Science in Christian Perspective



World Food Supply: The Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel


From: JASA 28 (Supplement 1976): 15-20.


Last Summer during our vacation, my family and I drove across Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and part of Wyoming. You know what we saw! Mile after mile after mile of corn fields, potato fields, soybean fields, wheat fields. In Wyoming, mile after mile of scrubby grassland, more acres of grassland than I had ever imagined. As far as one could see, even from the elevated vantage point of Interstate highways, nothing but sky and grass.
And most of that grassland was dotted with cattle. The herds looked tiny, like ants my children said, lost in that vast expanse; but we must have seen thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of head of cattle.

For someone who had spent almost two years dealing with food shortages, it was a startling experience.

I had a similar experience last spring. I was to speak to the Cadillac, Michigan, Diaconal Conference of the Christian Reformed Church on fond. Knowing my audience would be made up of farmers, many of them beef producers, I was nervous. As I drove into the area, I grew more and more apprehensive. Mile after mile after mile of freshly plowed fields, ready for planting. Houses, every half mile at most, more often, several miles between them. How could I convince people that there is an international problem of population growth and food shortage?

Food organizations, many of them Christian and/or church-related, tell us that we must stop eating beef. The American Cattlemen's association replies that acres and acres of otherwise useless grassland can he turned.

The facts are complicated and complex. But these two things are true: we are rich in food, while others have only a bowl of rice.

into an excellent source of protein by beef cattle. Food organizations tell us that cattle eat so many tons of grain each year. The cattlemen's association replies that much of that grain is unfit for human consumption. Food organizations point out that one pound of beef represents 6-8 pounds of grain, while one pound of poultry represents only two pounds of grain. The cattlemen reply that the grain poultry eats is grain humans could eat while the grain beef cattle eat is not.

One of my farm listeners in Cadillac tells me that some economy beef comes from dairy cattle that have stopped producing milk, a gentleman from the Farm Bureau assures me that all economy grade beef is entirely grass fed, and a representative of the American Friends' Service Committee insists that such statements just show that the Farm Bureau is being influenced by the agri-business mentality. Where in all this cacophony of claims and counter claims is one to find the truth about food-about American agriculture, about agriculture around the world, about food shortages, famine, American and other western consumption, and above all about a Christian's duty in all of this complexity?

Two Certainties

Full and complete truth about the matter of food and food shortage is difficult to come by. The predictions are only estimates, sometimes only guesses. But they are the best we have. And in the face of the possible dangers that we face if we refuse to pay attention, it seems that we ought to act on the best information we have, knowing that some or even most of it may not be accurate.

That information makes clear at least two things:

Fact #1. The wheat fields of Nebraska and the range land of Wyoming notwithstanding, people all over the world are going hungry. Some are starving but the real problem is far more wisespread than starvation. The problem of food shortage extends to apparently well-fed people whose diets are short of protein. It extends to children who look healthy, but who will never have the energy and interest they might have because their diets lack essential vitamins. Malnutrition, lack of proper diet, and intestinal parasites that steal nutrition from their hosts, are the real killers.

Millions of the world's people live on the brink of disaster. They are peasant farmers who work an acre or two or three. In years when the weather is good and family members are not ill, they grow enough food to keep themselves alive, to store some seed for next year's planting, and maybe even a bit extra to send a child to school or buy some medical care. But the slightest had weather sends their harvest dropping to the point where they will be hungry part of the year. The slightest crop failure wipes out their ability to save some seed for planting; that means that next year's crop will grow only if they can find someone to lend them money for planting, and whatever extra comes in that year will go to the money lender. Two years of bad crops may he enough to cause them to lose their land to their creditors. More than two years and they become entirely dependent on their governments for even the most basic necessities.

Fact #2. Over against the precarious lives of these millions-really even billions-stand three major food exporting countries-the United States, Canada, and Australia. The U.S. is by far the largest exporter of the three. Here is a nation so productive in food and so affluent in its eating habits that obesity is a major health problem, a nation that has for years had an agricultural policy geared to cutting production rather than increasing it, a nation that controls almost 70% of the world market in grains, a nation whose liquor industry uses enough grain each year to feed 20 million people, a nation that eats 70% of the world's tuna catch and more grain per person each year than any other people in the history of mankind. A nation that can, quite literally, decide whether certain hungry people will live or die.

