Eating God's Way

Ethical eating is easier and more important than ever.

In an episode of the comedy Portlandia, a man and woman
grill their server about the chicken they intend to order. She tells
them the chicken (whose name is Colin) was raised locally, fed a diet of
"sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts" and he roamed free on four acres of
land (though she can't speak to whether Colin "palled around" with his
chicken buddies). The server then hands over the chicken's "papers"—a
form complete with his information and an attached photo.

 The segment reveals real questions. With documentaries such as Food, Inc., King Corn, The Future of Food and Fresh
fueling the fire, a new way of thinking about food is emerging: some
call it agrarianism. Agrarians, standing in opposition to the industrial
method of working the earth (chemicals, corporations and combines),
position themselves as caretakers of the soil who think not only about
capital gains but about manure, earthworms, grass, dirt, sustainability
and the future.

Why Now?

In the 1930s, the plains from northern Texas into Kansas and
Colorado became the "Dust Bowl.” This ecological phenomenon brought dust
storms of apocalyptic proportions and was caused by a misunderstanding
of the soil and an abuse of the land. Government incentives to settle
and farm the region, combined with neglectful farming practices and new
technologies, left the landscape scorched, dry and virtually
uninhabitable. The fear is that again, in our time, government policies
and subsidies, combined with heedless technophilia and industrial
business models, have depleted the soil and reduced agriculture to Dust
Bowl-styled dollar signs.

Joel Salatin, the farmer from Virginia made famous by the documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh,
speaks of the conflict between industrialism and nature. "New virulent
diseases, soil loss, immune dysfunction, high energy costs,
pathogenicity and compromised nutrients all indicate the failure of the
mechanical view toward life,” he says. ''As that view tries rescue
through irradiation, cloning, transgenic modification and more toxic
chemistry, creation rebels in the form of yet greater maladies: MRSA, C.
diff, type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia and others. ... The
industrial/mechanical view toward life is simply running out of
answers.” Gene Logsdon, another farmer and writer on Christian
agrarianism, published a book about tending the soil not with machines
but with manure. The title? Holy S---. In it, he writes: "Human
society is moving ... toward ever increasing consolidation. That is
supposed to be our glory, but I fear it is also our doom.” Nothing as
markedly catastrophic as the Dust Bowl has happened yet. But events just
as weighty could be on the horizon. "Nature always bats last,” Salatin
says, "and nature is coming to the plate.”

Ignorance and Indifference

Few 21st-century children grow up on a family farm a phenomenon of the last 50 years. In The Essential Agrarian Reader,
Wendell Berry writes, "In 2002 we [had] less than half the number of
farmers in the United States that we had in 1977.” As that trend
continues, ages of practical, earthy farm wisdom are disappearing as
generations from the first half of the 20th century pass away.

Additionally, many Americans remain uninterested about the origins of
the food they consume and the methods used to raise it. Farmers'
markets, documentaries and even some large grocery stores such as Whole
Foods have begun bridging the gap between growers and eaters, but
according to Salatin, they are just scratching the surface. “We must
always consider the unseen world,” he says. "Each double handful of
healthy soil contains more living creatures than there are people on the
face of the earth. From actinomycetes to earthworms, centipedes to
azotobacter bacteria, the soil is the most vibrant relational community
on earth. Everything we are, everything we see, is completely and
utterly dependent on this unseen world.

“That the average [Christian] family sits in their pew, memorizes the
catechism, recites Bible verses, partakes of the sacraments and never
even contemplates the profound implications of their utter dependence on
this unseen, unsung, unappreciated community exemplifies a
schizophrenic duality that God abhors.”

Christian = Agrarian 

Agrarianism is more than just a whim or personal preference. It is
the posture of honest humility—the very same posture to which Christians
are called. Must Christians be agrarians, then? The answer from the
Christian agrarian community is a resounding "yes.” The Bible exhorts
its readers to embrace humility, and according to Sutterfield, humility
connects us with the earth, reminding us of our place in it. "Job is a
story about God saying: 'I'm God. There is a whole creation and world
completely independent of human beings, and it's important to me,"
Sutterfield says. "The eagles God cares for, the places in the desert He
waters that no one will ever see—Job actually finds comfort in the fact
that he is not as important as he thought he was.”

God named the first human "Adam," from the Hebrew word for "dirt.”
Yet, made in the image of God, and made from dirt-divinely muddy-mankind
ought to take both of these together, tending his origins with divine
care: cultivating the earth in godliness. "The closer we partake of the
living world,” Salatin says, "whether it's raising a baby calf or
growing tomatoes, the more aware we are of the mystery and majesty of
creation. That pushes us toward humility and greater appreciation of an
all-powerful divinity.”

