What is our theology of food?

gregg_wallace_2764287bI was fascinated to watch Gregg Wallace (of Masterchef fame) explore how our food reaches us through supermarkets in his Supermarket Secrets episode looking behind Christmas. I hadn’t realised that this episode was in fact three years old, and even though reviews were previously rather mixed, I found it as fascinating as Greg evidently had. He was astonished by vast warehouses, fascinated by farm technology, and amazed at computerised production processes—and quite rightly too. It took me back to my first experience of industrial food production, in this case making chocolate, and when I saw a group of men in white shovelling Maltesers into small, wheeled plastic trucks, as though they had just been dug out from a Malteser mine, I felt I had walked into a real-life Willie Wonka factory.

Apart from the sheer interest in knowing where our food comes from and what happens to it, there were some striking aspects of the programme which have social, cultural and even theological implications for us and our food. These are the issues which leapt out for me.

1. Disconnection between us and our food. Some of the reviews of the programme sounded bored at the content and unimpressed by Greg’s evident surprise at almost every aspect of what he discovered. But this points to the reality of food production for most of us: without such ‘behind the scenes’ insights, we have no idea whatsoever of what goes on, and we are therefore removed from the impact and the ethics of food production. Decisions are concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of powerful industry leaders, and there appears to be little accountability around something that has huge implications for all of us.

This is an almost inevitable consequence of our adoption of a free market economic approach, in which decisions are made in the light of reducing overall costs, with almost no other factor taken into account. There is some irony in use of the term ‘market’ in this context; up till this generation, the ‘market’ was the place where purchasers met those selling products, who quite often would either be the producers or at least know them, so there was always a relational dimension to the transaction. Such relationships have now been ruthlessly eliminated.

2. Agricultural monoculture. One of the early scenes sees Greg in a farm growing Brussels sprouts, talking to food technologist Paul Yarrow about the development of sweeter varieties of sprouts which have led to a growth in sprout consumption of around 30% in the last year. Behind them is a vast field growing nothing but…sprouts! Economics dictates that such fields should be as large as possible, with as few hedges, and with nothing else growing—which is a disaster for biodiversity and leads to barren ecological environments. Not many years ago, when farmers ploughed their fields, you could see birds following the tractor because of the insect life thrown up from the earth by the plough. That never now happens, because farm soil has become sterile.

This is also the consequence of ruthless conformity to an economic model, where things which are not a direct part of the economic transactions are defined as ‘externalities’ that have no value attached to them.

3. Narrow anthropocentrism. It was striking that, in every aspect of the programme, there was only one concern: how this product would look on the shelf to the consumer in the supermarket, and how it would affect purchasing behaviour. At one level, you could not help but admire the thoroughness with which this goal was pursued. (Did you know that supermarkets now use thermal imaging to track us as we head towards the checkouts in order to trigger the opening of tills?) But all other considerations were subordinate to that—including the wider issues of environmental impact and the welfare of those working in the system.

4. Industrialisation and computerisation. Wallace was able to continue his banter as he tried to have a go at the demanding, repetitive and dull jobs on both farm and production line—but I wonder what he really thought about such soul-destroying occupations? Although they involved physical activity and were outdoors, and though agriculture has always had more than its fair share of tedious manual jobs, some of the scenes would not have looked out of place in Charlie Chaplin’s spoof commentary on industrialisation ‘Modern Times’.

There were similar scenes in last week’s edition of Countryfile, also coming from Lincolnshire where the sprouts scene was filmed, where John Craven wandered through vast industrial fields of crops much as Wallace had done. But here he was exploring how computerisation was making skilled and semi-skilled jobs redundant in farming, as computer-controlled robots were able to check and inspect crops to ensure they reached their optimum state at just the right time. It’s a reminder that we have only just begun to experience the impact of robotics and computerisation on our national life.

