Published in Response Magazine, March 2009
Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” Luke 8:5-8a
“The seed is the word of God,” said Jesus, when explaining the parable of the sower. He often used images from nature and agriculture in his teaching: seeds and sowers, grain and granaries, weeds and wheat, vineyards, fig trees, mustard seeds—these were metaphors that people of his time and place could understand. They lived a simple agrarian life, close to the earth. They knew that sowing seeds and nurturing plants for food were of central importance, a matter of life and death.
Even today, our food supply depends ultimately on seeds, sunlight, fertile soil, the edible wild species from which today’s foods originated, and the knowledge of farmers passed down in various cultures through generations. In our modern world, however, we may lose sight of our ultimate dependence upon seed and soil because of our now globalized food system. But how well is this system meeting human need?
In towns and cities across the United States, people struggle to make ends meet as jobs are lost and food prices soar. The number of people applying for food stamps and seeking relief from food pantries is increasing dramatically. In poor countries, rising food prices mean severe malnutrition and death, especially among children.
Meanwhile, food giants such as Cargill, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland (“ADM: Supermarket to the World”) are showing record profits. How can this be explained? How can people of faith respond? How can we understand, critique, and transform the global system that has led to this crisis? What does love of God and neighbor require in this time of spreading hunger and accelerating corporate profits? Where is God’s word calling us today?
Factors that contribute to the sudden spike in food prices include financial speculation, eroding soils, erratic oil prices, deteriorating rangelands, collapsing fisheries, falling water tables, increasing demand in developing nations, the subsidized production of biofuels, and rising temperatures. But a large part of the problem is this: vulnerability to rising food prices is part of the price we pay for giving control of our food production, from seed to supermarket shelf, to giant corporations. Their domination of the industrialized global food system is daunting, threatening food safety and food security on a global scale.
Global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization support this market-based system. They pressure developing nations to gear their production toward export, cut subsidies to small farmers, and open their doors to large foreign corporations, while allowing industrialized nations to subsidize their agribusiness firms. When richer nations sell (or “dump”) cheap, often genetically-modified, foods in poor nations, small farmers cannot compete and are driven off the land.
Large-scale, energy-intensive monoculture crops use huge amounts of water, fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. Factory farms are cruel to animals, require large doses of antibiotics, produce tons of polluting waste, and undercut small livestock farmers.
When foods travel an average of 1,300 miles, freshness and taste are sacrificed. Tainted products more easily enter the food supply. Banned pesticides may be unknowingly imported in fruits and vegetables. Traditional seeds may lose their fertility, as genetically identical export crops are grown in place of diverse local varieties. Many religious traditions have promoted stewardship of the land, care of the soil, planting of seeds, and nurturing of crops as a sacred duty, but now corporate giants such as Monsanto are suing farmers around the world for saving seeds.
As an alternative to the industrialized global food system, many people are working to construct community-based food networks as a way to ensure a safe and dependable food supply. People are planting fruit trees and organic vegetable gardens. Farmers markets are springing up as people turn to local sources of food. Schools, churches, neighborhoods, and homeless centers are planting community gardens. Small-scale, diversified organic farms are employing young people as interns, providing them with training that may prove invaluable if the global food system becomes even more dysfunctional or if food prices continue to rise.
Low-income people of color have particular challenges and are organizing to create healthy and equitable food systems in their communities. In the United States, even as large grocery chains seek to cash in on the growing organic food market by offering organic brands, supermarkets move out of inner cities. This creates a “food gap,” leaving low-income people with little recourse but to buy food at fast food outlets and expensive convenience stores. In cities and in rural areas, people are organizing locally, drafting legislation, and forming national and international coalitions to develop the foundations for a secure, just, sustainable, nourishing food supply.
This “turn to the local” is not limited to the United States. It is a global movement, rooted in traditional, community-based forms of agriculture. Farmers worldwide are struggling for freedom from food systems dominated by transnational food giants and are working to create alternatives that allow democratic input into the food production and distribution process and meet the needs of small-scale producers and low-income consumers. In the Global South, people are organizing for indigenous and peasant rights, land reform, clean water, fair trade practices (including a prohibition against the “dumping” of cheap foreign crops), sustainable farming practices (including freedom from contamination by genetically-modified crops), and fair prices for agricultural products. Seed banks are preserving the fertility of traditional seeds and encouraging farmers to plant “heritage seeds.” Many small farmers are practicing principles of “agroecology,” growing food in harmony with the natural systems of the earth.
The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Women have traditionally advocated for a just global economy, fair trade, sustainable farming practices, and fair distribution of food to the needy. Such advocacy efforts include partnerships with low-income farmers, farmworkers, and food service workers and support for subsistence farmers, the majority of whom are women. Many United Methodist congregations are trading home-grown produce after worship, creating community gardens on church grounds, sponsoring farmers markets, selling fair trade products, and purchasing wholesome foods from locally-based stores and buyer cooperatives. Some are supporting local farmers through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).
Such practices can provide a foundation for regional food security supplemented by fair trade, equitable relationships between producers and consumers, sufficient food for those who are in need, and environmental sustainability. By the grace of God, we can each do our small part to help bring about the needed transformation through our spiritual commitments, lifestyle choices, community involvement, advocacy, and political action. With God’s help, we can prepare the soil in our hearts and in our communities, plant seeds of hope, nurture them, and watch them grow.