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Earth Ethics: Food and Faith

Earth Ethics

By Michael Schut

This article appeared in the Fall 2006 edition of Earth Ethics. It is excerpted from: Schut, M., ed. 2002. Food and Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread. Published by Living the Good News in cooperation with Earth Ministry, an ecumenical, Christian, environmental, nonprofit organization.

Food As Sacrament

To connect food and faith, we must explore and celebrate food's sacramentality. In doing so, we need to look beyond the food itself to examine how it grew, was processed and made its way to our table. Wendell Berry summarizes this perspective beautifully:

We can[not] live harmlessly or strictly at our own expense; we depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration…in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want (1983, 1981).

In suggesting that food can be sacramental, I recognize that, in the Christian tradition, the Church formally celebrates seven sacraments. (Protestants generally have two sacraments, Communion and Baptism. Catholics have these two plus five others: Confirmation, Reconciliation, the Sacrament of the Sick, Ordination, and Marriage.) But the Christian tradition also celebrates informal sacramental moments in everyday life. Consider the apostle Paul speaking to the Athenians in Acts 17: "God…is not far from each one of us. For in God we live and move and have our being." It's as if all of us are swimming in God's presence. In such a world, the holy is never far off. In such a world, "church isn't the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody. Watching something get born. Making love…Somebody coming to see you when you're sick. A meal with people you love…If we weren't blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental" (Buechner, 1973).

Eating, procuring and growing of food can be sacramental, ushering an awareness of "the holy" into everyday life. It sees in the need to be nourished daily the larger spiritual reality of our dependence on mysteries that we do not fully understand.

The sacramentality of food can be seen in how food connects us to experiences of celebration, communion and gratitude.


Food adds joy to life. Meaningful, hilarious, community-enriching, soul-satisfying times are so often associated with a shared table. Close friends, candlelight, homemade bread, a meal prepared together and a prayer of thanks. Or a big party, pot­luck, the plates not big enough for all the variety, the second helping of those par­tic­ularly tasty dishes, the familiar voices and laughter. Or a favorite holiday meal, feeding body and soul. The stories and settings are endless, but at each occasion the gift of food mediates a larger reality—the sanctity, preciousness and joy of life.


"To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation." Daily we participate in the mystery of other beings becoming part of our very tissue. And daily we have the opportunity to experience food as a sacrament, where the appropriate metaphor for food is not fuel but rather communion: with those family and friends sharing the meal, with those hands whose skill helped grow and harvest the food, with other creatures and ultimately with our Creator.


Eating can nurture gratitude. "When we eat," Sharon Parks writes, "we must very soon eat again. If we dare to contemplate fully the act of eating, we will be led to the unavoidable awareness of our continual desire to live, and also our utter dependence upon the generosity of the Earth and its peoples and the power and grace by which our lives are sustained" (Parks, 1988). Thus, in the presence of a meal, we bow our heads. In receiving the gift of "our daily bread" we are reminded of our ultimate dependence on God's provision for this life and of the miracle of sun, water, seed, soil, and air contributing to what becomes food.

Healing Divisions

Generally speaking, Western culture does not see the words food and faith as closely related. For most of us, food comes from the supermarket (often diced, sliced, packaged and frozen beyond resemblance to anything living), not from the farm or the Earth. We live in a time when it is possible for children gardening in the inner city to refuse to eat the fruits of their labor, not wanting to eat anything that "comes from dirt." In addition, for many of us faith is relegated to a Sunday morning ritual, compartmentalized from the rest of our lives, having little impact on everyday choices such as food.

Environmental educator David Orr writes, "Our alienation from the natural world is unprecedented. Healing this division is a large part of the difference between survival and extinction."  A major challenge is to help heal a number of "divisions," including: the division between the foods we eat and our knowledge of how those foods impact not only our own health but the health of the rest of the natural world; the division between faith and faith's call to care for all creation and the division between food and faith.

