Grocery Store Ethics and Five Reasons They Belong in Church

I wrote this paper last semester for my Christian Ethics class at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and titled it, “Should Preachers Preach on Ethical Eating?”. Since writing for school has taken over writing for the blog, I thought I’d pass on a couple projects that would benefit more than one (professorial) reader. As I researched this paper, I learned a lot about our food and where it comes from. It’s changed our personal eating habits and will probably show up in my ministry in the church from time to time. 

Photo by Blink. Smatch Supermarket, Deerlijk, Belgium. Public domain. 5 June 2006.

Grocery Store Ethics and Five Reasons They Belong in the Church

Introduction

We all eat. For preachers, eating can be the only time of rest in a day full of good, faithful, and fruitful activities.  It’s hard enough to find affordable, convenient, healthy, and delicious food; the last thing we need is for someone add “responsible” to the list and make our hard won dinnertime an ethical minefield. Yet, the “organic” signs over the apples suggest a growing conversation in our culture, one preachers should heed for two reasons: First, many inside and outside our congregations are already thinking about this issue and want to know if the Church cares. Second, if our food choices oppress others, then we have both an obligation and an opportunity to worship and witness through our food choices. Contemporary injustice should always be thought and taught about in the Church.

Specific debates about ethical eating (eg. veganism and freeganism) will be mentioned but not concluded within the scope of this paper. My primary ethical claim is that it is wrong for individuals and churches to overlook the injustices of the modern American food system. First, I will give an overview of a fifth food value, “responsibility,” reporting the potentially unjust effects of our food choices on each of five stakeholders. Next, I will briefly acknowledge some major contemporary food ethicists. Finally, I will argue for three ethical propositions that are appropriate and necessary in the American pulpit today.

Responsibility: Who’s impacted by our food choices?

First Stakeholder: The Environment

Our global environment—for Christians, God’s creation—is enormously impacted by the way our food is produced and distributed. Food does grow on trees, but the American food industry leverages limited resources to generate unnatural amounts of product. We’re eating up our water (70% of our freshwater supplies, including ancient aquifers, are being dumped into agriculture[1]), eating up our atmosphere (18% of our greenhouse gas emissions—more than all our cars, trucks, and planes—come from cow burps and farts[2]), and eating up our fossil fuels (feedlot cows leverage corn, which leverages chemical fertilizer, which leverages oil[3]). Additionally, industrial farms are killing animals that we have no interest in eating. For example, chicken lots, housing tens of thousands of birds, spill chicken excrement into public water, stimulating algae growth that eventually dies, decomposes, and uses up all the oxygen in a river or bay.[4] We’re drawing on limited amounts of pristine planet that won’t last long at our current rate of consumption.

Food transportation is also taking a toll. Sometimes slow, maritime shipping can connect poor growers with wealthy consumers in an ecologically efficient manner,[5] but most of the time, our year-round demand for specific ingredients causes trucks and planes to chug the average American meal 1,500 miles to the dinner table.[6]  Long term, our on-demand grocery lists threaten tens of millions of peasant farmers with severe drought or flood, both brought on by our greenhouse gas emissions raising the global temperature.[7]

As Christians, we should think twice before leveraging the environment to fill our plates, whether or not the human costs are immediately apparent. Our Biblically informed worldview starts with God declaring creation “good” in Gen. 1:25 and giving humanity a commission over it in Gen. 2:15, to work it and to keep it.

Second Stakeholder: The Neighbors

Sometimes Christians overlook environmental concerns, citing doctrines that put the planet low on the priority list.[8] However, our modern food industry is already hurting farms’ neighbors. People living near vastly overcrowded pig farms report a stench that wakes them up with stinging eyes, vast swarms of flies, and children getting sick whenever the wind blows their way.[9] Antibiotics in livestock waste get washed into the groundwater, harming local residents.[10] High-density chicken farms could breed avian flu, risking lives and costing millions in outbreak preparation.[11] As ethicist Peter Singer says, “Tyson produces chicken cheaply because it passes many costs on to others.”[12] Christians should be particularly concerned that the costs of our deceptively cheap food are mostly passed on to the poor, who can only afford to live in these undesirable areas.[13]

In ancient Israel, God used Amos to pronounce  “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion…who stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”[14] Those of us who follow the same God have a responsibility to find out who’s paying for our affordable luxuries.

