Photo by Terra Atwood
Sprinkled throughout Professor Christopher Doran’s office is: a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, a bobblehead Jesus, and a Segway, on which he glides to and from work. A graduate of Pepperdine’s Natural Sciences Division and University of California Berkeley’s school of theology, Doran is ambidextrous in his discussions of ecology and theology; science and religion. What follows is a Q&A on food security, climate change, and what food matters to the Christian faith, inspired in part by Doran’s recent book, “Hope in the Age of Climate Change.”
Q: What are some of the biggest threats to food security in the world right now?
A: Well, one of the first things I would think of as a major food-security threat would be the scarcity of fresh water around the planet. As more and more water goes to industrialization through electricity generation or plastic manufacturing or other things like that, less water is made available for agriculture. And on top of that, the more we switch to a dairy-and-meat-rich diet, a lot of water goes to that and less water goes to other places that need it for food and agriculture. That’s one thing I would think about.
I also think the erosion of topsoil … As we’ve adopted these monocultural techniques that use a whole bunch of petroleum-based fertilizers — 150 or so years of that is starting to catch up with us, and the topsoil is eroding quicker than it can be replaced.
And then if you think about food security on the marine side as well: All those nitrogen-based fertilizers are running into the rivers and then running down off the coast and are causing hypoxic regions in the Gulf of Mexico and other places around the world where it’s becoming tougher and tougher to fish and to find marine creatures to eat. And so that’s becoming an issue.
Q: Which will we experience first: A global food crisis or a global water crisis?
A: Listening to the military people, it’s the water. People can go without food a little bit longer than without water. [But] most farmers would tell you: It’s not like we have a storehouse of crops around the planet the way that other civilizations tried to do. But the water demands because of industrialization are pressuring agriculture in ways that we didn’t see in previous centuries. We have India and China right next to each other, and the Himalayas only have so much water. When you have [36 percent] of the world’s population fighting over a very tiny amount of water today, that can lead to possible nuclear conflict down the road… and Pakistan is in the middle of all that.
Q: How will climate change affect food security in the next 50 years?
A: Well the easy way to say it is that [climate change] just makes everything worse. It does exacerbate things. When you have situations of little water, it’s going to be even less. When you have situations of these “bomb cyclones” — these sort of mass flood events — you’re going see more extreme [versions] of those. It just makes things worse all over the place … The deserts expand; the waters go up.
I mean, we already know the heating of the world’s oceans is changing the food cycles of marine creatures and so, you know, people in Thailand — particularly poor people — that relied on shrimp all their lives are seeing the salinity changes harming oyster and shrimp beds. I’ve been reading about [how] salinity changes, particularly when you have massive cyclonic events or hurricanes pushing saltwater into not just a small island nations in the Pacific but, like, Bangladesh … Every time a cyclone hits them, more and more salt water gets deposited into their rice beds, which is making it harder and harder to grow rice. So that salinity change from those events can cause farmers to scramble in ways they’ve never had to deal with before.
Q: Is there enough food to go around?
A: The UN suggests, and I think with good research behind it, that with current arable land, water, and technology on the planet, there’s about 2700 calories per person for about 7.5 billion people — or roughly what we have right now. So availability, if we’re thinking about it that way — there are enough calories to go around … The access [problem] has to do with who are we feeding and to what are we feeding those calories … In China and India and places with vast more folks, they’re feeding all their calories to chickens and to pigs and to cattle, and that then diverts lots of calories away from people that need calories, you know? And so that 2700, availability-wise, turns into a much different number when you’re thinking about actual access to that when you go from a plant-rich diet to a meat-and-dairy-rich diet.
Q: What is the future of meat?
I think there’s a there’s a short-term and long-term kind of game with meat. I mean, I think in the short term we’re only going to see the expansion of meat production. The biggest hog organization in the U.S. was bought out a few years ago by Chinese conglomerate, you know. So Smithfield, which is in North Carolina and is the biggest hog slaughtering house on the planet, now is owned by the Chinese. One of the biggest risks to biodiversity around the planet is clearing out forests to have cows graze and pigs eat. That’s just a huge amount of space it takes to do that. So in the short term, that seems to be growing … but we’re getting close to a point where the resources that it takes to do the meat thing — we’re hitting the edge of that because there’s only so much land, there’s only so much water.
Long-term, though, the meat being grown in labs, that are cloned in labs, looks pretty interesting. I just don’t know what the timeline is. There is a lot of venture capital going into that particular arena. The company Beyond Meat is putting together plant-based meat products that have the feel of meat in the mouth — I mean, it is so good … texture-wise that people can’t tell the difference, so it is pretty fascinating what people can do with chemical and genetic engineering to get taste and texture and things like that. The question will be, on the long-term part of that: Will consumers think that’s OK, or not? And there’s not a lot of research yet to show what that’s gonna be.
