Transforming lives on four continents

Food: digging deeper

Posted by Mission Catalyst at 12:50 on 26th May 2010

What is the area of our lives in which we have the biggest environmental impact, whether positively or negatively? The answer is food.

Ruth Valerio, from A Rocha’s Living Lightly 24:1 project, digs deeper into five factors that are central to the food debate.


The first is the consequences of our current high meat consumption. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, showed that meat and dairy production contributes more to climate change than the entire global transport sector combined (18 per cent versus 13.5 per cent).

It might surprise us to learn that the report found the livestock industry to be ‘one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global’, contributing to land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

The vegan/vegetarian/meat eating debate is a complicated and contentious one that needs to be approached with graciousness on all sides. Living Lightly 24:1 does not take one route, but encourages all of us to look at these questions for ourselves and, at the very least, to reduce the amount of meat that we eat.

The second issue is the pesticide usage involved in intensive agriculture. Around 25,000 tonnes of pesticides were applied to UK crops in 2000 and, altogether, 430 different pesticides are permitted for use in non-organic farming.

The Cox’s apple is a particular case in point. They can sometimes receive 36 different pesticides, through 16 sprayings. Many of these are systemic, which means they permeate into the flesh of the fruit and so cannot be removed through peeling or washing.

The damage being done to the environment and to biodiversity is only too evident when you look at the difference in wildlife on organic and intensive farms.

A review showed that on organic farms there were five times as many wild plants in arable fields and 57 per cent more species.

Some endangered species found on farmland were found only on organic farms. There were 44 per cent more birds in fields outside the breeding season and, again, endangered birds such as the song thrush were significantly more numerous on organic farms.

In particular, there were more than twice as many breeding skylarks.

People have different reasons for buying organic food but there is no doubt that it is growing in popularity. Although overall organic food accounts for only three or four per cent of total food sales in the UK, and only 2.8 per cent of food sales in the US, in recent years it has gone from fringe to mainstream.

In both the UK and the US, organic food and drink sales are growing by a bit over 20 per cent each year and 2005-06 saw direct-sales organic produce (ie from box schemes or farmers’ markets) grow by a staggering 53 per cent.

The third issue is the effect of the transport and the packaging involved in much of our food.

It is thought that 75 per cent of the cost of food is in its processing, packaging and distribution.

We often hear about the issue of ‘food miles’ and it is a sobering fact that a quarter of heavy-goods vehicle trips are food-related.

With apples, for example, each kilogramme from New Zealand that is imported into the UK produces its own weight in carbon dioxide emissions.

We should also remember that ‘food miles’ involves more than just transport: it actually ought also to take into account the methods of production, as it is generally the case that a food product grown in a low-income country will use less energy than that same product grown out of season in a high-income country.

So, using a non-food example, fairtrade roses grown in Kenya and flown to the UK use almost six times less CO2 than roses grown in greenhouses in Holland (for more on this see the Fairtrade Foundation’s report, Fairtrade, Climate Change and Sustainable Production: Common Questions and Answers, 2007).

Let’s remember too that home-grown food bears the smallest environmental footprint possible.

That is why growing your own food (from a pot of herbs on your window sill, to some tomatoes in your garden, to having an allotment, to keeping your own chickens) is recommended so often on the Living Lightly 24:1 website. But be warned, once you start you won’t want to stop!

The fourth factor is the welfare of farmed animals.

Thanks to factory farming, the meat that used to be the most expensive in the first part of the 20th century (chicken) and the meat that used to be the most expensive in the second part of the 20th century (salmon) are now among the cheapest that can be bought.

When you look at the conditions in which both are produced, however, you understand why. The life of a battery chicken has been much publicised and it may be that people’s attitudes are changing. That needs to be extended beyond chickens, however, and it is crucial that, as Christians, we only use our money to support those who look after the animals that we will eat.

The fifth factor is the issue of power. Farmers are not heartless people, intent on destroying the environment!

The reality is that our farming industry is in crisis: in 2004 one dairy farm closed every day.

The problem lies with those who control what happens in farming: the biotechnology companies who produce the pesticides; the big food manufacturers who can influence what kind of food is grown; and the supermarkets that control distribution and dictate prices and uniformity of produce (80 per cent of money spent on food is spent at the supermarkets).

Thirty per cent of money spent on food is spent at Tesco (and it is well known that one in every eight pounds in the British economy is spent at Tesco).

Pivotal to these is the government, which should be better involved in issues of food labelling, safety standards and supporting good farming practices.

Farmer and writer, Wendell Berry, says that how and what we eat is a political issue – an issue of freedom: “There is a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and our sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to eat free”.

This material has been adapted from Ruth Valerio’s, L is for Lifestyle: Christian living that doesn’t cost the earth, available from IVP books.

Ruth (pictured right) is the manager of A Rocha’s Living Lightly 24:1 project. She’s a Bible teacher, and writer and speaker on issues of justice, ecology and lifestyle.



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