Third Stakeholder: The Animals

The morality of eating animals is highly debated by ethicists from a wide range of worldviews and falls outside the scope of this paper. However, the question of animal cruelty—a phrase that many people do not want to hear about, especially from PETA booths at the fair—goes beyond eating or not eating animals. Even avowed omnivores need to ask where their particular side of bacon can be on sale for $3.99 a pound. In Singer’s book, The Ethics of What We Eat, he describes his visits to factory farms that produce chicken and pork. He paints a tragic scene of breeding sows in cages too small turn around in, without straw, sitting in their own filth, constantly impregnated and ultimately disposed of in brutal fashion.[15] Chickens and cows’ lives are equally grim.

On one hand, animal rights are both established[16] and limited[17] in the Bible. On the other, we can know enough to discern that certain practices are wrong. For Christians who anticipate a day of judgment, ignorance is not bliss. Our desire to please God should motivate honest research about animals’ experiences and prayerful decision-making.

Fourth Stakeholder: The Producers

Though those at the top of the food industry are making money off of the current system, those at the bottom are paying dearly. Many coffee farmers have been squeezed out of their livelihoods by multinational behemoths.[18] Though we consider this “within the rules” of capitalism, megabrands negotiate aggressive deals for consumers that we might not drive if we were face-to-face the growers. Other types of farms are lucrative for the owner, but are built on unjust labor. Modern day slavery imprisons an estimated 27 million people (four times as many today as during 400 years of the African slave trade in the colonial era),[19] many of whom are harvesting everyday American products, like cocoa and tea. Even in the United States, some farms employ forced labor. The Immokalee Tomato case in southwest Florida uncovered a farm using illegal immigrants and charging exorbitant rent for squalid housing, effectively enslaving the pickers.[20] Across the country, “Harmful working conditions are the norm [on farms]. Safety standards are rarely met when workers spray fields with pesticides.”[21] In meat plants, Singer discovered “dirty, bloody work, often in stifling heat, under constant pressure to keep the killing lines moving no matter what so that they can slaughter up to 90,000 animals every shift.”[22] Further along the supply chain, many food retailers, such as Wal-Mart, deliver cheap food by paying their employees aggressively low wages; the store reported in 2004 that the average full-time employee made $18,000 per year.[23]

Food industry employees are paying to keep our food cheap through meager wages, health hazards, and terrible working conditions. The Bible explicitly addresses this kind of situation. In Mal. 3, God promises swift judgment on “those who oppress the hired worker in his wages.” Jam. 5:4 declares, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Our choices in the grocery aisles could make us the recipients of this threat.

Fifth Stakeholder: The Eaters

The final set of stakeholders is the eaters, around the world and here in America. While 2/3 of the world lacks sufficient food access, the other 1/3 is trying to lose weight.[24] Tragically, the eating habits of the latter perpetuate hunger among the former, as luxury foods decrease the total amount of food available on the planet. The average steer raised for beef uses 21 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of steak, which we continue to demand even though our bodies don’t need nearly the amount of protein they are receiving.[25] As one ethicist put it, “Millions of human beings are starving and dying hourly for want of a minimum quantity of the very grain now being fed uselessly to cattle in the United States.”[26] Fish farms, another example of resource-expensive food, turn cheap fish into highly prized fish like salmon. It takes multiple pounds of small fish to make a pound of salmon, accelerating the decline of the global fish stock.[27] Even if food were instantaneously distributed across the globe, our planet would need an additional 67% agricultural land for everyone to eat the American diet.[28] Our charitable giving is good, but justice will also require simpler eating.

In America, we demand this luxury food in convenient forms at low cost. To meet this demand the food industry leverages cheap corn and soy into various “food-like products,” feeding it to factory-farmed beef cattle, refining it into sugar, and so forth.[29] Despite delivering more calories more cheaply than ever before, these “food-like products” filling the majority of supermarket dramatically damage our health. [30] Advocate Jamie Oliver predicts, “[Due to] a diet of processed foods, today’s children will be the first generation ever to live shorter lives than their parents.”[31] Consumer health has become a justice issue, because undereducated communities and children are most harmed, lacking the information to make healthier choices.

The reality of luxury food, which robs the food supply of the poor and the health of the undereducated, gives credence to the Bible warnings against gluttony.  “If you have found honey,” says Prov. 25:16, “eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit.” Self-control, which Gal. 5:23 lifts up as the result of God’s Spirit in our lives, is necessarily for the wellbeing of our world, our neighbors, and our bodies.

The Conversation: Who’s talking about justice?

When it comes to food, the question isn’t whether ethical issues are in play, but where to start. The narratives and propositions of various worldviews have led ethicists and popular authors to many different prescriptions for ethical eating.

