The role of Christians in promoting sustainable food and agriculture

By Ellen Teague
June 28, 2010

Is the Christian community so focused on other-worldly realities that its sees engagement with the earthly realities of food and agriculture as the domain of food agencies and supermarkets? The resounding answer is ‘No’. The National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN), a liaison body of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, is taking up the issue this summer when its annual conference in Derbyshire 16-18 July takes the theme: Our Daily Bread – Food Security, People and Planet.

Justice and Peace activists, particularly those who grow food and live as simply as possible, point out that the industrialisation of our food supply has meant that current production is extremely oil intensive. As oil production wanes this puts us in a vulnerable position. If our current system remains unchanged, we face acute food shortages in the near future, and that’s without taking into account the crop failures we’re getting now as a result of climate change. Half the population of Niger, for example, is facing hunger because of a lethal combination of drought, failed harvests, dying livestock and weak disaster-response mechanisms. It is precisely why in 2008, when oil prices tripled in a matter of months, people rioted in Haiti and other countries over rising food prices.

The natural world, the source of our food and water, is straining to cope with the demands being made of it by human society, and many life systems - such as fisheries - are under severe stress. Internationally renowned Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva will speak at the conference. She runs a small farm on the foothills of the Himalayas, and will urge that more support is given to the millions of small farmers who nurture biodiversity and provide local food sustainably. Catholic priest Shay Cullen will report on the fairtrade work of his Preda Foundation in the Philippines, which supplies dried mangoes to British supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsburys, providing livelihoods for smallholders and indigenous peoples. Quaker and leading Scottish theologian, Alastair McIntosh, will address the need to re-establish our sacred relationship with food and consider more sustainable lifestyles.

Elizabeth Dowler, a director of the Food Ethics Council and member of the Iona Community, will highlight initiatives to make the food system in Britain fairer and healthier. Only a small fraction of the food consumed in UK travels less than 30 miles, and there has been a massive shift to prepared and processed food in recent decades. But while people like labour saving and tasty food easily available, they also clearly want to move away from factory farms, excessive food packaging and waste. In January, the UK government launched its food strategy, Food 2030. There were some excellent signals in the report, such as a push for more land to be made available for communities to grow food, and training thousands more teachers and students in how to grow their own in the ‘Growing Schools’ programme. However, it has also recommended a move towards accepting genetically modified (GM) crops to promote food security. Scientist Mae-Wan Ho, author of Genetic Engineering – Dream or Nightmare, will challenge this strategy in a workshop at the conference.

The event will highlight the food growing revolution around the world and Christian involvement. Within churches and church schools involved in the eco-congregation and eco-schools initiatives there is a growing interest in promoting the LOAF principles of Christian Ecology Link of consuming food that is Locally produced, Organically grown, Animal friendly and Fairly traded. The NJPN itself has signed up to the European Food Declaration, calling for a new Common Agricultural Policy which protects the finite resources of soil and water, increases biodiversity and respects animal welfare.

For Christians, it would be hypocritical to share the Eucharist and fail to respond to the suffering of the world’s 845 million hungry people. And we must also examine the fundamentals of our faith, looking honestly at how the anthropocentric focus of much of church activity has blinded us to the welfare of the rest of the living world; and this despite care for creation being a dimension of Catholic Social Teaching. July’s National Justice and Peace Network Conference is a step towards the Christian community addressing today’s food challenges.

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Ellen Teague is a freelance Catholic journalist who works regularly for The Tablet, JUSTICE magazine, Independent Catholic News, Redemptorist Publications and the Messenger of St. Anthony. She is also a member of the Columban Missionary Society Justice and Peace team, and chairs the Environment Working Group of the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales.

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