudato Si, here are some that didn’t make it in the post but are excellent nonetheless:
We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. Benedict XVI has said that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency”. (193)
Here, I would like to offer Christians a few suggestions for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living. More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity”. (216)
One expression of this attitude [of being at peace with oneself and being able to be completely present in the moment to everyone and everything; to be grateful] is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need. (227)