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May 2, 2008                                           





I remember many times in my youth, perhaps at school or birthday parties, when children would line up to receive some special treat or reward.  There were several occasions when I was pulled out of line by an adult and made to go to the end of the line.  Why?


I had already gotten a treat and was in line for seconds, or had pushed others out of the way to get my position.  Usually, I thought that this was unfair or even discriminatory, but now I know better.  This was the Lord’s way of teaching me not to be greedy.


I thank the Lord for all of the recent stories about the interplay between the current growing worldwide food crisis and the environment.  The Washington Post has run an excellent series on the subject and the New York Times has had some insightful op-eds and stories, as well.   This is a lot of material to digest, let me see if I can help you by summarizing it.


Where to Begin?


In “The Way We Live Now, Why Bother?”, author Michael Pollan argues in the Times that none of the current debate on possible federal policy changes to combat climate change makes any sense given the wasteful way that we live .  I made a similar argument in a recent post, “Faith & the Environment.”  Wearing a t-shirt and changing your light bulbs is not enough.


However, he questioned the value of embarking on a radical lifestyle change as long as his imaginary “evil twin” in China was increasing his carbon footprint and eating more meat.


Many people don’t get the complex relationship between our food and the environment.  Some of this is touched upon in these articles.  Many don’t realize that cattle are big time polluters.  They emit incredible amounts of gas from both ends.  Stop laughing, I’m not joking.


One of the reasons that the United States Senate has refused to ratify the treaty that then-Vice President Al Gore negotiated in Kyoto, Japan in the 1990’s is because that agreement on greenhouse gas emission reductions placed no caps on developing world countries. 


However, I suspect that the real reason was that no member of Congress, just about all of whom require large campaign contributions from big businesses, wants to pass a law that will tick them off by raising the cost to do business.  A lot of voters would also be upset if prices increase on all manner of items.  Any “war” designed to combat global warming will do just that.  This effort will be a sacrifice.


Yet, the question about greenhouse gas caps in the developing world is an even tougher nut to crack.  The US and Europe began the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century.  In other words, they have had over a century to pollute the world with impunity.  We in the West have also had all of this time to get ahead of our developing world brothers and sisters in terms of prosperity and material possessions because of the modern innovations that came along with all of this economic growth.  That’s fine; it was God’s will.


Is it fair to force China, India, Brazil and others to reduce their emissions and stymie their new found economic growth and progress just as they are now getting started?  Should Americans consider the effects on the rest of the world when making farm policy here?  What would Jesus do?


One thing’s for sure, with globalization and the post-9/11 world realities there is no way we can live in isolation.  Regardless, the bible’s instruction to preach the gospel to all of Creation prevents this.  Well, what is the way forward?


The article “The New Economics of Hunger” (Washington Post 4/27/08) discusses the environmental cost of transporting food back and forth all over the world.  It is well established that worldwide prices for food are rising dramatically and that Western nations have engaged in protectionism (price supports and subsidies) to protect their farmers from competition.  This has prevented the market from slowly changing in response to increased demand over many years instead of months. 


Have we short-changed other countries on farming technology also?  Good question, the head of the UN implied such last week, but let’s leave that for another day.  Some developing countries are beginning to engage in predatory food policies to protect their own, as well.  What’s clear is that the market has not adjusted to provide efficient food distribution around the globe.


In “Shortages Threaten Farmers’ Key Tool: Fertilizer,” a New York Times piece from 4/30/08, we learn that fertilizer has doubled Vietnam’s rice crop and tripled their corn crop.  More importantly, this leaves more grain to feed animals.  The larger animals add protein to Vietnamese diets, making the new generation bigger and healthier than their parents.  What a blessing.  Other countries have had similar results.


So, the upshot of these two articles is that because of increased demand it’s not only the cost of food going up, it’s fertilizer too.  The economics of moving food and fertilizer around the world stresses the environment because it takes fossil fuels to get them there, and the best fertilizer comes from fossil fuels or must be mined (see “Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World,” New York Times article from 4/46/08).  In addition, the stability of governments is threatened when food prices increase dramatically.


Now, in “Clipping, Scrimping and Saving,” a Washington Post article from 5/1/08, the impact on average Americans is examined.  Many of us are beginning to clip coupons and change not only the way we eat but where we shop.  All this is the result of what is expected to be only a 4 or 5% overall price increase in food this year, although some staples have gone up much more.


This article also tells us that the average person in the US spends just under 10% of their income on food.  This is compared to a figure of up to 70% in the developing world where in some places some food prices have gone up over 60%.  This is the kicker.


We are starting to complain that we have to spend more time bargain-hunting and being more conscious of the price of gas as we plan our shopping trips.  But, what are our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world facing, some of whom are just beginning to reap the benefits of modernity.


The incredible poverty and hardship of the small African country of Mauritania is described in “Where Every Meal is a Sacrifice.”  This gripping Washington Post story from 4/28/08 describes how families send the breadwinning fathers on long journeys to find seasonal work.  While they are gone their families do not know anything about their welfare because there are no phones where they live.


The article describes a village where the closest cheap food is a day’s walk away in stiflingly hot temperatures.  I know from other sources that some in Africa walk almost that far just for water.  Because of price increases many are resorting to selling their last goats.  Now, goat is a very gamey-tasting meat that few Americans even eat.  One family featured in the story has already sold its goat that provided milk for breakfast.  Others are skipping meals altogether or selling their last kid goat for a few days respite from the hunger.


