I walk out of the late summer heat and into the artificial chill of the air-conditioned grocery store. Although the seasons have changed dramatically in my neighborhood over the past several weeks, the shelves of shining vegetables arranged into stage-lit piles look virtually unchanged. Is there drought in California? Have there been floods in the Philippines? Is the changing climate changing the altitude at which apples can be grown in certain regions? The constancy of selection here betrays no hint of the goings-on in the original places on which these shelves depend. I read that the city would run out of food in just a few days if the supply chains stopped, but there is no sign of that precarious web of dependency here. And most of the store isn’t occupied by raw produce anyway—the majority of its aisles are filled with processed foods that require little or no preparation at all. They come out of bags and cans and plastic packets ready to eat, and their ingredient lists include unpronounceable items that lend preternatural colour or sweetness or longevity to the contents. Welcome to the modern oddity of food as a consumer experience.
For millennia, food has been woven into the fabric of every society on earth as an important marker of cultural identity and belonging, a means of building and maintaining relationships, and a way for communities to grieve, celebrate, and worship together. In many parts of the world, gathering, growing, and preparing food makes up a significant portion of daily life: people are intimately involved in the process of bringing it to the table. For most of us in Western cultures however, food has increasingly become a commodity or a consumer experience. We want it cheap, we want variety, and we don’t want to have to do the dishes. Fast food and pre-made meal services abound; we are disconnected from the places our food comes from, detached from the people who grow and prepare it, and ignorant about most of its journey to our plates.When convenience is the highest good, we’re minimizing the time that we spend preparing and eating food, but it’s unclear what we’re saving time in order to do.
Consumer culture has trained us to be passive recipients in almost every area of our lives; to measure cost only in financial terms, and to see money as the only factor limiting our access to virtually infinite abundance and variety. This narrow perspective threatens our very survival by rendering invisible our interdependent relationships with the people and places our food comes from, the limitations of our environment, and the true costs of our consumption.
Consumerism also has a profound impact on our spiritual lives. Christians are called to steward creation and embody the love of God for our fellow human beings. Approaching food merely as a commodity hinders our ability to live out our mission in the world by keeping us ignorant and alienated from the people and places we are called to love and care for.
Convenience at a Cost
As a small-scale farmer, Andy Smith spends a lot of time thinking about these issues (full disclosure: Andy is my husband). His position on the front lines of food production and land stewardship gives him a unique perspective on the industrial food system and the consumer culture that simultaneously supports and is perpetuated by that system.
Andy’s passion for agriculture was sparked during the years he spent doing community development in India, where he first recognized the link between vulnerable human communities and the ecosystems on which they depend. He says that most of his neighbors in the slums had originally come from rural places, but largely due to the effects of climate change and unsustainable farming practices, people were increasingly being forced out of the villages and into densely populated squatter communities where the environment was totally degraded due to overcrowding and pollution.
Although our current culture around food and the system that produces it may save time and money in the short-term, Andy points out that convenience actually comes at a high cost in other ways. When convenience is the highest good, we’re minimizing the time that we spend preparing and eating food, but it’s unclear what we’re saving time in order to do. Instead of spending our leisure hours learning, meaningfully resting, or engaging in relationships with friends and family, we often rush through the most essential parts of life in order to move into more mindless distraction and busyness.
Consumerism tricks us into believing the value of our lives can be measured in terms of productivity and money, and that happiness is something we can achieve through buying the right products and experiences. Ironically, this search for fulfillment through material goods makes us less content by shaping our desires around a constant quest for novelty, variety, never-ending accumulation, and constant entertainment. In our insatiable quest to consume, we are made lonelier and less fulfilled because our busyness distracts us from relationships with others, our own inner life, and experience of God. These individual impacts have ripple effects in the wider world, impacting the people and places that are linked to the production of our food.
“Most of human history has been growing or hunting or procuring food, and now we spend very, very little of our time on interacting with the production of our food–even the eating of our food,” Andy says. “When you spend a lot of time in preparing or procuring, then you care about what it is you’re using and where that stuff came from.” But less time and involvement in bringing food to the table, he explains, leads to less emotional and financial investment in the quality or the origins of our food. “Why is convenience the highest good? What is it that we’re saving time to do?”
There has been a cultural shift away from a holistic view of meals as an enjoyable, social experience toward a reductionist view of “food as fuel,” he observes. “It’s like, ‘I just need to get x number of calories,’ so you’re not thinking about, where did this food come from? How am I consuming it? Whom am I consuming it with? What’s the quality of this food?”
Andy cautions that with so much distance between consumers and producers, “it’s very hard to know who or what has been harmed in the making of our food, or if we will be harmed in the eating of our food.” He insists that knowing where our food comes from is key to ensuring that we’re participating ethically in the global system. “Most of us would never intentionally harm or cheat or disregard another human or animal, but when it’s all behind a curtain, in many ways we do participate in that harm.”
What are the harms of the industrial food system in which we unwittingly participate? “One is total loss of diversity,” Andy says. When vast plots of land are used to grow a single crop, habitats are destroyed because all other species of plants are considered weeds to be eliminated. Monocropping kills off the insects, birds, and mammals that depend on the weeds, the other animals that depend on those species, and so on.
Chemical pollution from herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers is another problem. Over time, weeds develop resistance to herbicides, so the only way for herbicide application to remain effective is for farmers to steadily increase the amounts they use. That chemical buildup in the crops and the soil is toxic for humans, animals, and other plants. On large-scale commercial farms, chemical fertilizers often pollute the local water supply by leaching into nearby rivers and lakes.