Some might wonder if there aren't bigger issues at hand; does God
really care about how we use the earth? Salatin believes not only does
God care, but non-Christians are also taking notice of our treatment of
the planet. "He who says the trees of the forest shall clap their hands,
that the lilies of the field are more beautiful than Solomon in all his
glory and that the sparrows are numbered surely is interested in
whether the earthworms are happy. And whether pigs are happy. As Brother
[David] Andrews says, eating then becomes a moral act. That is why the
non-Christian community views Christians with contempt, charging
hypocrisy, when it sees Christians stop off for Happy Meals on the way
to a Right-to-Life rally. That is just as hard to reconcile as a
tree-hugger or save-the-baby-whaler who promotes abortion.”

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As agrarianism grows stronger roots into the hearts of earth-deprived
Americans, ministries, co-ops, networks and community gardens are
springing up like rows of non-GMO, chemical-free heirloom corn . Then
there are those who hear the call of the wild, choosing to leave the
urban jungle behind in favor of greener, broader spaces. Each type needs
the other, and as the agrarian spirit takes hold, Christians are
recognizing the Gospel is not just about saving souls but about
receiving Christ's life into an embodied soul, and hoping and working
for the redemption of all things.

Want to learn more about eating ethically? This article was excerpted from one that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of RELEVANT magazine.




Anonymous commented…

If I could rewrite the article, I'd take out the word "combines." Many people misinterpreted what I meant, which means I didn't write it well. I'm not necessarily opposed to using machinery - I'm opposed to certain attitudes toward the earth which those machines have helped to continue (namely industrial-sized agribusiness). Im from farmers on both sides of my family, but, as with many families - my parents generation largely left the farm for the suburbs. I have since returned to the farm (in fact, the farm my grandfather started, in central Missouri). I dont grow crops, but we have begun accumulating a variety of livestock, and my eventual goal is to grow small plots of non-GMO grain for them.
Id love to move away from petroleum-powered equipment, but that will take time. Hopefully someday, Ill be able to. I have Amish acquaintances that seem to do okay without combines and tractors.
My issue is with the two models of agriculture and economics that were proposed by two of our founding fathers: namely Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton wanted a nation based around industry and cities. Jefferson wanted a nation based around small towns which were based around the small farm. Hamilton won; policy went his way, and I think weve been the worse for it. Combines and other large-scale farming machinery are simply a result of that paradigm. Had Jefferson won, perhaps wed be singing the praises of the efficiency and sustainability of horse-plowed fields and heirloom seeds.
Also, I know you know I did more than Google this topic for fifteen minutes. Clearly, I interviewed multiple farmers who are pioneering this movement toward soil sustainability, and a woman who has brought this mindset into an urban charity. Just because you lived on a farm doesnt mean your viewpoint is flawless. Look at the Dust Bowl - those guys lived on farms, and ruined the earth by their practices. We must be ever-watchful of our attitude toward the soil. Im not saying youre not; but Im saying no one is automatically immune from harboring distorted views about the landscape.


Anonymous commented…

Well, you bring up some interesting points - some of them are good.
First, I raise meat chickens using chicken tractors - large, covered pens that one man can drag to a new patch of turf daily, allowing the birds fresh grass and some space to roam, and fertilizing the soil with their manure, but keeping them in a fairly small area overall. Joel Salatin uses this same method, on a large scale, and it works quite well.
Youre right - there may not be enough room in China to raise one cow per person and to give each cow as much land as 500 people get. But nobodys doing that. Nobody wants to do that. And in the end, we may realize that we simply over-consume beef, and that we should eat more chicken and fish and vegetables. A novel idea.
Finally, lots of people make statements about how were running out of room! This is simply untrue. It would be even more untrue if we began using the land wisely. If people would garden and raise their own chickens, think about the ethanol that would be saved from being burned in gas tanks. So thats less corn that needs to be grown. So more land for other things. What if people simply stopped consuming so much high fructose corn syrup? Corn prices would fall, and other crops could be grown that are much more nutritious.
And so on.overall.


Anonymous commented…

I simply disagree with you. I think small farms are more efficient and sustainable than big farms. But the debate about why that is true would take more than comment boxes can offer.


Anonymous commented…

On the contrary, I think there is ample evidence that many farmers are employing methods that are profitable in the short term, but are detrimental in the long term. These include the adoption of seed monocultures and the application of chemical fertilizers, among others.


Anonymous commented…

It's simply a myth that the adoption of seed monocultures and GMO seeds, and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are actually helping feed the poor. They are not. But Monsanto wants us to think they are, so they can sell more product.
Feeding the poor means helping them obtain seed that is suited to their local climate, and then helping them grow it on a small scale.

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