The facts are complicated and complex. But these two things are true: we are rich in food. Others have only a howl of rice.

What is the Christian's responsibility in the face of such disparity among God's creatures?
Facing Reality
The first of these responsibilities is to face the way the world is. Few of us have really assimilated the difference between our way of life and that of the rest of the world.

A famous example for helping us see the world is cited by Arthur Simon in his book Bread for the World.

Imagine ten children at a table dividing up food. The three healthiest load their plates with large portions, including most of the meat, fish, milk, and eggs. They eat what they want and discard the leftovers. Two other children just get enough to meet their basic requirements. Three of the remaining five manage to stave off hunger by filling up on bread and rice. The other two die, one from dysentery, the other from pneumonia because they are too weak to survive these diseases.

Let me paint another picture. One day last summer, I spent the day in my office reading materials on hunger, world trade, and other related issues. I don't have any pictures of starving children in my office, but they hover in the background of my mind. I left the office, picked up my children, and drove to a friend's house. We sat on a beautifully manicured lawn. My children-healthy, strong-swam, dived, played in the friend's swimming pool. At dinner we ate large helpings of barbecued chicken and potato salad. We were, we said, "stuffed." In the garage stood two cars, with my car out in front. In the house were separate bedrooms for each of the children, two separate rooms for "living" the living room and a family room, and two different rooms for dining-the kitchen and the dining room. Suddenly I saw that scene superimposed on the pictures of the hungry children that cross my desk almost every day. I felt I'd been thrown into a surrealistic painting. Here I was with my marvelously straight and strong-limbed children in a setting so ordinary to us what must it look like to God? What would it look like if we could see a picture of ourselves each day set next to a picture of the rest of the world?

I am not interested in increasing guilt. I am not

Karen DeVos is news coordinator for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. A graduate of Calvin College and Brown University, Ms. DeVos taught writing and English literature at the college level for 10 years before joining CRWRC two and one half years ago. The author of several articles in Christian periodicals, she is the author of a book published early in 1976 entitled A Woman's Worth and Work, A Christian Perspective. At CRWRC, Ms. DeVos's duties include developing and encouraging the church's response to the world food crisis.

suggesting that we ought all reduce ourselves to the living standards of the peasants in less developed countries. I just want to make us aware, make us see, how we are living.

Our staff at the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee sometimes has morning coffee together. One day last summer the coffee conversation centered for a few minutes on our gripes about the air conditioning system. Suddenly one staff member said, "Isn't it nice that we have nothing to complain about but the air conditioning?" That's what I want us to see, to become aware of how incredibly, fantastically, wildly, amazingly luxurious our lives are, compared to those of the billions of other people who live on this earth.

Why do I want us to become aware of this? Why do I say that the Christian's first responsibility is to know how it really is? Because I believe that when Christians face up to the realities of the world food situation, their lives will change also.

A Change of Attitude

First of all will be a change of attitude. Someone asked me the other day if my study of the world food situation had changed my family's eating habits. I wasn't sure whether my study had changed them or the increasing prices at the grocery store had changed them, but they have changed. And we seldom complain about food prices. How can be possibly complain about the cost of beef when we know that most people can never buy any? How can we complain about the cost of onions, when we know they're strictly a luxury? How can we complain about grocery bills when we realize that at least half the items in our basket are things we could do without-would do without if we were average people living anyplace but North America.

We have developed, have been encouraged to develop by our consumer society, several very bad attitudes. One is that life will he "better" if we can have more or different things, be it food, appliances, or furniture. The other is that we have a "right" to live in the style to which we have become accustomed. We are being deprived of our "rights' if we can no longer afford a roast for Sunday dinner, or we can't afford strawberries during strawberry season this year. Our rights, if we consider ourselves just average members of the human race presently alive, our rights come to perhaps slightly less, maybe a tiny bit more, than a barely adequate diet.

A Change in Lifestyle

Besides changing our attitudes, awareness will bring about a change in the way we live. I am not advocating that we all take vows of poverty. I do advocate that we reduce our consumption of energy intensive foods, whether in the form of eating less highgrade beef or in the form of eating less processed food. I advocate that we let the American food industry know that we will not succumb to their enticements to buy bugles, twisties, freakies, crunchies, chippies, dippies, and horns. That we are interested in and willing to pay for a supply of fresh, high quality, nutritious, honest-togoodness food, but that we will not encourage ourselves or our children in the wasteful eating patterns that the food processing industry is constantly thrusting upon us.