5. Monopolisation. As with so many features of our technocratic culture, when processes become complex and technical, small operators cannot compete because they cannot make the capital investments required, and so there is an irresistible trend towards monopolisation by the few big players. This became clear in the section in the programme about wine; at the time of filming, 84% of wine bought in the UK was sold by supermarkets, and that has probably continued to increase in the last three years. The wine buyer from Tesco was clearly chuffed to be able to say that 1 in 4 bottles of all wine sold in any context was sold by Tesco. When Greg asked ‘You must be the biggest buyer in the UK?’ the simple answer was ‘The world.’

Related to this is the phenomenon of Big Data, one of the things that, through the Tesco Clubcard, allowed Tesco to occupy a dominant position in the market. Knowing statistically what our wine buying habits are and how they change month by month is what allows Tesco to stock the right number of bottles of the right varieties of wine from one season to the next.

6. Efficiency. All these economies of scale, industrialisation, creation of monocultures and monopolisation has meant that food production is very much more efficient than it has ever been, and this has been a major contributor to the fall in the relative cost of food—which used to take up 25% of the typical UK domestic budget but which now only accounts for 10%. If you are unsure of this, try growing your own! It is fun, and reconnects you with the soil, but is hard work, inefficient and unpredictable. These are the human factors that have been eliminated in the process of industrialisation.

Greg was amazed by what is involved in the farming of salmon—but notes that the efficiencies involved, which have led to lower costs, means that something which was once an exclusive luxury has now come within the purchasing power of most people.

7. Deskilling. Not only have we become disconnected from what happens to food before it gets to us, the production side, we have also become disconnected from what we do with food once we have it, the processing and cooking side. Late in the programme, Greg watches how a Christmas wreath cake is produced. His conclusion? ‘I could do better in my kitchen, because I know how to bake…but this is a triumph of cookery science.’ Perhaps we love the Great British Bake-Off because it reminds us of a by-gone age when we all did our own baking, but the rise of pre-prepared items, to a much higher standard and more efficiently than we could ever do it, means we are less and less likely to do it ourselves. Who could make those amazing Christmas deserts on the latest M&S adverts—and besides, which of us has the time in our busy lives?

What might a biblical theology of food have to say to our situation? In one of my very first ever blog posts, written in 2011, I reflected on what it means to give thanks for our food:

This morning, as I gave thanks, I stopped to reflect on what I was thanking God for.

  • The people in the shop who had prepared this for me—their expertise and their service.
  • The products themselves—the bread, the cheese, the milk and the other ingredients—ultimately gifts from God, the giver of all.

So far, so good—but I realised that there was a lot more to it.

  • The cheese that I was eating was one of 700 varieties produced in Britain alone. Behind the activity of those who made this cheese, and brought it to me, lie generations of expertise and experimentation.
  • As Neil McGregor points out, both the domestication of cows, and the adaptation of humans to drinking milk, took thousands of years. So the milk the cheese is made from represents a complex process of human development.
  • Similarly, behind the processes of actually growing the wheat, harvesting it, grinding it to flour, making the bread and baking and transporting it, lies thousands of year of cultivation, from wild grass to the wheat varieties we have today.
  • I also thought of those who had carefully planted, tended and harvested the spring onions which gave the Welsh Rabbit its ‘zing.’
  • And of course behind all this is the gift of God in rain, sun and fertile earth which allows all of this to happen.

So, as I was thanking God for my Welsh Rabbit, I was in fact giving thanks for this complex, interconnected, developed web of relationships that led to its production—the whole world of human activity on a plate.

But it is a world and a web that is looking increasingly fragile; perhaps saying grace is more important than we realise.