Joseph Fletcher, working off of Garrett Hardin’s controversial 1974 essay, “Lifeboat Ethics,” makes the intensely utilitarian claim, “If it can be shown to cause more hunger and misery, it is wrong to share.”[32] Rather than making decisions with the hungry in mind, he thinks wealthy countries should enjoy and multiply their own cultures. He believes Darwinian self-interest would create a world with a higher percentage of happiness.

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer focuses on animal rights.[33] His empirical approach focuses on issues of animal cruelty, researching their capacity for suffering. Establishing a system of rule utilitarianism, he concludes that animal pain should be avoided and at the end of his book advocates for a vegan lifestyle.[34]

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, makes an ethical egoist’s appeal. He tells his readers how to choose foods that will be best for their own health and, by educating readers to make more wholesome food choices, hopes to improve the food industry as a whole.

Some radical young adults choose “freeganism,” committing to live off of food that others have thrown away, based on what Singer calls “impeccably consequentialist” logic.[35] They insist that they are casting off the food industry by refusing to pay for its food or fund its practices.[36]

Most world religions have robust deontological frameworks for ethical eating. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all have codes of ethics that govern food choices and preparation. However, these ethical codes address ancient issues and are insufficient to address contemporary ethical issues in the food industry.

Government leaders legislate against absolute mayhem with various levels of success, but do not exceed the “ethical minimum” of public policy. Some laws prohibits the worst food production problems, others undergird systemic injustice.

Global Christian leaders, like Pope Benedict XVI[37] and the Archbishop of Canterbury[38] have taken up the banner of ethical eating, but the Protestant American Church does not have a unified policy or plan.

The shortcoming of most food ethicists today is that they approach our food system from only one angle—be it health or labor or cruelty—when in reality, ethical eating is the height of complexity. Not only do we need to consider the five stakeholders listed above, we must account for the infrastructure that currently in place, shoppers’ limited resources (many of whom are spending the meager wages of the same companies who fill the shelves), and the vital role that food plays in our relationships and community. Change is slow on a national level and sometimes divisive on a personal one. Yet, the Church is uniquely positioned to lead change in the midst of this complexity.

Ethical eating is a perfect opportunity for the Church to embody Niebuhr’s model of “Christ transforming culture.” While our bodies demand some level of participation in the culture’s market-driven system, our faith simultaneously demands the transformation of its unjust structures. Consider James Davison Hunter’s call to drive incremental change while hoping for systemic change:

…any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.[39]

Because the Church does not speak and write for the relativized jury of humanism, but before the Almighty God, it can preach ethical eating as a means of existential worship and witness in the world, transforming the individuals who make up society.

Preaching: What should we say with conviction?

Let’s return to our original question: What should preachers say about ethical eating? “Good” is both personal and controversial. Yet, given the ways our choices can help or harm the stakeholders around us, ethical eating is an important aspect of faithful Christian witness and should be thought and taught about in the Church. There are at least three points that preachers and other Christian leaders should confidently communicate:

  1. Food ethics are complex, but we must step into the complexity. This paper recognized 5 food values and presented 5 sub-values (the stakeholders) to responsibility. That’s a lot to consider when staring down display case of eggs! Nonetheless, these issues are inescapable and ethically laden. Our current dilemma over whether to eat animal products and which ones to eat shares a lot in common with the 1st c. issue of meat sacrificed to idols. Like Paul in Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 8, and 1 Cor. 10, we should address the complex issue and address it with grace.
  2. The current factory farm system is ethically untenable for Christians.  Considering that all five stakeholders (environment, neighbors, animals, producers, and eaters) unjustly bear the cost of our cheap food, it is appropriate for preachers to highlight the need for food reform. We must encourage businesspeople to innovate toward justice and eaters to make incremental, practical shifts away from the current system, like eating less processed foods or meat. Christian leaders should research and respond to the factory farm system for themselves, so that when the time comes to preach Micah 6:8 or Luke 4:18, the contemporary, relevant issue of food ethics jumps off the page as a major illustration.
  3. We must repent of our greed and adopt simpler appetites. Even Singer, an avowed atheist, pleads with the church to rediscover “the old-fashioned virtue of frugality.”[40] Democracy and Capitalism alone cannot address the greed that created and sustains this unjust system. Christian businesspeople must sacrificially pursue justice alongside profits. Christian consumers must sacrificially pursue justice alongside enjoyment. The longer we eat this way, the longer many won’t eat.

Conclusion

Though many preachers are nervous to broach a subject as personal and complex as food ethics (or to turn that stone at all, recognizing the probable need for change in their own personal lives), the modern processed food industry, epitomized in factory farms, is an unjust system that the Church must address. It is unethical for us to protect our own ignorant bliss as the cost of our seemingly cheap food, borne by the environment, farms’ neighbors, animals, food producers, and eaters around the world. Preachers should familiarize themselves with the calls for reform in the broader culture, and adopt some baseline propositions for justice as appropriate contemporary applications of God’s Word. To transform our food culture, we need an acknowledgment of complexity, revelation of the factory farm system, and a call for simple eating as Christ-following sacrifice.