The Problem of Distribution

Unfortunately, however, personal change is not enough. We could all reduce our eating level to essential quantities of only the necessary elements, and it would not save one starving child in Bangladesh unless we somehow make the transfer from here to there. Or better yet, find a way to provide that child with food grown there. To put it less personally, the problem with food is not only one of supply, but also one of distribution. And the second thing Christians must do is work on the problem of distribution.

Let me try to describe for you some aspects of that problem. The United States earns much of its trade income by exporting food. And because we export so much of our agricultural production to paying customers, we are able to import all the other things that we need and want which are produced elsewhere, most noticeably, of course, petroleum. That means that the export of food is important to our economy.

But every time we sell wheat to Russia or soybeans to West Germany or beef to Japan, we decrease the supply of those items available to poor countries. And as countries like Russia become willing to buy and pay, the price goes up and the poorer countries are left with less and less chance of being able to pay for their food import needs. What we frequently do if they can't pay, is offer them the food as a loan, at what looks like a generously low interest rate of something like 3%. But a country like Bangladesh, which is poor to begin with, and which needs to import food year after year, soon finds that even paying that low interest rate is costing them a sizable portion of their budget. And even when we give them the food, we often require them to pay for transporting it, and that becomes a sizable cost to them also.

Besides the burden on the less developed country, there is, of course, the problem at home. When food prices begin to spurt upward, the U.S. government stops or limits exports. This means that poor countries may be unable to buy at any price, even if they are dependent on imports to feed their populations. Such steps are taken, of course, to prevent food prices in the U.S. from rising more rapidly than Americans will tolerate. The problem for us is to balance our needs against those of the less developed countries of the world.

The distribution of food among the nations of the world is really part of a larger question. What is the obligation of one nation to another in the matter of sharing resources? We seem to think that the OPEC nations have some obligation to share their oil with us, that we have some right to buy it at a reasonable price. Do we? And if we do, then what is our obligation toward the selling of food? Is food, as Earl Butz has said, "One more tool in our negotiating kit" or even a weapon with which to force other nations into line with our will? Is it legitimate for a nation to use selfinterest as its main guideline in determining export policies for something as basic as food?

National Self-Interest

This quickly brings us to a still more basic question. Where may the self-interest of a nation fit into a Christian's scheme of values? Suppose we know that it is against the interest of the U.S. to sell or give any more food to, let us say, Ethiopia. May I, as a Christian, make the calculation that the future of the U.S. is more important than the lives of starving Ethiopians?

Much of the distribution problem of the world's food supply is determined by the trade agreements made among the nations of the world. May a nation use its trade agreements to protect the impressively high standard of living to which we, in the developed world, have become accustomed? Or is a nation, like an individual, required of God to share with the needy, to attempt to redistribute wealth so that everyone enjoys basic physical well being? What are the obligations of rich countries to poor countries? The same as those of rich people to poor people?

The problem of food distribution, then, is no easy matter. It is not entirely clear what our obligations as a nation are in the matter of sharing food, and it is not entirely clear how we can meet those obligations once we have determined them. But what is clear, it seems to me, is that as citizens of a nation that controls a larger share of the world's food trade than the OPEC nations do of its oil trade, we are responsible for what our nation does with that tremendous agricultural resource the Lord has given us. We are responsible for the behavior of our government toward poor nations.

Political Action

If we are to do anything about redistributing the world's food supply (as well as its other resources) we must engage in political action. I do not mean, of course, that every one of us is required to run for office, or even to get actively into party politics. What is required is a concern for the poor and how our governments oppress the poor or help to alleviate the problems of the poor. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Lyle P. Schertz has asserted

No major political force in the United States is embracing the food needs of the lower-income countries for any reason-charity, security, or economic self interest.

In other words, nobody with any clout in this country cares whether the poor of the world get fed or not.
If Schertz is right about that, and I suspect that he is, it is a disgrace to the Christian church, That the church of Jesus Christ, which Christ so clearly indicated must have concern for the poor, does not care what happens to that share of God's creatures who happen to live on the other side of a national border, is a clear indication that it is no longer a faithful church. As responsible citizens of the world's great food-producing nations, we are required to do what we can to make our governments responsible to the needs of the poor.

