[dropcap3]M[/dropcap3]y environmental science class is in the middle of a unit on modern agriculture. The overarching question guiding our study of soils, fertilizers, pesticides, genetically-modified food crops, biodiversity, and human health and food consumption is, “Can we sustain current industrialized agricultural methods indefinitely; and if we can, should we?” As with most issues in environmental science, this is as much an ethical question as it is a scientific and economic one. It is clear that many people in modern American society are carefully considering the origin of their food. No matter where one shops for groceries, organic products are prominently on display. Local produce is attractively nestled in wooden crates, designed to convince us that its fresh-from-the-farm goodness is really worth the higher price. Entire aisles are dedicated to “all-natural foods” and now, entire stores are as well. Vegetarianism, once confined to people who objected to eating animals, is now on the rise, with many people limiting or eliminating meat in their diets for health reasons (Research and Markets). Popular books and films publicize the environmental (and related human-health) perils resulting from Americans’ consumption of corn-based, highly processed foods. Our language even reflects a changing culture: locavore, defined as “one who eats foods grown locally,” was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.
[blockquote]With respect to buying food, what does is mean to love my neighbor as myself?[/blockquote]
In the midst of this current curiosity about where our food originates, I asked myself the question, “What is biblical?” This led me to investigate the claims of sustainable agriculture in light of scriptural principles. Is there a “right” answer to the food dilemma for a Christian? Am I better fulfilling my role as a steward of God’s creation (Gen. 1:28) when I choose foods raised locally, organically, and sustainably than when I indulge in what Michael Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances” that fill the middle aisles of the grocery store, made inexpensive and accessible by large-scale industrialized food production? Is eating processed food somehow dishonoring to Paul’s reminder that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19-20) or to God’s gracious provision of food for humankind (Gen. 1:29)? How do my choices impact those for whom no choice exists: those in developing countries who have insufficient food of any kind, or those who live in urban food deserts, with only the corner convenience store to supply their grocery needs? With respect to buying food, what does it mean to love my neighbor as myself (Gal. 5:14)? These and other questions should be considered by the biblically minded individual examining sustainable and industrialized agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture is described by its proponents as an “ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, culturally appropriate…and holistic scientific approach” (Madden & Chaplow) to growing food. Sustainable agriculture does not comprise a particular set of farming practices, but encourages food producers to think about the long-term effects of their actions on their own local environments and economies: what is sustainable in a Brazilian rainforest is not the same as what is sustainable on the rolling hills of Nebraska. Industrialized agriculture, on the other hand, envisions the farm as a “factory” with inputs (such as fuel, feed, fertilizer, pesticides) and outputs (corn, cows, chickens, and so forth), and seeks maximum yield at minimum cost by exploiting economies of scale.
As with all complex environmental issues, the tension between industrial agriculture and sustainable agriculture is multi-faceted, and an unequivocal cost/benefit analysis of one in comparison to the other is difficult. Without question, industrial agriculture, assisted by hefty government subsidies, has changed our food landscape in arguably positive ways. Americans today spend a smaller percentage of their paychecks for food than at any other time in history (Cheney & Ellis). Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, highly efficient farm equipment and large-scale farms, genetically modified food crops, and advanced technologies that turn inedible field crops into edible food products are responsible for grocery store shelves that overflow with reasonably-priced abundance. Genetic modification of food crops allows people in some developing countries to eat more nutritious, more plentiful foods, and the developed world alone produces enough food to provide every person on Earth with more than 2,500 calories per day (Horrigan, Lawrence, & Walker).
But the same factors that make such a profusion of food possible also seem to be responsible for many environmental and health-related problems. Depletion of soil nutrients, increased soil acidity and compaction, reduced biodiversity, pesticide accumulation and resistance, reduction of aquifer levels, increased fossil fuel consumption, and fertilizer runoff (resulting “dead zones” in nearby bodies of water) have been documented by such diverse groups as the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Worldwatch Institute. For example, specific studies show that crops absorb only one-third to one-half of the fertilizer that is applied to farmland (Tilman) and that just one-tenth of one percent of applied pesticides reach the intended pests (Pimentel, Griener, & Bashore). Fossil fuel use, a controversial but undeniable component of environmental problems, is also an agricultural issue: each calorie’s worth of processed food consumes an average of seven to ten calories of energy during production, packaging, and transportation (Sustainable Table). In addition to environmental harms, human health concerns such as increased rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer of many kinds, and cardiovascular disease are linked to Western dietary patterns, especially those high in processed foods and meat consumption (Horrigan et al.).
A brief article such as this cannot possibly bring all the relevant arguments to light, and I do not claim that all believers should be convicted about this issue in the same way. But after investigating the environmental and health-related effects resulting from industrial methods of food production, I have come to the conclusion that my sustainable food choices do matter. As I study the agricultural options available, I see sustainable agriculture as a way to care for creation, my neighbor, and myself.
For a full list of Dr. Gossard’s sources, a bibliography on this topic, and an audio recording of her Worldview Conference session, visit www.pbu.edu/worldview.