Appendix A: Relevant Scripture Passages

This is a reference tool for preachers. The question isn’t really, “which passages can I stand on to teach this topic?” but rather, “which passages would compel me to preach about justice, which today involves ethical eating?” Here are some passages that might beg application in our food choices.

Reference Idea
Genesis 1:25 God called creation good.
Genesis 1:26 God gave humanity dominion over animals.
Genesis 2:2 God, in his dominion over creation, rested.
Genesis 2:15 God commanded Adam to work and keep Eden.
Genesis 9:3 God gave both plants and animals as food for people.
Genesis 9:10 God made a covenant with all animals.
Exodus 23:10 God commanded fallow land every 7 years.
Exodus 23:12 God commanded rest for farm animals and slaves every 7 days.
Leviticus 11 God gave the Israelites a specific code of food ethics.
Nehemiah 5 Nehemiah restores a just economy among the exiles.
Psalm 148 All creation praises God.
Proverbs 12:10 Righteous people regard the life of their animals.
Proverbs 23:19-21 Gluttonous eaters and drinkers come to ruin.
Proverbs 25:16 Don’t eat too much of a good thing just because you can.
Isaiah 58:6-12 God desires the breaking of yokes and care for the poor.
Amos 6:1-7 Those in luxury are judged for their obliviousness.
Micah 6:8 God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
Malachi 3:5 God will judge the wicked, including oppressive employers.
Matthew 25:34-46 When we feed the hungry, God considers it service to him.
Luke 4:16-21 Jesus came with good news for victims.
Acts 10:9-16 God showed Peter all foods were good to show that all people were.
Romans 12:17 Thoughtfully live honorably before the world.
Romans 14 We should not judge one another, but there is still right and wrong.
1 Corinthians 10:31 Eating is one of the many things that we should honor God with.
Galatians 5:22-23 The Spirit’s work in our life includes self-control.
Philippians 4:17-21 Living by one’s appetite is antithetical to walking in Christ.
Colossians 1:16 All things were created through and for the Son.
1 Timothy 6:9 Those who desire to be rich fall into many harmful desires.
Hebrews 1:3 The Son upholds the universe.
James 5:1-6 God sees and condemns those who profit from unjust wages.
1 John 2:16 Worldly things, including lust of the flesh, are not from God.

Appendix B: Annotated Bibliography

Food ethics are difficult to understand because most influential authors focus on one or two values or stakeholders over the rest of the relevant factors. It’s best to read at least a few that highlight different values so that their various conclusions can be weighed regarding a particular food purchase. These are the resources I used for this paper and I would recommend all of them in conversation with the others.

 

Clawson, Julie. Everyday Justice. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 2009.

Primary Concerns: Just Labor, Just Environment Impact. This short book by a young, evangelical blogger takes a close look at a few, isolated issues. Though it doesn’t address food ethics in a comprehensive way, the seven chapters on coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, and debt offer thought-provoking insights about important issues in contemporary consumer ethics. Clawson also makes a strong case for Christians’ responsibility to understand and address these problems.

 

Foster, Clare. Sharing God’s Planet. London: Church House, 2005.

Primary Concerns: Just Environmental Impact. This short book, commissioned by the Church of England following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2004 address on the environment, considers the array of environmental crises from a theological perspective. Though it does not focus primarily on food (and is written in language unfamiliar to many evangelicals), it provides a model for the type of thinking and conversation that needs to grow in the Church.

 

Hill, Graham. “Why I’m a Weekday Vegetarian.” TED Talks, February 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/graham_hill_weekday_vegetarian.html

Primary Concerns: Just Environmental Impact, Food Scarcity. This short, thoughtful talk presented a gradual step toward ethical eating that our family has adopted. In five minutes, Hill refers to the major arguments for vegetarianism and shares his pragmatic solution: weekday vegetarianism.

 

Kenner, Robert. Food, Inc. (2008).

Primary Concerns: Just Labor, Animal Rights, Health. Annie and I didn’t actually watch this documentary until a couple months after I submitted the paper. Actually, we didn’t watch this documentary until last night, which is what inspired me to post my paper. It’s well worth 90 minutes of your time and it’s streaming on Netflix as of this posting. While some scenes are uncomfortable to watch, the filmmakers are thoughtful and helpful, seeking disclosure over manipulation.

