“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, now we are going to live on the internet”.
This is a quote from the film ‘The Social Network’, voiced by a guru of social media, and it struck me forcibly when the film was released.
In some ways its true of the last three generations of my family – my grandparents spent all their lives on farms, my parents moved to the city – London – and now I do tend to live on the internet. But in another sense this isn’t true. Many of us spend a lot of time on our computers but we can’t live on the internet. Despite all our modern trappings, what we need to live on is still as basic as it ever was – food and water.
Let’s not forget it. Food is often taken for granted until the supermarket runs out of tomatoes or eggs or we learn that in Britain more people are depending on food banks than ever before. Think about how you would get through even a single day without nourishment and water.
The issue of Food is moving up the news agenda.
The invasion of Ukraine and resulting spike in energy costs, as well as the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a series of climate shocks have sparked a perfect storm in the food business that is plunging millions more people into hunger and hardship. In Britain, a cost-of-living crisis rages, with food inflation at more than 16% and the cost of energy more than double of a year ago. Combined with this there is a slump in wages in real terms which reduces disposable income, prompting strikes of low-paid workers.
In 2022, the number of people caught in extreme acute food insecurity climbed to over 200 million. In the global south, people living on less than US$1 a day regularly skip meals when food prices rise. And farmers everywhere face more anxiety about their crops and farms. Let’s look in detail at some of the reasons.
Disastrous decisions human society has made about development and security have meant a loss of habitat and poisoning of the environment. Do we realise how much this matters? Do you know that every third bite of food we consume depends on pollination by bees, but all around the world hundreds of millions of bees have disappeared because of loss of habitat and pollution. And think of the negative impacts of conflict, diminishing biodiversity and climate change on food production.
Under-funding of small-scale agriculture by rich and poor countries alike is another key cause, according to the UN. Instead of nurturing small scale traditional agriculture, huge resources from the West go into industrial agriculture which requires the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides. There has been a push of genetically modified (GM) seeds, for example, which require specific chemical inputs.
CAFOD runs a popular LiveSimply project for parishes and schools. Less well known is its food campaign which urges the UK government to protect the right of farmers around the world to use their own seeds. The Catholic Church’s development agency for England and Wales says that for generations, small-scale farmers have freely swapped and shared a wide variety of seeds to produce food and maintain biodiversity. More recently, farmers have also developed seeds that ensure crops are resilient to climate change. However, their rights are increasingly under threat as new laws are introduced globally that limit what small farmers can do with their seeds. These laws, being brought in with the support of global financial institutions such as the World Bank, overwhelmingly favour large agribusinesses. CAFOD calls for Seed Sovereignty – the right for farmers to save, use, exchange and sell their own seeds. It is about farmers having the power to choose the seeds they plant, rather than that power belonging to corporations or international institutions.
You may be surprised that Church groups internationally, including the Columbans, have campaigned on the issues of gene editing and GM of food crops for nearly three decades. GM food comprises foodstuffs with genetically modified material that have not evolved in a natural environment, involving the crossing of species which could not cross in nature. Genes from arctic fish, for instance, have been inserted into strawberries to make them frost-resistant.
It can also involve putting chemicals into food. and, in fact, almost all GM crops grown are in one of two varieties: ‘insect resistant’ and ‘herbicide tolerant’. With GM insect-resistant corn the crop produces an insect toxin as it grows. This is consumed along with the corn after harvesting, but biotechnology companies provide assurances that the toxin is deactivated in the acidic environment of the stomach. Rarely will there be a ‘GM’ label on these products because, in the US, they are regarded as substantially equivalent to their natural counterparts and are widely eaten there, particularly in processed food.
In the Philippines, the Masipag Farmers – a network of farmers, scientists and non-governmental organisations, which has backing from many Christian agencies and missionary groups – has pointed out that the motivation of the biotechnology companies is profit rather than needs-driven. Masipag would like greater emphasis on small farmers getting access to land, retaining the right to propagate their own seeds, and encouragement to farm organically. The US-based Monsanto biotechnology company has spent more than $2 billion on genetic engineering research and development since the 1970s, but the Masipag farmers want money spent on diverse staple food crops that poor people have used for centuries and also respect for farming techniques which suit local soils and weather conditions such as terracing or intercropping.
Irish Columban Fr. Sean McDonagh SSC, who worked in the Philippines for more than 20 years and has written a number of books on ecology and creation theology, highlights another dimension of the GM food issue. He supports the Masipag network and others trying to halt what he calls the “patenting scramble”. Biotechnology companies, supported by the World Trade Organisation, are gradually removing seeds and other life forms from the domain of the commons and into private property through patenting. The food security of Third World countries could very easily be compromised if farmers have to buy patented seeds each year from companies. “It would be the death knell for the 1,500 million subsistence farmers around the world if they were forced to buy patented seeds each year, ” says Fr. McDonagh. The Columbans run several organic projects in the Philippines.
And have you have heard here in the UK about the Genetic Technology Bill? If you have, did you hear about it from our Churches? I suspect not. It involves plans to relax regulations around gene editing for plants and animals and is on the verge of becoming law. It cleared its final parliamentary hurdle on 6th March and is now due to receive royal assent.
The changes would remove EU measures preventing the development and marketing of precision-bred plants and animals using techniques such as gene editing, and separating the technique from GM in regulation. Gene editing changes characteristics of an animal or plant by deleting, swapping or repeating genes already present, rather than introducing new ones such as in the changes used in GM technologies. Environment minister Mark Spencer said, “I think it’s an exciting opportunity, and who knows where the science may take us.” Where indeed?
Opponents feel that a strong and robust regulatory framework is required. In Autumn 2022 the organic sector expressed serious concerns to the government that the Bill undermined the viability of farmers and food businesses across the UK. They felt there is no proper assessment on the impact to food and farming businesses, organic or similar, that has been fed into the drafting of this Bill. Coexistence measures with organic, that will be necessary, from seed segregation and crop separation distances to labelling and record keeping, are entirely absent.
Columbans support the view that a sustainable future will mean choosing the right crops for the right location and conditions, planting a diversity of crops, and building healthy soils that retain moisture in dry conditions and prevent flooding in wet conditions.
What can be done?
If we are to address these issues we must stop taking food for granted and stop treating it as simply a commodity. We are invited to support CAFOD’s campaign, ‘Fix the Food System’.
Reviewing our diets is important and we tend to do this in Lent as we attempt to live more frugally. Eating more meat and dairy produce means the rising need for feed grains produced for cattle. Consider eating less meat and consuming food according to the LOAF principles. LOAF is an acronym for food that Locally produced, Organically Grown, Animal friendly and Fairly Traded.
We should reflect on the connections between food and faith. The focus of most Catholic services is on a Eucharistic meal and celebrating the gifts of creation. Wheat is a particularly sensitive agricultural product because it is mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer. The UK government has approved trials in Britain of GM wheat, but GM crops cannot be grown commercially at the moment. Let’s keep it that way.
We must begin to understand that all the tables we gather around in our daily lives are connected. Among many of the world’s great faith traditions, the eating of food is accompanied by some form of a grace-saying act. In offering thanks or a blessing, we show that we do not take food and our lives for granted. Perhaps we should reinstate this practice.
The prevalence and persistence of hunger in our world is a sign of the scale of the social and environmental challenges we face. But at the same time, many here and in the global south are acting on the need for greater human humility, responsibility, and celebration.