But perhaps the most pressing concern is the way that industrial agriculture treats soil as a neutral medium into which nutrients can be injected, and from which plants can be extracted. Over time, these methods of synthetically pumping minerals into the soil and taking them back out degrades the soil by destroying its natural microbial complexity, eventually rendering it useless for agriculture altogether. A recent UN-backed study reports that a third of the soil on earth has already been severely degraded, and we’re continuing to lose fertile soil at an alarming rate.
Globally, it is projected that sixty years from now, farming will no longer be possible if soil degradation continues at the current rate. Andy sees this as an example of the way in which the logic of consumerism leads to short-term thinking that fails to consider any of the impacts of deriving profit that don’t immediately show up in a spreadsheet. As a result, land is viewed only in terms of its productivity or its profit potential. So when soil in one place is degraded to the point of no longer turning a profit, Andy explains, “new land is opened up, and the process repeats itself.” Because the industrial food system is only focused on profit, it doesn’t account for environmental costs. In economic parlance, the depletion of soil is an externalized cost.
But damage to the environment isn’t the only cost that’s excluded from the sticker price of our food. Andy points out that under the current system–one in which agricultural workers are largely excluded from minimum wage legislation, overtime pay, the protections of child labor law, and the right to organize for better working conditions—“You’re outsourcing a lot of the labour costs to really poorly paid labourers. They’re absorbing a lot of the costs of production.”
Drawing on data from the National Institute for Farm Worker Health and the U.S. Department of Labor, Student Action with Farmworkers reports that aside from being underpaid, “farmworkers suffer from the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country.” The substandard housing provided to migrant farmworkers by their employers results in high rates of lead poisoning and respiratory illnesses, and the vast majority of farmworkers not only lack health insurance but also “risk losing their jobs if they miss work” to seek medical attention.
Recognizing the Body of Christ
In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul issues a stern warning concerning the way the community is enacting Jesus’ command to remember his death and resurrection through breaking bread together. At the time, the Corinthian community is apparently characterized by such significant inequality and divisions that even at the communion table, each person “goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Cor. 11:21). According to Paul, this selfish practice by some of indulging in excess while others go hungry is tantamount to “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”–their indifference to the hunger and suffering of others indicates that these believers are eating and drinking “without recognizing the body of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27–29).Reclaiming of the Christian tradition of sharing meals together could also become a means of resisting consumerism by asserting the inherent worth of human beings, the natural world, and relationships between us all, apart from any monetary or productive value.
Unlike the excluded members of the ancient Corinthian community, the people and places who are suffering as we feast are not even seated with us at the same table. The hunger that results from their exploited labour, or from the ways that food production impoverishes their ecosystems and poisons their watersheds in order to feed us, is invisible to us unless we make it our business to know and to care.
Jesus says that the way we treat those who are considered the least in our society is the way we treat him (Matt. 25:40). What does it mean to recognize Christ’s body when we gather for meals in the era of globalized, industrial food?
Community as Christ-Centered Resistance
For most of human history,” Andy says, “it’s been around a table that meaning and relationships and ideas and a sense of belonging and hospitality are all extended.” The same could be said about the life of Jesus and the early church, as recorded in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament: they were continually inviting people into an experience of God’s love and acceptance through shared meals. Hospitality is one of the main ways in which we experience the Kingdom of God and invite others into it. It’s the way that God’s people have always built communities of inclusion, mutuality, and vulnerability. It’s a way to open our homes and our lives to each other, and to God.
As followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century, our reclaiming of the Christian tradition of sharing meals together could also become a means of resisting consumerism by asserting the inherent worth of human beings, the natural world, and relationships between us all, apart from any monetary or productive value. A Christ-centered approach to food would challenge consumerism on three levels.
First, shared meals can help us to address the ways in which consumerism has ordered our priorities, shaped our thinking about what is enjoyable, and isolated us from community. What would it look like to reframe food production, cooking, eating, and even washing dishes as part of the Christian tradition of radical hospitality, rather than as drudgery or a waste of time? This might mean interrupting habits like unwinding with take-out in front of a screen and instead using a home-cooked meal to extend care to a neighbor, or to invite a stranger or acquaintance into deeper conversation. That kind of intentional effort flies in the face of consumer culture’s expectations of low cost and convenience, but as Andy points out, “There’s just a certain amount of work and effort that needs to occur for anything meaningful to happen, whether that’s relationships or healthy food.”
Second, the choices we make about which food to include in these meals can directly challenge consumerism by prioritizing the lives of others over the immediate payoffs of convenience, variety, or low prices. “In the absence of a direct relationship with farmers, it’s important to buy organic and fair trade,” Andy says. But he believes an even better way to foster healthy community around food is to get to know local farmers—visit your local farmers’ market, ask farmers about their methods and their workers, and buy from farms that promote environmental and human wellbeing. To connect more directly with farmworkers and support them in their struggle for fair wages and safe working conditions, consider donating or becoming involved with an organization like the Domestic Fair Trade Association.
The roots of consumerism run deep—both in our culture and in our own hearts and minds. It is a paradigm which shapes our lives so profoundly we are often unable to even discern its influence. Yet by drawing on the fertile soil of two thousand years of Christian tradition, we can increasingly learn to recognize the fruit of consumerism, uproot it from our lives, and plant the life-giving seeds of the Kingdom of God in its place, creating a culture in which all of creation might thrive.