Still, There is Hope

This litany of difficulties and responsibilities and complexities probably leaves you tired and depressed. I don't blame you. It frequently leaves me depressed and discouraged, too. And perhaps you are wondering what possible relevance my title has to this list of perplexities?

Why the Light at the beginning of the tunnel?

Because I believe that there is hope. We have, in fact, been given a few years of grace in dealing with this issue.
The immediate cause of the recent food shortages was a series of very bad crop years in large sections of Asia, in Russia, and in parts of the U.S. These inadequate harvests, which began in about 1972, coincided with the decision on the part of the U.S. government to get the government out of the food storage business. We began getting rid of our surpluses, selling much of our wheat stock to Russia in the now infamous deal.

Suddenly people realized that the entire stockpile of grain in the world was down to something like 27 days worth of food. A major crop failure in one of the big grain producing countries, like the U.S. or Canada, would mean disaster. Out of those concerns grew the recent publicity about food shortages.

I suspect that the problem of food shortage will not continue to dominate the headlines during the next few years. If the major fond-growing countries have good harvests for a few years, the scarcity problems will ease. But what has been permanently engraved on our minds is the shocking collision course the world is on between population growth and increasingly affluent eating habits on the one hand, and food production on the other. Although we may ease our difficulties for a few years, eventually we will face severe food shortages, if we do not do something about them now. What can we do?

First of all, we can increase food supply. At home, that is, in the U.S. and Canada, we need to find ways to encourage farmers to plant and grow more crops, rather than less. That means finding some means, and being willing to pay for it, to keep the prices paid to farmers from fluctuating so much that a farmer may make no profit. I cannot suggest such a scheme. I asked a group of farmers about it once, and one said, "If I could tell you that, I'd be Secretary of Agriculture." Well, apparently one can be Secretary of Agriculture without having such a scheme. But we need one: some way to encourage production without endangering farm incomes.

We can even more certainly increase food supply grown abroad. We have lived for years with the myth that American agriculture is the best way to grow food, and American farmers have done wonderfully well in feeding not only us but other people around the world, The American system of agriculture is almost miraculus in the abundance it supplies. But it will not do to export that system to other countries. For one thing, American agriculture is energy intensive, rather than labor intensive. That means that we use petroleum based energy to run machines and produce fertilizer rather than use hand labor. With our wide plains and sparse population it makes sense to do that.

But in most of the less developed world, hand labor is available in huge amounts, land is scarce, and capital to buy machinery is lacking. In such a situation, the solution is to make use of that huge labor supply. This can he done by encouraging peasant farmers to cultivate intensively every inch of their two and three-acre plots. Japan and Taiwan, using such methods, grow more food per cultivated acre than any other countries in the world, including the U.S.

These small farmers need education about improved methods, and they need a supply of credit to get them through the lean years when harvests are not adequate. They need some kind of security that if they try something new, they will not go hungry if it fails. When such support is offered, they can and do increase food supply significantly.
These peasant farmers also need water control systems, small earthen dikes that will protect fields and homes from annual flooding, and small pumps that will permit irrigation in the dry season, thereby allowing double and triple cropping in some climates.

We need research, especially geared to small farms in tropical and semi-tropical climates.

One of the most important things the U.S. as a nation or a government can do is to encourage less developed countries to make agriculture a top priority item in their development schemes. In the past our foreign aid has frequently given preference to countries who wanted to develop industrial or manufacturing capabilities. We must start emphasizing increased agricultural productivity in our foreign aid agreements.

The United States is a nation of generous people. But we have been disillusioned by tales of scandal in our foreign aid programs, and too easily discouraged by difficulties. In those countries where we have concentrated our aid, such as Korea and Taiwan, great strides have been made. But we must not, may not give up. Part of our problem is that we have seen foreign aid as a way of protecting our own self interest and of exporting democracy. When a nation that we have supported does not live up to our expectations, we think foreign aid has failed. But it has not failed, regardless of changes in government, if we have brought about genuinely improved well-being for the people of that country.

Besides these possibilities for increasing food supply, we need better methods of distribution. We need to start using world trade arrangements to bring about improved living conditions among the poor, instead of using them to support the life styles of the rich. We need a serious commitment on the part of the developed countries to the task of bringing about needed changes in the poorer countries.

These things are not beyond our power. They can be done. They will take time, effort, and a collective will.

