[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 6 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Soul Food.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Shortly after graduating from college, I began all my own grocery shopping and meal preparation. This task was tougher than I expected. In addition to developing menus and strategizing for the least expensive food purchases, I discovered my concept of healthy eating, to eat more from the ground and less from boxes, was woefully behind the times. The labels in the food aisles (and the magazines in the check-out aisle) placed me in the middle of a cultural information debate about agriculture, food sourcing, and biotechnology. It seemed there was a lot at stake in my decision between “organic” or “conventional” grapes, as well as a lot to fear if I made the wrong choice.
With buzzwords like “Big Ag,” “Locavore,” “Organic, “Engineered,” “GMO,” and “Farm-to-Table,” these food wars present dizzying rhetoric. Deciding what food to buy is complicated by the fact that most of us are not sure we know what makes a food “organic,” “natural,” “conventional,” “local,” or anything else anyway. When ABC’s late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked Farmers Market shoppers what a GMO was, the answers were astoundingly ignorant. While we can only laugh at the uncertain answers given without knowing what interviews the clip excluded, I bet most shoppers anywhere have a similar (lack) of understanding: GMO… Um, General? Manufactured? Something? They didn’t know what they were avoiding and couldn’t explain why it was supposed to be bad. They weren’t decrying GMOs as a known danger from their understanding, but an unknown enemy out of their fear.Whether the natural food movement appeals to our pride or our innate God-given desire to be nourished by beauty, we can be much like Eve, who believed a lie when the Serpent appealed to her anxious not-knowing.
In a way, I can’t blame them. When we look this stuff up online, the social media results offer a lot of confusion and guilt without a lot of information. The scientific community as a whole is overwhelmingly supportive of biotechnology and GMO crops, but the pushback from groups promoting natural foods has levels of near-religious fervor. Type any question into a search engine, and you’ll quickly find a website giving you the answer you want. Is organic food healthier? Do pesticides cause cancer? Are genetically-engineered foods safe? There are plenty of people saying yes, plenty of people saying no, and lots of us questioning what to buy at the store because of it. Those who aren’t “eating clean” or “going organic” often feel guilty about it. Who hasn’t heard about food sourcing and wondered how to choose the best food? What shopper hasn’t felt pressured to pay more for a product that is marketed to seem healthier? Without knowing much about science or agriculture, most people are going into this food war blind.
Left to my own devices, I would probably be just as clueless about food production as anyone else. My personal track record with agriculture is limited to houseplants, and the results are pretty abysmal. I devoted myself to the Music and Religion departments in college, passing my Liberal Arts core 100-level biology course with a solid 81%. Though I was romantically involved with a Bio major who offered to help, my questions about homework morphed to philosophical discussions about science and theology. Fascinating, yes, but unproductive in quizzes and lab reports. What was bad for my GPA was good for my love life—I married that Bio major right after graduation. Ten years and five addresses later, we’ve traded study sessions for Netflix marathons and late-night fast-food runs for late-night diaper changes, but we do still talk a lot about biology.
I used to leave the food wars at the grocery store; now they shadow me constantly. If I can’t scope out a new friend’s stance on all things organic ahead of time, telling someone my husband engineers GMO crops feels like stepping on a minefield. While it makes some social situations challenging, having a scientist around to decode these confusing narratives about farming and food has shown me that plenty of misunderstandings (and maybe a little fear-mongering) create a false dichotomy in these food wars. When you pit traditional approaches to food production against the beneficial advances of science and technology, no one wins.
The natural food movement has cornered the health-conscious market with claims that the healthiest food is local, fresh, and organic. Technically “organic” just means “carbon-based,” but at the grocery store or Farmers Market, an organic label means the farm and processing plant participated in a special certification program from the USDA. There are many benefits to farming according to this program, like the ecological sustainability of crop rotation. There are also lots of misconceptions about organic food. Most people think “organic” means pesticide-free, but the USDA-Organic program allows for unlimited amounts of specific chemical pest or herbicide treatments (for example, organic farmers can apply BT-botulinim toxin, but not glyphosate). Obtaining the official label is expensive and time consuming, so many small farms managed with nearly identical styles choose not to pursue certification. The benefits of organic farming reach much further than the presence of the USDA’s sticker.
