A Christian Ethic of Eating: Part 3

This is the third installment of a series giving the framework for a Christian ethic of eating. Today we will look at how a Christian’s love for neighbor affects our eating habits. Feel free to go back and check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

The first stud in our ethical eating framework asks the question, “How does this food affect my body?” Our second consideration moves from ourselves to our brothers and sisters around us. You see, an important aspect of being an ethically-minded eater is pondering how your decisions might impact others.

In previous centuries, a family’s food choices were limited due to slower transportation, inadequate means of prolonged preservation, and lack of an international food market. The current age, though, is one of a global food market, which offers a seemingly infinite selection of foods during all seasons of the year and is primarily run by large corporations rather than small family farms. For example, the fruit and vegetables you encounter while strolling down the produce aisle of a local grocery store are more likely to have been grown in another country than the farm that is only miles from your store. Thus, ethical eating in the current generation means being mindful of brothers and sisters around the globe. One might ask, “How does the purchase of food in a grocery store affect farmers thousands of miles away?” The answer is this: The decision to buy a certain product at a specific price sends a signal to the corporation, telling them how much they can pay the farmer for the products and still make a profit. In turn, this will determine how much the farmer must grow in order to make enough profit to feed himself and his family.

Likewise, our use of natural resources now may impact the ability of future generations to use that same resource. How much, if any, should this be a concern for Christian consumers? As with all areas of the Christian life, it is best to see how the Scriptures address these issues. While the Bible may not specifically speak of a global food market, it does give insight into how one ought to treat others, which we can then apply to an ethics of eating.

The place to begin considering how to treat others when it comes to our appetites is Leviticus 19:18. The second half of the verse says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” This is a summation of verses 9–18, in which God tells His people how they are to act towards others. Therefore, loving one’s neighbor as yourself takes the form of, among other things, leaving some of the harvest for the needy (v. 9), not oppressing others (v. 13), and not showing partiality (v. 15). Thus, the command to love one’s neighbor does not mean we should have some warm, fuzzy feeling towards them, but, rather, that we should seek the just treatment and well-being of others.

But who is my neighbor? In Luke 10, Jesus explains through the parable of the good Samaritan that neighborly love is not restricted by ethnicity or socio-economic factors. This love is to be shown to all.

Seeking the just treatment and well-being of others is particularly important in the food industry because it is rife with injustice. An example of this is seen in the fact that many Kenyan coffee farms sell their beans to massive corporations for about nine cents a pound, while the same beans are sold in a store for around nine dollars (Walking Gently on the Earth, 72). Unjust wages are not limited to foreign soil though. Numerous multi-national food corporations, particularly in the meat industry, take advantage of their employees by placing them in terrible working conditions and paying them a bare minimum.

In response to the injustices that are present within the food industry, many consumers are turning to the fair trade movement as a remedy. For those who aren’t familiar with the movement, let me explain. Fair trade products, such as coffee, are bought at a price higher than the normal market price. According to its proponents, this higher price is the fair wage that producers deserve to be paid because the farmers, particularly ones in less developed economies, are limited in their access to the global market. Therefore, they are often at the mercy of the large corporations, who buy the products for a very low price. Supporters of the fair trade movement view this as the best way to love their neighbors around the globe—hence, the “fair trade” label.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

The fair trade movement is not without its critics though. Jay Richards says this movement may actually be counterproductive in its efforts to provide farmers an acceptable wage. Using the coffee industry as his example, he writes, “Paying artificially high prices for some coffee encourages poor farmers to enter or stay in the coffee market when it’s against their long-term interest to do so” (Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, 41).

Just to break it down for those who’ve forgotten your economics class from high school: Critics of the fair trade movement say that farmers see other farmers receiving the higher fair trade prices, thus, encouraging them to continue farming. This, in turn, causes the coffee bean supply to grow, which causes the coffee bean price to fall (Supply and demand). Therefore, critics agree that there are products being bought at a price that cannot sustain all of the farmers. They disagree, though, on the best path forward. While fair trade proponents believe consumers should simply pay more to the producers, critics say, “A reduction of supply is…the most obvious way out of the slump” (Brink Lindsey, Grounds for Complaint? Understanding the “Coffee Crisis”).

I agree that the fair trade movement is not perfect, but the critiques leveled against it ignore the fact that many farmers in less developed countries don’t have access to a vast number of buyers. Rather, they are limited to a handful of large corporations who can dictate the prices of the various products. It’s not as though the farmers can jump on the coffee bean equivalent of Ebay to sell their crops. They are stuck with those who come to their local and regional markets.

It is clear that there are no simple answers when it comes to the fair trade movement. Many consumers are rightly disturbed by the number of producers around the globe who are not receiving fair wages. On the other hand, this movement must deal with some significant economical questions. Overall, though, I am in favor of supporting fair trade products. Therefore, it might be best to say that the fair trade movement is a good first step in loving one’s neighbor, but it is far from a long-term solution.

Before we move on from the topic of fair trade, let me address one objection that will certainly come to mind: Fair trade products are much more expensive than others. I get what you’re saying. I really do. I’m a seminary student working a couple of part-time jobs, trying to help support my wife and son, and my wife is a public school elementary teacher. Obviously, our checking account balance won’t blow your mind. But here’s how I think through this particular problem: Somebody has to pay the cost—the real cost of production. Either I can pay a few more bucks at the check-out line or I can push the costs off on the farmer and make him deal with the problem. You may disagree with my reasoning, but it’s at least something all of us should consider. Turning a blind eye is not a valid option.

To conclude, it may be helpful to provide a couple of practical suggestions for those looking to love their neighbor with their food choices.

  • First, Christians can do research to see which grocery stores and corporations treat farmers and their employees in an ethical manner. In the internet age, it isn’t difficult to find information regarding these issues. It just takes a little time. One place to get you started is here.
  • Second, start small. It can be overwhelming and virtually impossible to know the details of every single food item that one buys, so it may be wise to start with two or three items that one can regularly buy from a trusted source. For example, I try to always buy coffee that is fair trade. (If possible, I buy coffee from Counter Culture because I know they have fair business practices, and their coffee is excellent.) Implementing these two simple practices will put one on the path to an ethical appetite.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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