Images of Industrial Agriculture: Worker Rights, Animal Rights

Many images of industrialized agriculture reveal that system's inhumaneness: migrant workers' hands harvesting our produce or making 10,000 knife cuts during an eight-hour shift; pigs raised in crates so small they often cannot lie down; 25,000 chickens raised in a single poultry house; three top officials from Archer Daniels Midland being sent to prison in 1999 for "conspiring with foreign rivals to control the international market" for a major feed additive; wading through ankle-deep blood on a slaughterhouse floor. 

Underlying and creating these images are a handful of very large agribusiness corporations, driven by consumer demand for cheap food and stockholder profits.  Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation describes worker conditions in slaughterhouses, the challenges small ranchers face, and the power of the fast food industry.  These stories and images remind us that human rights' abuses and the unethical treatment of animals often follow in the wake of the pressure to "get big, or get out."

Economics as if Creation Mattered

Of course, the pressure to "get big or get out" is driven by a certain economic worldview, one that does not ultimately recognize the sacramentality of food or creation's inherent value.  Economics can no longer be left only to the economist. Gaining basic economic literacy is essential to creating an economic system that serves the well-being of human and non-human communities. 

Two key ideas are "externalities," and "getting prices right."  Both are important in understanding industrial agriculture and the economics of food.    

Simply put, externalities are "spillover effects," those things which are seen as "external" to the monetary accounting system.  A common example is the chemical factory whose effluent into a river kills the fish and ruins the fishers' livelihood.  The costs of the externalities in this example are borne by the fish themselves and the fishers' loss of work.   To take one other example, obesity and related health impacts could be seen as externalities, spillover effects, of American eating habits.

"Getting prices right" is one way to internalize the costs of externalities.  In our factory example, the manufacturer could be taxed for polluting the river.  Money raised from those taxes could then be used to provide work for unemployed fishers and clean up the river.  The effluent taxes would also serve as an incentive to not pollute, as the manufacturer's taxes would decrease as they cleaned up their emissions. 

Let's take one more example.  Most scientists now agree that global warming is occurring.  The United States', with 4 percent of the world's population, emits 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses.  Emissions from our cars and trucks are the largest contributors to those gasses.  The price we pay for a gallon of gasoline does not include the "externality" of global warming.  Should we pay more for gasoline?  The money raised could be used to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, say, in Bangladesh.  In addition, a different message (in the form of price per gallon of gas) would travel through our current market system: gasoline is expensive, we can't afford to drive as much.  Our contributions to global warming would thereby decrease.

Finally, the words economics and ecology share the same Greek root, oikos, "the household."  Ecology is the study of the household, economics the management of the household.  Many of the social and ecological costs (externalities) borne by communities (human and non-human) around the world emanate from the fact that we have seen fit to divorce economics from ecology, from God's creation.  The human economic system does not see itself as embedded within nature's economy.  We, all of us, eventually pay for these externalities: they visit us as increased medical costs, loss of topsoil, oil-soaked birds, species extinction, polluted air, groundwater laced with pesticides...Our challenge is to re-embed our economic system within ecological systems.  One of the most powerful and "do-able" ways of doing so lies before us when we sit down to eat.


Myriad questions surround genetically modified (GM) foods.  Are they safe for human consumption?  Will they cause ecological damage?  Are they the key to "feeding the world?"  What sort of policies and agricultural systems lead to food security?  Who benefits—large farmers, small farmers, corporations, the hungry—when food is genetically modified?  Is it ethical to take genetic material from a flounder and insert it into a tomato?  Well-meaning people answer these questions very differently.  Let's look at two examples.

First, we must consider different ideas about food security.  Food security refers to a region or nation's ability to predictably maintain access to a nutritious, sufficient, and safe supply of food for its population.  What does food security entail, or how might food security be achieved?  Here are two very different perspectives:

C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, Professors of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, answer: "…it [food security] involves improving a developing nation's access to cheaper food from comparatively advantaged exporting countries.  It is generally more efficient and cheaper than self-sufficiency, in which a nation tries to produce all crops that its population needs... Finally, the drive for food security should tap the potential of GM technology for developing countries to both enhance nutrition and boost agricultural output," (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2000, 39-40).

