Vinoth Ramachandra

Food for Thought

Posted on: February 25, 2013

Joseph Ratzinger, who steps down this week as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II. But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope”, making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels of Vatican rooftops (a project which won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize) and committing the Vatican to having 20 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practises the Church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them. In an interview with a German journalist, before he became Pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”

In his first sermon as Pope he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”

The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the Church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. But, in practise, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee/chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”). I’m often reminded of my Muslim neighbours who fast scrupulously during the day during Ramadan, only to feast sumptuously through the night.

If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then instead of giving up (say) coffee for forty days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then perhaps to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.

Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues. Simply pausing to ask ourselves “Who makes the food on our table, and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here are just a sample:

1. Cruelty to animals. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the Pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society. Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the Church participate in such structural sin by our silence.

2. Intensive fishing and farming practices. The use of massive trawler nets in the north sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean. South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast; the reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.

3. Waste. According to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year. They blame this on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, “buy-one-get-one-free” and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices” and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.

4. Climate Change. Poor communities around the world suffer increasingly from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations. Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks, and dwindling arable land.

5. Trade Injustice. Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether. While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of GM foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto. An unfair global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.

The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:

‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not hide from your own kin?                (Isaiah 58: 6,7)

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11 Responses to "Food for Thought"

Reblogged this on and commented:
Some food for thought from Vinoth Ramachandra. Let’s continue to think critically about what we consume and how we live – Vinoth refers to some of the ‘answers’ from agribusiness – the topic of GM foods, and its ethical and theological implications will be considered at this Saturday’s Environment Day conference, starting at 9:30am at Redcliffe College, Gloucester. Here is a link to the programme; http://www.redcliffe.org/Events/vw/1/ItemID/99.
Do come and join us if you can – it will be a Saturday well-spent, if it leads us to engage more thoughtfully with some of the justice issues Vinoth discusses, and more importantly corrects our skewed thinking around the purpose of Lent too.

Thanks Mr Ramachandra, for indeed new ‘food for thought’. I wondered where I could find more information about
“Seventy-five percent of the world’s food production is owned by just three corporations.”
Kind regards,
Rianne

Rianne, thanks for your question. Since I can’t find where I read this, I have deleted it from the original post. However, for the dominance of a handful of firms in global grain production and trade, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/02/abcd-food-giants-dominate-trade

[...] Ramachandra does it again. In Food for Thought he points up several matters of real significance, and suggests if “Lent” is to be a [...]

Until 1860s, the majority of the church was silent on slavery
Until 1910s, the majority church was silent on the denial of women to vote
Until 1940s, majority of the church was silent on the refusal of women to high studies even at Oxford and Cambridge

Now the majority of the church is so silent on the exploitation of the earth and its minerals and green resources by the greedy capitalist investments

Being silent is one sure way to lose its right to be heard

Depends on which church you are looking at- which country and which denomination. Also how do we gauge what the “majority” think before the advent of modern communications and representative democracies? The WCC, representing a large body of Protestants, was very vocal about environmental issues and global capitalism long before Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

The issue of consolidation in both food inputs (seed, fertilizer) and outputs (food production and distribution) should be of concern to all of us. Small scale farmers in every country are under intense pressure from global corporations – and a smaller and smaller share of each food dollar goes to the people who do the hard work of growing the food, while those few corporations reap the profits.

Another aspect of the food discussion is speculation on commodities, which enables global banks to make billions on the prospect of famine. There were strict limits on commodity speculation until the 1990s – and the issue is under discussion in the EU, UK, and US. A good starting place for information on this is http://stopgamblingonhunger.com/.

Thanks for the link. Interesting! Also the report of Oxfam.

Thanks for this “food for thought”. I was asked a couple of years ago to assist one of the evil “gourmet coffee” companies in some consumer research. I used the opportunity (knowing that having been chosen a statistical sample my voice would be amplified) to tell them that it was indecent of them to charge such a premium for their coffee and not ensure an ethical sourcing of their coffee. I notice that they have now responded and have are seeking to certify all their coffee. I am not sure if this is just marketing or if things on the ground is any different.

However if a “gourmet” coffee company has maybe the luxury of high margins to be able to pay more for its produce and show more care for its farmers, the problem in the rest of the food chain is no doubt greater, as everything is geared to finding the lowest price whatever the consequences. And we (the consumers) like sheep rush to those sweet deals that the supermarkets throw at us, not thinking that the reason price has suddenly dropped is because someone has found some kind of shortcut to cut costs, usually at the mercy of the producers.

Paying more is not a guarantee of anything, but as long as we always seek the cheapest at all cost we are no doubt perpetuating the inequalities in this world.

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