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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The trouble with food

Picture this: It’s January in Minnesota. You go to the grocery store and buy strawberries. Not frozen, canned or jarred strawberries, but fresh ones — big, luscious fruits that drip with sugary sweetness.

OK, so these strawberries weren’t exactly grown down the street, but come on … what’s a little guilty pleasure for a sun-starved and shivering Midwesterner in the middle of winter? (Full disclosure: I’m from Minnesota and no doubt have eaten strawberries in January.)

The trouble is that the food in our grocery stores has “background.” It has been grown, harvested or slaughtered, processed, packed, shipped, distributed, stocked and shelved by the time we place it in our carts.

And at each step along the way, questions arise about the ethics of our eating. Questions that might complicate our customary ways of relating to food. Questions that also have theological dimensions, but ones most of us haven’t been asking since our food systems have become more technological, globalized and profit-driven. (See Food and Faith by Norman Wirzba; Cambridge University Press, 2011.)

The strawberries, for instance: chances are good that those midwinter delights were grown in Ventura County, Calif., where that industry grosses around $600 million dollars per year.

To grow strawberries “conventionally” — that is to say, industrially — requires regular soil fumigation to annihilate pests and weeds. The standard, highly toxic soil fumigant methyl bromide has been used for decades but is phasing out because it degrades the ozone layer. Its hoped-for replacement, methyl iodide, was so controversially toxic that it was pulled from the market.

Other standard pesticides include compounds used as chemical weapons during 20th-century wars (such as chloropicrin) and the “neonicotinoids” that appear to be linked to bee Colony Collapse Disorder (see the documentary The Vanishing of the Bees).

Even when growers are careful and conscientious (and most are), pesticide and herbicide exposure remains a risk born largely by low-income (often immigrant) workers, who may live in “food deserts” where the very produce they pick and pack is unavailable to their families.

And from production to distribution, the whole operation is deeply dependent on fossil fuels, adding another layer of ethical complexity amid concerns about climate change.

I’m concerned in part because I live in a strawberry-growing area. Others might be more interested in how corn or cucumbers or chickens are produced. The point is not to single out a particular crop or kind of farmer but to encourage greater awareness of our food systems and practices. Because the “moment of truth” in the grocery store is about more than personal food preferences.

In light of Lutheran theology and ethics, it’s about how we as a community relate to land, to one another and to God, and how we translate our theological ideals into actions.


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