A Collective Will

The collective will-that is, I believe, the place where we need to be putting our emphasis right now. We

Is it legitimate for a nation to use selfinterest as its main guideline in determining export policies for something as basic as food?

need to be increasing our own awareness and that of others. We need to be educating ourselves, our neighhors, and especially our political leaders to what we as Christians believe is the right way for our nation to go.

Most of us have heard of "lifeboat ethics" and "triage" in dealing with the food situation. Lifeboat ethics refers to the belief, seriously set forth by some scientists, that we in the developed world are like people in a lifeboat, surrounded by the drowning billions of the less developed world. If we try to take them all aboard, we will all drown; therefore let us save ourselves instead.

"Triage" refers to the process of deciding that some of the world's people or nations have such a disparity between population and food supply, that there is no hope for them; therefore we must choose the most promising nations, concentrate our resources there, and let the rest die.

At the moment we do not need to make such difficult decisions. The world has not reached the point where we need to invoke either of these ways of dealing with our problems. It is the responsibility of each of us to do what we can to make sure that the world never does reach that point.

What Must the Christian Do?

What then is the individual Christian's responsibility in all of this? What, in a nutshell, must we do?

First, we must become genuinely aware of how luxurious our life style is, and how it affects the lives of others. That will change our attitudes toward many things.

Second, we must he willing to reduce our standard of living, our wasteful, affluent, luxurious consumption of the world's resources, in the interests of giving others a better life.

Third, we must mobilize the collective will of our nations to concern themselves with the plight of the poor. And through that mobilization, bring about government policies that encourage basic improvements in the lives of the poor. You can do that by becoming part of a Christian political influence group such as Bread for the World. You can do that by encouraging your family, friends and relatives to become aware of the problems. You can do that by supporting the right kind of foreign aid, by being aware that one goal of foreign aid is improved lives, not just our own military security.

Fourth, we must, as members of the body of Christ, the church, be a witness to Christ's love for all peoples. We must witness concretely, in ways that can be seen and heard and felt, to the fact that Jesus Christ cares about the poor of the world. We must be his hands and feet in bringing about relief of poverty. You can do that through supporting your local congregation's and other congregations' efforts to meet the needs of the poor at home. You can do that by making sure that your local congregation's "lifestyle", that is, the way it as an organization spends its money indicates concern for the poor. You can do that by making sure that your own personal lifestyle, the way you spend your money, shows concern for the poor.

I have been to several food conferences in the course of my work on the food issue, and I have read about even more food conferences. I have met and talked with, and read material written by, Christians and Jews of all stripes, and by humanists. I am convinced that Reformed Christians and other Christians who share some of our Reformed sensibilities have a world view that makes us peculiarly suited to the work that needs to be done on this issue.
We have always claimed that all of life was under the lordship of Jesus Christ. We didn't perhaps expect that the matter of whether to eat potato chips or fresh potatoes, or how much fertilizer to use, would become moral issues. But when we realize it, we see that it is only the detailed working out of what we have always confessed-that commitment to Jesus Christ makes difference in every part of life.

We Calvinists understand, perhaps better than any other people in the world, the extent of sin and greed in the human heart. We understand our own, and we understand other people's. And because we are aware of that, we are in a good position to speak to our nation about its selfishness. We will not be taken in by the argument that we are so blessed because we are so good, or so hard-working, or so much more sensible than others of God's children. We are aware that no matter how much effort and education we invest in people, we will never make them perfect. We know that there will always be some greed and corruption in the people we seek to help, and we do not require the poor of Bangladesh to go hungry unless they can guarantee the honesty of their political leaders. Most especially, we know that duty, doing what needs to be done, and living in obedience, do not depend upon immediate results. We must exhibit a dogged determination, even when results seem insignificant or slow in coming, in the matter of feeding the world. We understand that changing the minds and hearts of people is not something that happens in a flash, that no stroke of the Presidential pen can change the habits and beliefs of a nation. It is for us, the followers of Jesus Christ, to set as our task the changing of the will of our nation, so that we become the defenders of the poor and oppressed, rather than their oppressors. 

Remember the painful death of Jesus Christ for us. You are not being asked to live in pain or to die in agony for the sake of others. You are being asked to give up some time, some effort, a little pleasure, some recreation, some luxury-in order that other of God's image bearers may live more healthily, and more wholly.