Q: To what degree does wastefulness contribute to the problem?
Oh wastefulness is huge. I mean, not just with meat, but just food in general. I mean, the kind of number that’s banded around in the U.S., that’s pretty well-researched, is about 40 percent. So we lose about 40 percent of our food. From the farms, things occasionally rot on the vine or there are refrigeration problems, to what consumers throw away, and most of it’s on the consumer end. But that’s about 40 percent of U.S.-grown food is thrown out. It lands in a landfill, and the number I’ve seen over and over again is, if we thought about our landfills as a greenhouse-gas-emitting country, it would be the third-highest emitter on the planet behind us and China. I mean, that’s globally.
Think about the methane and nitrous oxide and other things that are emitted by food waste. It’s amazing. The 40 percent is just what you have in the US, but worldwide food waste, particularly in Western developed nations, is a huge, huge problem.
And so in my recent book, I talked about how Protestants need to think about gluttony far more seriously. Not just in the overeating sense, but in the sense of how we are mindful about our eating and how our eating connects us to other people and other parts of the planet, and how that mindfulness has been lost for generations. Protestants just don’t take gluttony seriously. But it’s not just about overeating. It’s about a sort of mindfulness that connects us to Christ and our neighbors. Huge problem.
Q: What parts of Scripture talk about food justice? What verses do you lean on to do your work?
A: So for example, Michael Northcott who is a Christian ethicist, argues that Jeremiah is the first sort of environmental prophet because he says … Jeremiah was claiming that the famine and drought was brought on by God, by Yahweh, but it was actually caused by the Israelite Kings overtaxing the poor. So there’s this distinct relationship between the poor and the way we treat the poor and the way we treat the land. And I find that to be very convincing and influential, and not just as a hermeneutical move that we have to read everything through [an environmental] lens, but I think it’s actually there in a way that we’ve just discounted for centuries as we move further and further away from the land.
Q: What are some things that Jesus said about food, and how does that change the way we talk about food insecurity or climate change?
A: You know, there are some Christian vegetarians that would like Jesus to be a vegetarian, but it was pretty obvious to me that he’s not historically. Even though there’s some folks who say, ‘You never see him with fish in his mouth,’ but it just doesn’t seem to fit. What I am more curious about when he uses the person of Jesus is saying, like in the feeding of the 4,000 or the feeding of the 5,000, the idea of there being enough to go around whether it was through sharing or a miracle or both.
The idea of sharing resources is a really important part of Jesus’ ministry. You know, putting other people’s needs before your own whether they be your stomach-needs, your spiritual needs or some sort of combination of them both. I think that’s a really interesting thing to think about, particularly when he chides the disciples for wanting to send them all away. You know, it’s like: ‘These people been following you all day — send them away before they get hungry.’ And he said ‘No, we have to take care of their their needs in the moment.’ I find that to be interesting.
On the climate change part, I mean, I don’t think it’s sort of a natural fit the way that Christians would like it to be … sort of like Jesus pronouncing climate change good or bad or indifferent. I do think you see Jesus, in that famous passage about [how] God cares about the sparrows and so he cares about humans even more …
I tend to think that Jesus becomes an interesting kind of character in that sense in the subtle reminders that God is more involved in the history of creation than just with human salvation. The redemption of people comes along with the redemption of creation. Those are not separated units. To me, the cross event is very cosmic in scope. It is the bringing together of all things God has created through Christ to its final end — not just the homo sapien side of it.
Q: How does understanding food as sacrament affect the way we talk about it?
A: What I try to do in my book was to look at how I think Churches of Christ — the one thing that we do really well at times is practice the Eucharist frequently, meaning once a week. What we don’t do so well is sort of imbue it with some of the sacramental language that would probably help us understand it more fully and think about it more robustly. But I think actually the frequency is a good thing because the more we have a chance to say our food is something more.
I mean, we know it is. That’s why we still have family dinners, that’s why we still have those awkward Christmas moments with our whole family, because we know that food is the vehicle to something more. It can be … not just a vehicle to something more, but a reminder that there’s a grander vision going on for creation and for our social interactions.
What I have argued is to take that insight from Sunday and not to leave it on Sunday — to push that through the rest of the week. And so every bite that we take is an opportunity to remind us that God created this food, that we are dependent on farmers, that we’re dependent on field workers that are often unpaid or lowly paid here in California, [that we’re] dependent on non-documented workers who were abused.
All those things can be reminders for us, and yet Western Christians tend to want to push those away, and I think that’s the insight to what a sacrament is — the constant reminder that we may not be able to solve those problems immediately with every bite, but that we can pray to God for grace for our sins and be cognizant of them rather than simply ignorant.
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