I think there are at least three major themes that we need to explore as we think about our food:

a. The partnership between the theocentric and the anthropocentric, between the divine and the human. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24.1), but God invites us to be stewards of his creation and to be fruitful in doing so. As in the spiritual, so in the material: we might sow and water, but God gives the growth.

b. The relationship between producer and consumer. We need to find ways of reconnecting with those from who we buy our food, that is, the first producers, and not merely the last person in the supply chain. That might be through farmers’ markets, or some other way that we can establish relationship. But without that we cannot see the consequences of our purchasing actions. Growing our own produce isn’t a bad way of thinking about this!

c. The relationships around the eating of food. We lead a small missional community as part of our church, and we share a meal together once a month. One of the highlights of this is the pudding brought by one of our members who loves baking and always brings something that she has baked herself. The offering of what she has done for us makes all the difference.

As a community defined by its shared meal, we surely must have more to say about our food, how it is produced and how it is consumed.

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5 thoughts on “What is our theology of food?”

  1. Hi Ian,

    Hi Ian,

    Another dimension to this reflection on food is tariff escalation, whereby developed countries treat raw food imports more favourably (e.g. cocoa beans) than the most basic of processed agricultural products (e.g. cocoa powder and chocolate crumb containing cocoa butter) by imposing ad valorem taxes (~7 to 15%) on the latter.

    For instance, back in 2012, for cocoa, the comparative prices were:
    Bean price: GBP 1,500/tonne
    Butter price: : GBP 2,100/tonne
    Powder price: GBP 2,600/tonne.

    Given the difference in these prices, it’s understandable that both skilled labour and capital owners in developed countries lobby government vigorously to maintain and even increase these differential rates of protection between stages of production.

    Yet, preventing tariff escalation can help promote processed exports from developing countries, generate support for liberalization of the service sector in the developing countries, while simultaneously benefiting unskilled workers in developed countries.

    On this basis, the Church needs to reflect on its advocacy on behalf on unskilled workers in developing countries whose opportunities to improve are hampered by developed countries imposing heavy trade restrictions on processed commodities.

  2. I’m very glad David mentioned tariffs. When it has so often been couched as “the moral thing to do” to stay in the EU, it baffles me how ignorant many are (including Christians) about how the EU keeps poor countries poor with tariffs that mean wealthy western countries protect their profits from cocoa and coffee etc. at the expense of developing nations.

    But my main comment is about the efficiency side of things, and frankly how great that is. There is no job in the UK where you do not earn enough to buy a whole roast chicken from one hour’s work, at least some outlets. Imagine how that state of affairs would sound to someone living only 100 or so years ago. These things come, in time.

    Once, children and families starved. Then, children were put to work in factories. When everyone became richer, we could afford to stop children being put to work – in that order. Now, we look at other developing countries and are outraged that their children are being put to work – not realising that the option is often starvation, not school.

    The focus is already shifting. Most eggs in supermarkets are free range. McDonalds – that despised corporate monopoly everyone loves to hate – also uses free range eggs. Organic vegetables are increasing in popularity.

    As people become wealthier and worry less about simply putting something (anything) on their plate, other consumer priorities will start to affect the market. Sustainability, environmental impact, animal welfare.

    There are fisheries in Spain that now not only double as wildlife reserves, but actually make the water cleaner! Some of you may have enjoyed Planet Earth II where, in the last episode, they showed how Singapore was creating innovative new solutions to allow humans and wildlife to live closer and more harmoniously. I’m sure I don’t have to point out the business/tax situation in Singapore.

    In Israel, they can desalinate 1000 litres of water, rendering it safe and drinkable, for 38 US cents! Talk about the deserts becoming green, or rivers of life flowing from Jerusalem! And yet in the U.K., everyone seems to believe that the market is some kind of malign force which needs to be strongly controlled by politicians. Hey ho.

  3. Hi Ian,
    A friend recently guided me to your site and this article in particular (I too am an Anglican {though on the other side of the pond}, who focuses specifically on the theology of food!).
    Have you read Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating? It’s deeply formed my own approach to research and, given what you’ve written here, sounds like it would be just up your alley!
    Looking forward to following your writing.


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