Organic food, localism, and other related buzz-activities have become extremely trendy, in large part because the earth can make us feel spiritual. In some cases, the movement substitutes for true religion (see Eat, Pray, Love), and in others it blends with religion, as in this Relevant Magazine article: “Eating God’s Way.” The author raises several important concerns but fails not only to resolve them but also to consider with what a large tractor he tills this mental ground. In short, Nathan Bechtold improperly equates Christianity with an earthy philosophy known as Agrarianism.
“Agrarians, standing in opposition to the industrial method of working the earth (chemicals, corporations and combines), position themselves as caretakers of the soil who think not only about capital gains but about manure, earthworms, grass, dirt, sustainability and the future,” Bechtold writes.
This is a gross oversimplification. A great many farmers who use tractors, irrigation, and pesticides do so with great care for the earth God has given us. They do think about earthworms, dirt, sustainability, and the future. How do I know? 1) In the long run, a farmer will go out of business if he doesn’t take care of his soil or his cows. I’ve seen large dairies where the cows have better birthing stalls than many women, and eat chocolate for breakfast. 2) I have two sets of farmers in my family. My father is a certified organic chicken farmer. My uncle and cousins are transnational potato farmers who use largely “industrial” practices. Both show extreme care for the earthy elements in their hands. They just employ different methods.
Some agribusinesses do employ reprehensible practices. Great amounts of topsoil have washed down the United States into the Gulf of Mexico from irrigation, my husband pointed out to me, and we’ve all seen those horrible documentaries with “beakless, eyeless birds” cooped in mass cages, as my dad likes to repeat whenever we kids suggest eating takeout fried chicken. But using chemicals or tractors or sending produce a long way does not necessarily mean those doing so are “raping the earth.” Bechtold reprehensibly quotes another author condemning Christians for eating Happy Meals on their way to a Right to Life rally—the disproportions here are absurd and cruel: wholesale murder of human children versus politically incorrect farming and packaging. Please.
Considering food and our environment, which Christians as stewards of the earth ought, doesn’t equal hating “industrial” farming. You are not automatically more holy or a better Christian if you eat organic, locally sourced, or whatever other sort of buzzword-attached food. Also, in inevitable cases where there is a tradeoff of human needs versus lush, unkempt, untouched greenery, I think it best to side with the human need—humans have souls, while plants do not, and cultivating the earth does not mean making it our god.
That’s why it behooves Christians to contemplate the topic, as I thank Bechtold for provoking. It is an ethical responsibility to consider how our actions impact ourselves, our neighbors, and the earth God has given us to develop wisely (note that Genesis gives Adam “dominion” over the earth, to “subdue” it—our caretaking isn’t servitude, and that’s what some weird organic attitudes promote). My husband and I made a conscious decision to leave Washington, D.C., for Indiana and plant (a very poor little) garden in an initial effort to conquer the insanity our city lifestyle was creating. It’s important, however, to consider also that without industrial farming and modern technology in transportation and crop resistance, millions of poor within the United States could not have cheap vegetables and rice available at every grocery store, and millions of poor in Third-World countries could not overcome local conditions like poor soil and drought to grow their own crops.