Tewolde, Ethiopia's Environmental Minister, on the other hand, states: "he biotech industry is suggesting that food security will come through the farmer's loss of control of essential agricultural inputs.  Do you see the lie?  This is food insecurity...Without local control, local availability of food can never be certain.  It would be far better to develop a system that would enable the farmer himself to be in charge."(See Marilyn Berlin Snell's interview, p.192.)

Notice that the former definition of food security assumes access to cheap energy for the transportation of food across the globe.  When Runge and Senauer claim that self-sufficiency is more expensive and less efficient than relying on foreign production of foodstuffs, their economic accounting does not internalize the costs of certain externalities.  And in supporting GM food as an important element of food security, they ignore the fact that farmers using GM technology have less and less control over their farming practices.  Loss of control makes farmers more vulnerable to political upheaval.  During times of such upheaval, it is especially important to food security that a country/region have the ability to grow their own food, not be dependent upon international markets.

For a second example of how differently people approach GM foods, consider the application of the Precautionary Principle.  The Precautionary Principle states that "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically," (from the Wingspread Conference, Racine, Wisconsin, 1998).  Anthony Trewavas, a plant biologist at the University of Edinburgh, states: "When people say to me they do not need GM, I am astonished at their prescience, their ability to read a benign future in a crystal ball that I cannot.  Now is the time to experiment... When the climate is changing in unpredictable ways, diversity in agricultural technology is a strength and a necessity not a luxury... We have heard much of the Precautionary Principle in recent years; my version of it is 'be prepared'."  (From "GM Food Is the Best Option We Have." In The Ethics of Food, edited by Gregory Pence.)

Geneticist David Suzuki, on the other hand, states: 's we learned from experience with DDT, nuclear power, and CFCs, we only discover the costs of new technologies after they are extensively used.  We should apply the Precautionary Principle with any new technology, asking whether it is needed and then demanding proof that it is not harmful.  Nowhere is this more important than in biotechnology because it enables us to tamper with the very blueprint of life." See D. Suzuki, p.183). 

Trewavas's version of the Principle is "be prepared," while Suzuki's understanding requires much more caution.  While acknowledging very diverse opinions, I side more with Suzuki than Trewavas, and support Tewolde's perspectives on food security more than Runge and Senauer's.  GM foods are quite new: many in the United States (Europeans are more solidly anti-GM) are undecided about their relative merits. 

Two fundamental principles guided my work at  Earth Ministry: first, creation is good, a revelation of God; second, God has special concern and care for the poor and dispossessed.  Two questions flow naturally from these principles.  First, does the action/technology/decision under consideration honor and maintain the inherent integrity of creation?  Second, does the action/technology/decision under consideration pay attention to and meet the needs of the poor?  With respect to the issues surrounding GM food,  I believe both questions must be answered "no."

Ecologically speaking, I do not believe that the Precautionary Principle's standards – is the new technology needed, and is it proven safe? – have been met in relationship to GM food.  Socially and economically speaking, I find it appalling when corporations like Monsanto promote GM food and technology because of the possibility that GM crops may require fewer chemicals, while at the same time profiting more and more from sales of the world's most popular herbicide, Roundup.  Similarly, I am very concerned when the Monsantos of the world represent themselves as primarily interested in feeding the hungry when the seeds they develop and promote do not in subsequent years reproduce well (in the case of hybrid seeds) or at all (in the case of Terminator seeds), thereby ensuring farmers' continuing dependence on the company's supplies of seeds.  These are my biases; I may be wrong, but offer them to you for your consideration.


Industrial agriculture's influence on the food we eat, on its nutritional value, on ecosystems around the world, on migrant workers, on the treatment of animals, on the viability of rural farm communities can become overwhelming. Looking clearly at those realities is a necessity if we are to help create systems that value the integ­rity of creation. But shifting our gaze to see and celebrate the hopeful stories of individuals and agricultural systems which recognize that the eating, procuring, and growing of food can be sacramental is just as important.

There are many Stories of Hope: Promising Directions—examples of individuals eating, cooking, growing, and shopping for food in ways that are healthy for people, value the im­por­tance of clean water and healthy soil, pay farmers a fair wage, treat farm animals well, keep farmland protected from urban sprawl and support local agriculture rather than distant mega-farms.