On the progressive side of agriculture, modern biotechnology—including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) since 1996—is also an integral part of American farming. The technology that creates genetic modifications is complicated and always improving, but it’s the fancy way of doing what farmers have been doing since the dawn of time: observing what characteristics are most beneficial in their crops and figuring out how to multiply those traits in the next generation of plants. Today the resulting GMO crops are modified so they can withstand drought, or specific pesticides, or produce more uniform fruit for easier harvesting in the field. While social media paints this stuff as being a creepy cocktail of life and technology (perhaps a little bit Darth Vader-ish), the resulting produce is nutritionally similar (or superior) to traditionally developed crops. Molecular biologists tout ecological benefits for insect and plant populations in and around farm fields; use of safer, more effective herbicides in smaller doses; and increased nutritional content that genetic engineering offers over some of the older techniques and chemical applications used within the USDA’s Organic label.
The scientist-in-residence keeps looking over my shoulder and says I should talk about things like the difference between cisgenic and transgenic crops, about Crispr-Cas9 genome editing technology, and about how 2,000 studies over the past 10 years demonstrate genetic modification to be as “safe” or “safer” than traditional crop breeding.
I’m not going to go there. I’m already intimidated by the data floating around the previous paragraphs. I can’t usually wrap my brain around the simple explanations my husband offers: Molecular, cellular, genome something-or-other… it all sounds the same. I couldn’t explain the difference between DNA and RNA if my life depended on it. And this is exactly why the conversations about food production are so challenging. The details of biotechnology are really inaccessible unless you have taken advanced courses and remained current in the field. I’m smart and thoughtful, but my 10-year-old B- in Bio102 does not give me anything to go on here. I barely know what questions to ask. Honestly, I prefer reading colorful infographics and funny memes to scientific journal abstracts.
While my brain was not wired specifically for the finer technicalities of organic chemistry or cellular biology, it is wired for truth. Is ignoring the scientists in favor of relatable personalities just taking the easy way out? It might be. Christianity centers around the God who revealed Himself as Truth, who is incapable of lying, and we glorify Him when we diligently pursue truth in all avenues, even if the result humbles us. Conversely, we dishonor God by commending something that is misleading or slanderous. It’s easy to find a meme or infographic about farming or biotechnology or some agricultural company that resonates with what we want to believe, but without checking the reliability of the sources, a “like” or “share” could actually be promoting a lie or bearing false witness. If messages from social media mean we who have not known hunger are more concerned with theories about the way our food might hurt us than the way it can fuel us to serve God and bless others, it’s time to reevaluate how our faith informs our food choices.
Dutch priest Henri Nouwen says only a rare person can face difficulty and “tolerate not-knowing” in silence. The particular anxiety of not-knowing is real, and most of the hype about food sourcing reflects this. Lacking literacy about the ways different crops grow, or the molecular structures of plants, or even (let’s be honest) remembering what DNA stands for or what it does? That makes most of us vulnerable to whatever message resonates with us, even if it’s not actually true.
Many of these messages come from relatable Internet personalities. Blogging superstar Vani Hari’s national bestseller The Food Babe Way persuades fans (over a million on Facebook) that her own Internet sleuthing is superior to the expertise of scientists around the world. You shouldn’t ever eat any chemicals or food with ingredients a 3rd-grader can’t pronounce, she says. We don’t realize she is appealing to our basest, deadliest pride. She flatters readers, crediting them with expertise about science and farming that they probably do not deserve, and dismisses their knowledge gaps as insignificant. Isn’t that what we all really want, to be told whatever we feel has been right all along and that our deficiencies are irrelevant? Her advice is madness: Many pre-schoolers can recite anything they’ve heard a few times. I also know a lot of 8-year-olds who would decide they only knew how to pronounce “ice cream” and “cinnamon rolls” if they knew the power Hari’s criteria offers over their menus. And absolutely everything is a chemical, so anyone who gives up eating them will starve to death in short order.
A headier read than Food Babe would be Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or it’s inspiration, the collective writings of Kentucky farmer and local-agriculture advocate Wendell Berry. This is tender ground for me; I love Wendell Berry. I sobbed my way to joy reading his novel Jayber Crow after one of my miscarriages. His poem “A Child Unborn/ the coming year” graces the first page of my daughter’s baby book. Even when I am in full sympathy with the scientific evidence for most of the advances of biotechnology, my soul stirs during his essays about gardening and self-sustainability and ecological responsibility. The pastoral, agrarian vision he promotes throughout his work speaks to something deep in me because he aptly articulates the telos, the existential purpose, of mankind: to work and safeguard the earth until God renews it perfectly. His work is wise, in many ways, and breathtaking, but the way he pits technology against conservational ecology does not adequately accommodate the current brokenness of both the earth and mankind.
