by Edward Echlin
Christ’s example, especially his shared meals and his Last Supper, shows that eating and drinking glorifies God. Zambian Jesuits defended food’s sacredness recently, at a Vatican conference on genetic modification: ‘there are other and more suitable ways to feed a hungry world than adopting genetic engineering of crops. Food is not merely another economic commodity governed in its production and distribution by the laws of the market. Since it is essential to life, it is both a sacred entity and a global common good.’
For sustainable food, use the Green Christian LOAF Principles:
As God’s representatives, responsible for the flourishing of the whole earth community, we live sustainably locally. We conduct a cosmic liturgy, as ‘the explicit voice of creation’s praise’, in the words of Pope John Paul II. We praise God best, through our food, when we know the growers, the farms, plants, animals, markets, and retailers in our locality. Living sustainably locally, with both wild and cultivated nature, especially in buying, growing, preparing, sharing, and consuming local food, is the best, most holistic way to serve God and neighbour. We’re sometimes told, by big business and their politicians, to permit TNCs (transnational corporations) to tinker with genes, seeds, soil, plants, and animals, in order to ‘feed the world’. We best feed the world, however, by encouraging local use of local food grown everywhere according to local wisdom.
Local food eliminates the climate damage of air and lorry food (and tourism) miles. Local food exposes the two lethal fallacies of current globalisation: 1) that industrial, ‘out of the bag’ agribusiness can continue indefinitely. In fact it cannot; and 2) there will always be abundant food to import, through fossil fuelled air and lorry freight. In fact there will not.
But how in practice do we support, purchase, and eat local food? As a general rule, follow ‘the proximity principle’. Avoid air freight. As an example of import folly, I have seen Egyptian potatoes on sale in Dublin — in the heartland of the spud! Buy potatoes, sprouts, carrots, cabbage, strawberries, apples, pears, and all the vegetables and fruit that thrive here, from our own bio-region. Find local greengrocers, butchers, cheese and fish shops. Some still exist!
Attend your monthly Farmers’ Market, buy food and drink from local growers. Encourage veggie boxes. Even supermarkets now supply some British apples, beef, fowl, and Scottish organic salmon. Read the labels and – follow the proximity principle. During the spring ‘food gap’, when freshness is scarce and expensive, you may have to source from southern Europe – but ‘thus far shall you go and no farther’. We’re proximity principle people.
Finally, and importantly, grow some of your own. Most people can prepare, or borrow, a 3ft by 20ft sunny raised bed, where you can deposit compost, and intensively grow and rotate a surprising amount of supplementary fruit and vegetables.
Transporting one kilo of apples from New Zealand adds one kilo of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. Fruit from local trees emits none, indeed the leaves absorb some. Growing fruit and vegetables teaches children – and their teachers – the restraints and tenderness demanded if human life is to endure much longer on this planet.
Once we get the ‘locally produced’ right, the rest of the LOAF breaks smoothly. Organic growing works with and not against nature, organic growers resonate with the rest of the soil community, supplying humus, leaf mould, other organic residues, and harvested rain to the soil. Organic growers feed, nourish, cultivate, protect, and encourage the soil – for soil is a teeming bio-diverse community, which includes humans, God’s responsible representatives, as large soil organisms.
But again the practical question – how to purchase, and encourage, organic food? If near farms, buy from farm shops, like Westfield Organics, Fadmore, Yorkshire; or Norwood Farms, Norton St Philips, Somerset. If, like most, you’re in megalopolis, try local wholefood shops. Investigate the ‘veggie box’ system in your area. Enjoy boxes of seasonal organic food delivered weekly to a designated agent, such as a health food shop, or directly to your home. Some supermarkets source organic fresh and processed food. Some have received commendations from the Soil Association. Sainsbury’s say they try to source most of its meat and dairy products from the UK, and also pledges to take no extra profit from organic food. The same company pledges to take no extra profit from organic food. When sourcing supermarket organics, follow the proximity principle. Better to buy some British apples than airfreight organics from Australia or Israel. But tell your customer relations representative that you want more British organic apples. And plant some fruit of your own.
Our fellow sensate creatures are so closely related, so interdependent with us, so vulnerable to human actions, that we owe them special care, vigilance, restraint, and attention. Some people who use the LOAF principles are vegetarian. Others, anxious about the calves and chicks, are vegan. Most try to eat local, humanely reared and culled meat and fish, eschewing intensification, lorry transport, and distant, impersonal abattoirs. Abattoirs still need improvement and local re-instatement, even in Britain.
Fish farming requires surveillance. All industrial fishing plunders the seas, destroying whatever gets in the way, scrapes sea-beds, demolishes reefs, and, in brief, destroys marine life and habitats now and for the future. Some fish farms pollute the sea, decimate small fish as food, and contaminate wild fish stocks. Local fish merchants often know the sources and ethics of their suppliers. Some supermarkets sell organically farmed fish.
Following the proximity principle, trying to be organic, and animal friendly, we’re already partly fairly trading. There will always be food that cannot be produced, in quantity, in northwestern Europe, including bananas, citrus fruits, dates, cocoa, olives, pineapples, cranberries, tea, and coffee. Here too the LOAF principles apply. Traidcraft now supplies fairly traded coffee, tea, chocolate, and bananas. Green and Black sell organic, fairly traded chocolate. Avoid the big, white, chemical saturated, monocropped ‘Cavendish’ bananas sold through supermarkets by a few rapacious food giants.
Some developing countries need currency to purchase pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, alternative energy technologies, and laboratory equipment. And we need foods only they can supply. Source, following the proximity principle, only sustainably grown imported food, and with just wages. Processing should be done by the exporting people, and be paid for by importers. There remain differences about how much trade is ‘really necessary’, and how rigorously the proximity principle need be applied. There is agreement that the LOAF principles are right: food should be fairly traded.
Jesus celebrated communal meals often with his followers. There is special praise of God in sharing sustainably produced meals, complementary to the praise of mountains, rivers, fields, and animals. Living sustainably locally symbolises our future when living water flows from the Lamb’s throne, with monthly fruiting trees on each bank, and leaves for the healing of nations.
This article first appeared in Green Christian Issue 54: Spring 2004
Edward P. Echlin is Honorary Research Fellow in Theology, University College of Trinity and All Saints, Leeds; Chair of Catholic Concern for Animals; author of Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre (John Hunt, 1999); ‘The Cosmic Circle, Jesus and Ecology’ (Columba, 2004) and member of the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the Soil Association, and Green Christian.