Scientific models are predicting that the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion people by the year 2050. But even today, “roughly one in seven people lack access to food or are chronically malnourished,” according to a recent article, published in the journal Nature. The article, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” concluded that food production will have to increase substantially over the next several decades in order to feed our growing population, but if the planet is truly going to support life this will have to happen in a way that doesn’t further degrade the land. How are we going to face this two-fold problem of feeding an even larger population when we aren’t doing such a good job of it in the first place, while simultaneously trying to save the planet from further destruction? Although these warnings come from the voice of science, these are fundamentally Christian issues as both the planet and its inhabitants are the products of God’s creation, and continue to be the objects of God’s love and concern.
There is ample biblical evidence that this is God’s earth and we are intended to care for it as God’s stewards. The first five books of the Old Testament narrate the events building up to the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land after wandering in the Sinai desert for forty years. Prior to taking up residence in the land, Moses delivers God’s message to the Israelites about how they are to care for the land once they make their home there. God says, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The land plays a prominent role in God’s relationship to the Israelites, and consequently with us. When the Israelites obey God’s command the land produces abundance and supports a fruitful existence. But when they fail to uphold the law, the land suffers for their transgressions and becomes the source of their woe. Thus, the story of Israel—and ourselves, as Israel’s descendants—is the story of the land. The fate of one cannot be separated from the other.
Of course, God also cares for the people he made to dwell in the land and consequently gives the Israelites strict instructions for how they should care for the poor among them. God tells the propertied Israelites not to harvest all the way to the edges of their fields, but to leave the gleanings for the poor and hungry (Lev. 23:22), and instructs them to provide for the needy, the widow and the orphan (Deut. 24:19-21). The book of Proverbs states, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (14:31). The New Testament takes up where the Old Testament leaves off with even more injunctions from Jesus to feed the hungry and provide for the poor. To most Christians, service to the poor is a scriptural requirement.
As you read this what do you picture? Do you see people lined up in food banks? Refugees receiving rations of watery gruel? Starving or undernourished children in Somalia? How about the land? Where do you imagine God’s land to be? Do you see the Israelites wandering across a desert? Do you imagine farmland someplace in the Midwest—row after row of corn, or orchards lined with verdant fruit trees? As people who probably are not lacking for food, and who have never set foot in a field to get the food we want and need, hearing about these distant hungry or this fabled farmland requires some imagination, if we give it any thought at all.
At the heart of this necessary conceptual leap is the fact that whatever we do see, it isn’t us. We aren’t standing in line clutching a baby who hasn’t eaten in days. Most of us have never had to dig through someone else’s trash to find a meal. We have likely never visited a tomato farm, a rice paddy, a feedlot or slaughterhouse, or know where our eggs come from or what the inside of a dairy plant looks like.
When God spoke to the Israelites they knew the poor who would be gleaning at the edges of their land. They knew where their grains would come from and when olive trees would produce their fruit. They lived in the land in a way that we do not, and they lived with the poor among them in a way that is unfamiliar to our compartmentalized and segregated lives. But God’s command to care for the land and to feed the hungry are certainly no less urgent today than they were a few thousand years ago. Furthermore, our own estrangement from the land or distance from the needy does not excuse us from seeing that the needs of the poor are the needs of all of us since we are all, equally, God’s children. The first step in answering God’s call to honor the land and serve the poor is to find within ourselves the emotional impulse to care.
To care is to want to care, to want to know who are the people who suffer? Where does our food come from and how is it produced? What should I feed my family and myself? Do the poor or destitute—the refugee and the homeless—deserve to have life like we have it? How does what I eat affect what other people can eat? These are not abstract questions, but rather Christian questions. Jesus reveals that whatever we do to the least of God’s creation, who are all members of the same family, we do it to Jesus (Matthew 25:40). This is a pretty clear mandate that by serving the poor, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned, we are serving God. This same passage makes the opposite clear, too. When we ignore the poor, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned, we deny God’s presence and in so doing refuse to serve God (Matthew 25:45). Apart from the harsh judgment promised for this failure, we must take seriously our duty to serve God and serve those in need, and what the article in Nature makes clear is that in order to serve the needy we are going to have to address how we feed everyone, and consequently how we, ourselves, eat.
Without going into details that can be read in the full article, our methods of producing and consuming food have to change. We cannot continue to dedicate fertile farmland to crops that feed livestock when the same land could be producing food for human consumption. Roughly 75% of agricultural land, according to the article’s research, is devoted to raising animals, including land dedicated to grain production, pasture, and grazing land. One solution is to shift crop production away from livestock feed so that the same land can be used to grow crops for direct human consumption. Additionally, although crop production needs to increase, which can happen through agricultural expansion or intensification, it does more harm than good to raze rainforests or similarly misappropriate non-agricultural land in order to produce more food. This is not to mention the huge quantity of water that is lost to pollution from chemical fertilizers, or again, to the production of animals for slaughter.
Simply put, the way we eat, what we eat, and how we get what we eat, affects our health, the planet, and the availability of food for others. Moreover, if it matters to the life of God’s earth, or to God’s people living on it, then it should matter to us as Christians. My point here is neither to dictate nor criticize what or how anyone should eat, but rather to use a theological lens to address why these considerations should matter to us as people of faith. The two-fold problem the article describes requires the dual responsibility God requires of us—to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ, while also caring for the terrestrial home God so generously entrusts to us. The first step toward taking action is recognizing and caring about the need before us. Knowledge is not power unless you care.
As a first step toward this caring we can ask God to be with the hungry and the poor, and we can ask God to hold our need for compassion together with their need for care. The God who compels the Israelites to feed the poor and to care for the land is the same God who can transform our hearts and minds so that we can become people who do feed the poor and care for the land despite our distance from the land and often, too, from those in need. Amen.