"The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous ten thousand."
- Food Inc., opening line.
"'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles.'"
- Mark 7.18b-20 (NRSV).Jesus' words were a radical challenge to the Jewish practice of his day, overturning the Old Testament food laws and the traditions that had grown around them. Jesus' redefinition of purity as a matter of the heart and what comes out of it rather than the mouth and what goes into it has left an important mark on our eating habits; we don't think twice about tucking into a crab soup or creamy bacon pasta.
But perhaps sometimes, as a result of this very passage teaching us to see food as a non-issue, Christians can miss the ways in which our hearts may be deceived even as we eat food that Christ declared clean. In particular, there are ways of eating that fail to love our neighbour and fail to adopt a properly human, humane and humble attitude towards the rest of the created order. Our hearts may be defiled, even as we consume delicious feasts.
For anyone who is largely ignorant of contemporary industrial agriculture and its practices, Food Inc. is a good place to start to investigate where our food comes from. It is primarily a US perspective, and some of the details do differ elsewhere in the industrialised world, but not always by a great deal. Most urban dwellers are unaware of the social, ecological, animal and economic realities that get our typical diet into the supermarket. And most are surprised to find just how far we have departed from the stereotypical pictures of rural life still found in children's books and on food packaging. As in all kinds of other ways, the last fifty years or so have been truly revolutionary in this regard. I will not attempt here to summarise the various threads followed by the film, tracing the damage done to workers, animals, soil, waterways, other nations and farmers themselves by contemporary methods of industrial food production, though I was a little surprised to note that there were significant points still left unsaid, even after a string of unpalatable revelations.
But the film is not all ugliness and disgust. Having lifted the lid on the true cost of our cheap food, it moves on to explore two somewhat contradictory approaches to an alternative. On the one hand is an attempt to fight fire with fire, to build an organic and ethical food industry that can compete with factory farming by building a market for organic products in mainstream distributors at a competitive price. On the other is the pursuit of regenerative farming that moves beyond merely being organic to question the broader economic and political structures that govern the whole business. One asks us merely to change our consumption patterns and has faith in the market to deliver the goods that we demand; the other questions the very forces that help to (de)form those demands. The former, more pragmatic, approach is making significant inroads when measured by market share, but does it represent a form of greenwash, a slight improvement that actually serves to dull the necessary critique of a deeply flawed economic and political system? Or is the latter too idealistic and risks missing out on making small but real gains that are actually available for the sake of goals too radical to ever gain widespread acceptance?
This tension is a frequent one in ethical thought, where compromise needn't always be a dirty word, but where the possibility of self-deception via superficial changes is also ever present. This documentary is worth seeing, whether you are blissfully unaware of the origin of your next meal or already struggling with the ethical questions raised by contemporary food practices.
Jesus, who taught us that all foods are clean, also taught us to pray "give us this day our daily bread", and identified his body and blood with elements we take into our mouths. He was not seeking to remove food from the realm of faithful living before God, but to deepen our perception of what joyfully wholesome food might look like. It cannot be identified merely by its flavour or appearance, but depends on the relationships with our neighbours (human and otherwise) that it represents.
Can you give thanks for what will be put in front of you today?