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Food for thought

A story that has been in the news lately concerns the way in which we feed ourselves. It seems an astonishing 30% - 50% of the world food produced is never eaten. That's up to half of what we grow, effectively wasted. The causes vary. In the developing world, it seems the main problem is poor storage and transport methods, so the food spoils before it reaches the consumer. In the developed world, different factors are at play. Partly it is use-by dates that are set too early by companies eager to avoid the tiniest risk of contamination. Partly it is our fussiness as wealthy consumers - we want food to look cosmetically perfect, so anything looking slightly odd - even if perfectly healthy - is thrown away before it's ever put on sale. Whatever the cause, the result is staggering. In a world where right now people are starving, we produce more than enough to feed them, but throw it away.


In the Bible, there are accounts of God sending famine upon his people for sin. We have no particular revelation to say that he is doing it today. The deep irony here is, he doesn't need to - we do it to ourselves.

The situation is reminiscent of Romans 1. Several times in the midst of a long list of sins that people commit - essentially, worshipping what is created rather than worshipping the creator - we see a refrain: God 'turns them over'. In its succinct way, it describes the way in which God grants us freedom to do what we choose. That is, it doesn't talk of God judging sin by sending plague, or famine, or other hardships. Rather, the judgement is to let people do what they want - and suffer the consequences.

There is a parallel with what we observe now. God freely provides us with the resources to feed ourselves - and we waste them. In an act of appalling global incompetence, we let some starve while others are employed to get rid of the waste.

It does seem to be the irony of the human race that we are so incredibly clever, and at the same time so bad at organising ourselves. We can develop new techniques of farming, irrigating and harvesting that massively increase yield. We can look inside the genome itself to create new forms of food, resistant to this or that bug, with amazing new properties. We can develop a global market through fast transport, refrigeration, food preservation. Compare ourselves now to just one hundred years ago, when modern miracles were just starting to make it possible for diners in England to eat lamb from New Zealand. We have totally transformed our capacity to produce food - yet we still starve.

I can remember reading somewhere that as a race, we are good at crises but terrible at the chronic. (Apologies to whomever first wrote that!) It describes us well - brilliant at solving immediate problems but failing to organise ourselves to live well. We can get to the moon but can't get food from field to plate.

One would almost think that the description of the human race in Genesis 1-3 were true. Created with the capacity to rule the world under God, yet fallen; gifted with incredible ability, but stubbornly refusing to use gifts wisely. As a species, we have succeeded in dominating our world better than any other; individuals excel in brilliant discoveries and acts of humanity; and we still can't feed the starving. What  a staggeringly wonderful, sorry lot we are.

As individuals, it can seem hard to know what to do. Of course, we collectively have immense power as consumers, and can make our own efforts to buy wisely, resist useless promotions (supermarket deals such as 'buy one get one free' - encouraging people to take more food than they need, and wasting the extra - have also been mentioned as part of the problem). There are various movements that try to encourage us to be more mindful of how we spend. Of course, this can leave us with difficult choices on a small scale - should I buy the free trade product, or the one with fewer travel miles? But for each of us, in our own small way we can try to use our God-given resources more sensibly and make our own small dint on the mess we have created.

And for the rest? Let us pray for God's mercy - he gives us what we need. How frustrated he must be that we waste it.

Kirsten Birkett is on the staff of Oak Hill College and is a member of the Theological Work Group of the Latimer Trust.

This article was first published in the CEN in January 2013

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