My family does eat quite a bit of local food. We usually have carefully packaged venison in the freezer, we save our food scraps for composting, and we grow vegetables even when it’s inconvenient. (There was also a brief Backyard Chicken episode that we hope to repeat.) But eating only from local, organic sources as Berry advocates would require many people to abandon their current work in order to farm and would unintentionally destabilize a lot of other parts of our lives and the broader economy. Do you remember the last time you got skinnier, couldn’t buy your kids new clothes for school, and lost your home and business because it didn’t rain much? Me neither.
The fear of not-knowing must be why well-fed Americans worry about our groceries so much. Affluent culture at large is pretty concerned about maintaining their “natural” diets, but so are Christians at all income levels. And even though we’d all profess adherence to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 6, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,” I’ve watched concerns about “unnatural” food hold other believers back from hospitality and fellowship at church potlucks or dinners with friends. I know people who fill their refrigerators with expensive organic-labeled food while barely paying their monthly bills, let alone giving to churches or missions. I watch Christians use social media to carelessly (and falsely) link genetic engineering or pesticides to ADHD, autism, cancer, and the apocalypse, in more extreme cases. Others use it to slander biotech companies for making money, even though organic food also fuels a booming industry—ag giant Monsanto and organic giant Whole Foods report similar annual sales numbers. Those are troubling, but when brothers and sisters in the faith can’t speak kindly after hearing that my Christian husband develops GMO crops, it starts to feel like they value their ideals about food more than our shared confession of the gospel. Perhaps, like me, they find scientific journals confusing. Maybe they do think chemicals are dangerous or hold concerns about eating food with DNA. (Everything edible is made up of DNA, by the way.) Perhaps they do not realize how rude it is to decry the evils of “unnatural GMO frankenfoods” to my face. But more than any of that, I think at the heart of these conversations they don’t understand that the siren call of “natural” eating isn’t about healthy food or traditional farming—it’s really about heaven.
And what’s really missing in all this? We should be reading the Bible more closely than any best-seller or scientific journal. In the beginning, we read that God created the earth and all that grows, and that He gave all but one plant to Adam and Eve for food. When God explains the details of the Fall in Genesis 3, He says all the ground is cursed, and that it will require man’s sweat to bring enough food out of the thorns and thistles.
Christian theology indicates this desire for natural living and natural eating is essential, in the actual Latinate sense of the word. Esse means “to be,” and the natural, agrarian vision of food production is so appealing because it is part of our being. We were created to work a garden full of food, producing enough for us and all creatures that have breath (Genesis 1:29–30). We are hardwired with desperate longing for that Eden, which will meet fulfillment in heaven, when we “plant vineyards and eat their fruit,” and “long enjoy the work of [our] hands” (Isaiah 65:21–22).
When the Bible explicitly states all of nature is under the curse of death, we should expect that nature itself will be broken, failing, and insufficient. Getting enough food out of the ground now requires toil and sweat in a way that is beyond what it (or we) were first created for. Still, God has seen fit to sustain mankind according to His promise and to imprint Imago Dei in nearly 8 billion hungry souls on this planet today. Perhaps, given the brokenness of nature, the advances of science are not a threat to our relentless yearning for perfection. Perhaps, along with the ecological good that responsible farming upholds, they play a part in God’s ongoing common grace in the world, foreshadowing the ultimate redemption of the eternal Eden.
Whether the natural food movement appeals to our pride or our innate God-given desire to be nourished by beauty, we can be much like Eve, who believed a lie when the Serpent appealed to her anxious not-knowing. Confusing and misleading messages about food production often exacerbate this fear in us. But the remedy is not always fervent Google searches. We can search for truth to the glory of the all-knowing God. It is this omniscient Creator that put His image in researchers, farmers, and consumers alike, who “supplies seed to the sower” (2 Corinthians 9:10) and makes “plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth” (Psalm 104:14).
Biotechnology and modern “Big Agriculture” hardly plays the savior for all the brokenness evident in farming and agriculture and our groceries, but they are not the serpent causing it, either. In considering the weight of the fall on nature itself, Christianity brings us the freedom to purchase whichever foods we find appealing and affordable. It also compels us to temper speculation about the finer details of crop production in favor of advocating for those who are actually hungry. But mostly, it equips us to eat more like Jesus, who notably defied the laws of nature to feed people he created and loved, with a heart of thankfulness and generosity. “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19).
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