 

Lucas Jr., George R. and Thomas W. Ogletree (Editors). Lifeboat Ethics. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Primary Concerns: Food Scarcity, Global Hunger. This collection of essays was sparked by Garret Hardin’s 1974 essay, “Lifeboat Ethics,” which suggested that the most developed countries had no responsibility to feed developing countries. A collection of scholars, including Hardin, debate his issue from a number of perspectives, with Lucas and Thomas concluding against Hardin’s thesis in their closing remarks.

Oliver, Jamie. “Why a Food Revolution?” Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. http://www.jamieoliver.com/us/foundation/jamies-food-revolution/why. 12 November, 2013.

Primary Concerns: Health. Jamie Oliver of Food Network fame believes that processed foods are killing Americans. He started a foundation to teach kids how to cook and advocates for fresher food in schools.

 

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Primary Concerns: Health, Sustainability. Michael Pollan wrote In Defense of Food as a positive prescription to follow his somewhat cynical The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He writes on a popular level, eschewing the majority of nutritional research, which he labels “nutritionism,” underwritten by the industrial food complex. His simple mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants” is based on 200 pages railing against processed food-like products, the gluttunous American diet, and our insatiable appetite for unprecedented amounts of meat. Of all the books I read for this paper, this one focuses almost exclusively on what will be good for our bodies.

Scully, Matthew. “Fear Factories: The Case For Compassionate Conservatism—for Animals.” The American Conservative, 23 May 2005.

Primary Concerns: Animal Cruelty. This interesting article by George W. Bush’s speechwriter makes an impassioned plea to conservatives to trade in their mockery of animal activists for anti-factory farm advocacy grown in their own ideology.

 

Singer, Peter. The Ethics of What We Eat. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006.

Primary Concerns: Animal Cruelty, Just Labor, Just Environmental Impact. In this lengthy book, vegan and “most influential philosopher alive” (New Yorker) Peter Singer and his colleague Jim Mason research three American family who make food choices based on various levels of social consciousness. Singer and Mason eat with the families and follow them to the grocery store, using their shopping lists as a starting point for investigative research in a number of food production plants and farms. They uncover the world of factory farming in occasionally stomach-churning detail, but are surprisingly open to whatever changes readers are willing to make, even if they don’t become vegans themselves.  To put pictures with the stories, consider http://www.farmsanctuary.org/learn/factory-farming/


[1] Peter Singer, The Ethics of What We Eat (New York: Penguin, 2006), 234.

[2] Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 105.

[3] Singer, EWWE, 63.

[4] Ibid, 30.

[5] See Singer’s comparison of California rice vs. Bengali rice, ibid, 146. “Local” food is an important consideration, but not an end-all solution.

[6] Clawson, EJ, 88.

[7] Singer, EWWE, 145.

[8] Notably, 20th c. American premillenialism has often diminished environmental concerns.

[9] Ibid, 32.

[10] Clawson, EJ, 106.

[11] Ibid, 35.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Clare Foster, Sharing God’s Planet (London: Church House, 2005), 9.

[14] Amos 6:1,4,6 (ESV).

[15] Singer, EWWE, 45-47.

[16] Proverbs 12:10 (ESV) says, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”

[17] Genesis 9 (ESV) says, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”

[18] See Clawson, EJ, 35.

[19] Ibid, 59.

[20] Ibid, 101.

[21] Ibid, 102.

[22] Singer, EWWE, 27.

[23] Ibid, 77.

[24] Foster, SGP, 15.

[25] James Sellers, “Famine and Interdependence,” in Lifeboat Ethics, eds. George R. Lucas Jr. and Thomas W. Ogletree (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 114.

[26] Stuart W. Hinds, “On the Relations of Medical Triage to World Famine,” in Lifeboat Ethics.

[27] Singer, EWWE, 123.

[28] Ibid, 123.

[29] Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (New York: Penguin, 2009), 117.

[30] Ibid, 121.

[31] Jamie Oliver, “Why a Food Revolution?” Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. 12 November 2013.

[32] Joseph Fletcher, “Feeding the Hungry,” in Lifeboat Ethics, 68.

[33] Singer, EWWE, 252.

[34] See ibid, 276 where Singer argues that eating octopus is wrong because they can probably feel pain, but eating oysters is not, because they probably cannot.

[35] Ibid, 268.

[36] Kant’s categorical imperative highlights a shortcoming of this system, since everyone couldn’t adopt freeganism at once.

[37] See Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time.

[38] See Foster, SGP.

[39] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford, 2010), Kindle ed., loc. 4541.

[40] Singer, EWWE, 281.

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