The stories of hope include individuals making changes in daily food choices, as well as political activism leading to systemic change. Both individual and systemic change are essential; to debate which is the more effective seems pointless. For example, if enough individuals choose to boycott eating "factory-farmed" animals, the system would find a way to meet the demand for meat raised more humanely and with less environmental impact. A similar result could be achieved through the application of political pressure. For example, taxing the owners of such factory farms to cover the costs of adequate animal waste disposal would increase the cost of the meat. Individual consumers would then begin to shift their meat-buying habits in order to get a better price.

Conclusion: Coming Home to Eat

If we are fortunate enough to have a good home, we return there not only to eat, but also to be nurtured in a variety of ways. One of the ways we know we are home is through the food prepared for us. In the biblical story of the prodigal son, a young man takes his father's inheritance, quickly exhausting it on "reckless" living. Destitute and desperate for food, the son decides to return home. He plans to simply ask his father to treat him like one of his hired men, who at least are well fed. But the father, upon seeing his son, runs to him, kisses and hugs him, clothes him, kills the "fatted calf" and throws a feast. The feast's significance becomes clear if we try to imagine the story without it: if, say, after kissing, hugging and clothing him the father had said, "Welcome home—help yourself to what's in the fridge." The feast is a sign that the son is loved, forgiven, welcomed and truly "home."

There are other meanings within the phrase "coming home to eat." Gary Paul Nabhan spent a year eating foods that grew no further than 250 miles from his home. He titled his book about that year Coming Home to Eat. Most broadly understood, coming home to eat recognizes Earth as the home God created for us and all creatures. To eat in such a way honors and cares for the breadth of God's creation.

If we are to live and eat in ways that will begin to ameliorate the social and ecological concerns raised in this essay, the most fundamental shift we must make is a spiritual one. The essence of that shift is to live as if the Earth "is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1), not a treasure chest for human plunder. Put differently, we must act as if our home is a sacred place, and remember that our faith traditions not only affirm that God is transcendent but also immanent, very near. Biblical scholar and Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard puts it this way in the introduction to his book Human Image: World Image:

We are treating our planet in an inhuman and god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves... [we] look upon ourselves as little more than two-legged animals whose destiny and needs can best be fulfilled through the pursuit of... self-interest. To correspond with this self-image, we have invented a worldview in which nature is seen as an impersonal commodity, a soulless source of food, raw materials...which we think we are entitled to exploit and abuse by any technique we can devise...(Sherrard, 1992).

Nbhan comes to a similar conclusion: "If we no longer believe that the Earth is sacred, or that we are blessed by the bounty around us, or that we have a caretaking responsibility given to us by the Creator...then it does not really matter to most folks how much ecological and cultural damage is done by the way we eat" (Nabhan, 2002).

Finally, if our challenge is to come home to eat, to remember food's sacramentality, then everyone is invited—farmers, environmentalists, corporate executives, grocery store clerks, migrant workers, economists, theologians, artists, politicians, truck drivers, scientists and activists (not to mention the whole host of God's other creatures who also need to be fed and nurtured in this same home). We all eat and we all wish to leave our children and grandchildren a healthy world: we at least share that in common. Through individual choice and political action we must work together to create and support food systems (as well as larger economic systems) that recognize and celebrate food as sacramental.

Michael Schut served on Earth Ministry's staff for eleven years. He is the editor of the award-winning Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, also published by Living the Good News. Earth Ministry helps connect Christian faith with care and justice for all creation. Michael's work includes teaching, speaking and writing on topics of voluntary simplicity, economic justice, food choices and sustainability, and environment and faith. Michael has a bachelor's in biology from Wheaton College and a master's in environmental studies from the University of Oregon.


Berry, W.  1983, 1981. The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco: North Point Press, 272-281.

Buechner, F. 1973. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper and Row, 82.

Nabhan, G. P. 2002. Coming Home to Eat. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 304.

Parks, S. D. 1988. The meaning of eating and the home as ritual space. In E. Gray, ed. Sacred Dimensions of Women's Experience. New York: Roundtable Press, 184-92.

Sherrard, P. 1992. Human Image: World Image. Ipswich, UK: Golgonooza Press, 2-3.

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