One man is quoted as saying that the conditions in the town are better than the dusty farming town on the edge of the Sahara desert where he used to eke out a living as a subsistence farmer.  At least in his new home, he often sees food passing by in a car, he says.  In his former home he recalled, “…you can die of hunger without realizing it.”  Sometimes there was no food even to look at.


The reporter quotes another woman who says that hunger and finding enough to eat have always been problems in her life, but that now it’s worse.


Now, compare their experience to the few inconveniences that we are up against.  It should make you feel greedy and ungrateful.  Sorry, but come on.  Doing without name brands or prepared foods is nothing compared with what others are faced with.  The sumptuous fare, full of sweet delicacies, that we take for granted are beyond the reach of many in other countries who rarely even eat meat.


On Wednesday, the heart of the problem and the solution was confirmed for me after I read “Siphoning Off Corn to Fuel Our Cars” (Washington Post, 4/30/08).  In a rehash of much that I have read over the last 6 months the reporter describes that the popular ethanol fuel (a combination of gas and alcohol distilled from corn) subsidies passed in the federal energy bill a few years ago will be our ruin.


Corn prices are through the roof.  This has caused farmers here and around the world to switch from growing grain for human consumption to corn for ethanol.  This raises the prices for grain and lessens the supply, also driving prices higher. 


It’s worse.  It turns out that ethanol actually increases greenhouse gasses not decreases them.  This is because in clearing fields for corn many either burn the brush or use gas-belching tractors and bulldozers.  In addition, the scrub and brush that is removed used to filter carbon from the air and replace it with life-giving oxygen.  The corn doesn’t perform the same role (see my blog post “Conventional Liberal Wisdom Thrown Out the Window”).


It’s still worse.  The sediment from fertilizer that runs off of farms introduces large amounts of nitrogen into bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay and the great Mississippi River.  The nitrogen “fertilizes” algae in the water.  The increased algae growth, in turn, depletes the oxygen in the water thus creating “dead zones” or killing massive amounts of fish.  This damages another aspect of our food chain.  Other crops improve the soil and need less fertilizer than corn.


The increase in grain prices generally is increasing the cost of meat because cows and chickens need grain for their feed.


Without getting into issues such as the limited nutritional value of corn or organics, five things are abundantly clear: the runaway train of ethanol subsidies must be ended or else farmers and industry will never be weaned off of this money, this money should be plowed into alternative and renewable energy instead (see “Dumb As We Wanna Be," a Times op-ed from 4/30/08), farm subsidies and price supports must be radically limited as the President has suggested, less corn should be planted and we all need to change the way we eat and interact with the environment that God has blessed us with.


Ethanol manufacturers and farmers try to argue that increased crop yields and the free market will fix these problems.  But, this fails to take into account the double environmental hit, as well as the well being of those that are being harmed in developing countries.  This is untenable.  Farmers will not make as much, but this is for the greater good.


Over the last several years the Lord has led me to ask a lot of questions about these issues.  I now am forced to confront myself, my greed and my obligation as a person of faith.  Why can’t I walk, ride my bike or take public transportation instead of drive?  Why do I eat so much meat?  Can I get by with less food?  Do I really need to use that hot water?  Why should I take a shower or bath if washing up in the bowl will do?  Maybe I don't need all that technology that burns electricity all the time?  On the Sabbath maybe I shouldn’t shop but rest.


Do I sacrifice all the time?  No.  But, the more I do it the more I get used to not having what I want , when I want it, all of the time.  I also pray for more strength so that I and the world can learn to sacrifice more.


I have begun to see the wisdom in my father turning the thermostat down so low.  Mid-winter, he would be bundled up in a thick bathrobe and the temperature would plummet.  You see, he grew up in a small W. Virginia coal mining town and it was his responsibility as a child to get up early and re-stoke the embers in the coal furnace.  I remember when I was growing up a friend’s mother served powdered milk.  Boy, have times changed.  Well, maybe they need to go back some.


This year I have signed up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) program.  I have bought a small share of a local farmer’s harvest, thus obviating the lion’s share of the fuel required to transport my vegetables for a good chunk of the year.  Ultimately, I plan to move out of the city so that I can grow much of my own food.  I will buy an electric car when a good one becomes available no matter what it looks like.  If not, I’ll get a hybrid.


Making these efforts associates you with the sacrifice of Jesus and all of our ancestors.  It also teaches me to have compassion on those in the Third World.  The Lord blesses these sacrifices, and I believe because you are being obedient in modeling yourself after Him that you receive a greater filling of the Holy Spirit. 


Regardless, these “fasts” teach you discipline and to overcome material wants.  It’s these selfish, fleshly desires that make it so hard to forgive and to love our neighbors.  An added benefit is that the money you save can be given to the poor.  This is the true purpose of fasting (see Isaiah chapter 58).


You see, I believe that we have a responsibility to do what’s right not just for the environment, not just because it builds self-discipline, and not just because it’s better for us here in America.  I believe we have a responsibility to those poor people on the other side of the planet.  Those people behind us in line. 


It’s time for the “teacher” or the “parent” to send us to the back of the line.  How can we get seconds and thirds before they even get firsts?  This is the way God wants it.  He has set this up for a reason.


Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).  You are the world and the world is you.  Embrace the world as your friend just as the Good Samaritan embraced the man lying in a ditch left for dead.  We all have the blood of Adam and Noah running through our veins, these are our brothers and sisters that we are talking about.


We must increase our foreign aid, sending more medicine and fertilizer to poorer countries, building more schools, hospitals, wells and irrigation systems.  After we do this, and sacrifice our lifestyles including what and how we eat; the rest of the world won’t hate us anymore.  The way will then be cleared for a more effective preaching of the gospel (James 2:15-17).  This is the word of God.



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