A Christian Ethic of Eating: Part 4

This is the fourth installment of a series outlining a Christian ethic of eating. Previous posts have discussed the need for Christians to consider the effects their food choices have on their own bodies and on other people. Today’s post discusses how our eating habits affect the environment.

It’s easy to open a bag of potato chips or a can of green beans without ever really considering the fact that they were actually once plants rooted in a field. This is important to keep in mind because the amount of food consumed by Americans each year is staggering, and the rate will not be slowing in the foreseeable future. This means that food producers are having to use a massive amount of natural resources to meet the demands of this world’s appetites, particularly ours in the West.

Does our faith affect how we use creation to meet our needs and desires? To what extent? As always, we must go to Scripture to find God’s will regarding our interaction with His creation.

The first thing to realize concerning creation is that it has inherent value. “Six times the creation narrative declares that God ‘saw’ that what he had made was ‘good’—prior to the creation of human beings (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25)” (True North, 37). This goodness is not based upon its functionality, meaning that it is not good simply because it is useful. Rather, nature has inherent value because it is a product of the Lord. Paintings from Picasso and Rembrandt are worth a fortune because of their quality and because of their creator. Nature, too, possesses immense value because it is a result of our God’s creative genius. Therefore, any Christian view of the environment must first see value in it just as the Creator of the universe sees it.

Secondly, it is important to see God’s command to mankind regarding the use of nature. The Lord placed man on earth as His vice-regent in order to represent His rule and reign here. In Genesis 1:28 God told Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Later, readers are told that the two humans were placed in the garden to “work it and keep it (Gen. 2:15).” Much has been written concerning humanity’s charge to work and keep the land. Mike Bullmore explains the idea behind this imperative: “He [Man] is, in other words, to exercise his dominion over the garden by managing it so as to preserve it, to enable it continually to achieve those purposes God has for it. Thus his dominion is one of service, serving—cultivating and protecting—the creation and thereby serving the creation’s owner.” Notice the focus here: man serves God by caring for His creation.

This has major implications for the way one answers two great concerns for today’s environmentalists: pollution and sustainability.

Not many would consider the environmental impact of animals’ waste. The reality is that millions of animals are raised each year to be slaughtered, and their bodily waste can cause serious problems for nature. Peter Singer gives an example from the summer of 1995 in North Carolina when a waste pond burst, “releasing 25 million gallons of pig excrement into the New River, killing thousands of fish and polluting the river for miles downstream.” This is not even to mention the massive amounts of carbon that is released into the atmosphere from these farms and their transportation from farm to slaughterhouse to supermarket. One report explains, “The practices of modern agriculture in the country include widespread use of pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilizer and resulting [in] ground water pollution, together with the loss of topsoil caused by cultivating practices.” Christians must, therefore, consider how their dietary decisions might be producing harmful pollution.

Likewise, sustainability has been a significant point of debate when it comes to food production and the earth’s natural resources. A great number of environmentalists argue that modern farming practices, particularly corporate farms, are running at a rate that the earth cannot sustain. The effect is that the soil is rapidly degrading, which could spell disaster as the global demand for food only rises. There’s a temptation—particularly for my politically conservative brothers and sisters—to scoff at these claims, thinking they are just some political propaganda. Regardless if you agree with these views or not, it is certainly worth pondering how our food choices and the businesses we patronize are impacting the earth, which God has entrusted to the care and protection of mankind.

The Bible speaks to the need for humans to give rest to the land for its health. This is seen in God’s institution of the Sabbath year in the Old Testament (Ex. 23:10–11; Lev. 25:1–7). Regarding this, John Frame writes in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, “God is concerned, not only with people, animals, and plants, but with land. As Adam was to guard and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15), so Israel is to give rest to the land, so that it can continue to bear plants for food.” Even for non-farmers, Christians must ensure that their food is being produced in a manner that is good for the long-term health of the land. We need to see how our food is being produced and whether its production methods align with the care of our Creator. For, followers of Christ are not exploiters of the land, but faithful stewards. We are those who do not support policies and practices that use and abuse the land as a mere means to an end—the end being the filling of our stomach.

In light of these concerns and the teaching of God’s word, how might Christians eat in such a way that is healthy for the environment? Like the last post, I’ll give a few tips to get your mind going.

First, grow a personal garden. This, more than simply grabbing a package of vegetables at the market, will serve as a constant reminder that mankind is dependent upon the earth for food.

It is clearly not feasible for every person to grow a garden. For instance, my family lives in an apartment complex, so we are not able to grow a garden. Therefore, another option for those who cannot is to buy from producers who are environmentally-minded in their practices, those who clearly are concerned with the health of the land.

Third, be intentional about eating local, seasonal produce. Many people do not realize that vegetables and fruits are only meant to be grown in certain times of the year. To meet the year-round appetites of consumers, producers are forced to use a great deal of natural resources to grow and ship these fruits and vegetables from around the globe. Eating local, seasonal produce will lessen some of the resources expended to satisfy one’s appetite.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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