Category Archives: Grains

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth


Can I Offer You Something? (Leviticus 1-7)

The only reason I knew anything about the book of Leviticus growing up is because it has lots of weird rules about sex including nocturnal emissions which for a teenager was pretty entertaining. For me and most people the book is a pretty boring collection of rules and regulations about a lot of things that don’t seem to make any sense in our modern world. While there is plenty that remains a mystery to me, this book has become one of my favorites because of some of its key passages (Chapters 19 and 25 being my favorite).

The Divine Meal
That said, the opening chapters do appear to be some of the most boring in the whole Bible. Leviticus 1-7 gives instructions on offerings and sacrifices for the Israelites. There’s lots of detail and repetition and very little seems to connect to a world in which this sacrificial system is non-existent. A few things stand out to me at first glance, especially as it relates to our theme of food. First, the people making these offerings are all farmers. These are agrarian people who are bringing crops and animals that they grew themselves. This changes later and Jesus is not happy about it (see Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 20:45-48; Jn 2:12-25). So, they are directly related to the sacrifice that they offer and it is an agricultural product, food.

The second is that for three of the five kinds of offerings there is no explicit reason given for the offering. The text simply says, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) and goes on with instructions about how it should be done. The instructions for these offerings (burnt, grain and fellowship offerings) conclude with something like “[It is] an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev 1:17). While many people and theologians focus on the sin and guilt offerings (especially as they relate to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, particularly because of the connections made by the Letter to the Hebrews), these other offerings concern the ongoing relationship of the people to God apart from any need for atonement. This is the meal and the gift in which the people encounter the divine.

The burnt, grain and fellowship offerings are how they continue and maintain a relationship with God and they are intimately connected to the land which produces their sustenance in crops and animals. The burnt and fellowship offerings were to be “without defect” whether it was a cow, sheep or goat. The grain offering was to be “fine flour” whether it was baked into bread or not. In my mind I connect these offerings with the biblical practice of hospitality. It is as if God is a guest and we are preparing a meal to share. This is what we say to guests when they come to our houses. “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?” It is not just about being proper. It is about nurturing a relationship. I’m sure a lot could be added about “hospitality cultures” and the role of hospitality in episodes throughout the Bible, but you can see the basic connection.

Everybody’s Guilty
I noticed a couple of interesting things about the sin and guilt offerings. First, the language is not one of harsh rebuke. It does not say when you really screw up and feel guilty you should come and give an offering to straighten things out and feel better. It says, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden…” (Lev 4:2) There is also language about intentional sin (Lev 5:1-6; 6:1-7), but unintentional sin is referred to as the reason for making either the sin or guilt offering five out of seven times (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). Imagine the humility of bringing your most prized possession, “a young bull without defect” (4:3), to atone for something you might have done wrong but didn’t know about.

We would have a hard time practicing this kind of relationship to God in our churches. We are way more concerned about figuring out our own sins (and often everyone else’s as well) and doing what it takes to atone for that sin. Whether it’s confession and penance for Catholics, Eucharist for all Christians or even the fervent prayers of evangelicals and ecstatic worship of charismatics, all are (some in more ways than others) an attempt to atone for intentional, known sin. What does it look like to approach God humbly with a precious offering for our unknown sins?

The second thing I noticed is the communal language concerning the sin offering. “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally…When they become aware…the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering… This is the sin offering for the community.” (Lev 4:13-14, 21) This is so foreign to our modern sensibilities that it is almost hard to imagine how this would work. How does the whole community even become aware of unintentional sin?Then how do they collectively act together to atone? Certainly there is some hierarchy involved, because “the elders of the community” (Lev 4:15) were to act on behalf of the people. Yet there is still a sense of the communal that our concept of religion, influenced by western individualism and American exceptionalism has a hard time grasping.

Pulling these thoughts together I have two main issues that, I think, this reading raises concerning our understanding of atonement theology and the implications for an agrarian context on the interpretation of the Bible.

First, If our theology of atonement has developed over the centuries by connecting Jesus’ work on the cross to the sacrificial system of the Israelites as outlined in these first chapters of Leviticus, then how would our theology change with a different understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrificial system? The Bible uses a number of metaphors to understand Jesus’ work on the cross. The judicial language predominates in modern theology where Jesus takes our place in a transaction where he absorbs our guilt and offers a way out of the conundrum of sin. This language does connect somewhat to the practice of the sin and guilt offerings, but these were less than half of the whole sacrificial system and as we have seen they also involved a communal understanding of what took place. So, a better understanding of Jesus’ work that continues to draw on the sacrificial system as a metaphor, or better parallel, should include the communal and unintentional aspects of the sin offering along side our current emphasis.

This broadened understanding of atonement should also include the other offerings that were made. How would we expand our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to include the offerings of crops and animals to maintain and nurture a relationship? Could it be that Jesus’ death and resurrection can also be understood as a divine act that attempts to maintain and nurture (even in some ultimate or cosmic sense) the relationship between the divine and human? The fact that Jesus, himself, instituted a meal as the ritual for remembering the sacrifice he would make strongly suggests a connection to the offerings that were in effect divine meals. It also seems that the dual nature of Christ and the idea from Hebrews that Jesus is both the High Priest and sacrifice speak to the work on the cross as somehow transcending the sacrificial system, not by doing away with it, but incorporating it into this new work, the breaking in of the new heaven and new earth. In this way we can balance the traditional emphasis on guilt and repentance, which is important, with the other 3/5 of the sacrificial system which was meant to maintain and nurture the divine/human relationship.

The subtitle of Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture is “An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. Her book does an incredible job connecting modern agrarian writers and thought to the context of the biblical narrative, primarily the Hebrew Bible. What is left to do after her most helpful contribution is to begin to draw out the implications for our understandings of theological doctrines, such as the atonement, and what’s more our hermeneutic for reading and interpreting our sacred text. The historical-critical method and other schools of interpretation place emphasis on understanding the cultural and historical context in order to interpret the biblical text. While some work has surely been done in this area, most of the scholarship focuses on political, economic, social, cultural and religious realities. It seems that we may have ignored a fundamental dimension of the biblical context which should shape our understanding and interpretation of the text.

The question then becomes whether what we find can be transferred to our current technological society in which we are (in “developed” countries”) far removed from an agrarian lifestyle and worldview, or does the text from an agrarian interpretation stand in judgment of our way of life in relationship to each other and the land? My guess is that the answer is both, but the latter is the aspect of the text that has been neglected. In many ways this is what my Food in the Bible project is really all about. I am trying to reclaim an agrarian reading of the Bible that reads, interprets and judges the context of the world as we experience it today.

Déjà chew

The Ethicurean recently featured a post by Daryll E. Ray that puts the food crisis in context and explains a lot of technical economics in a way that is easy to read and understand, Déjà chew: The food price crisis in context. He compares the current crisis with a similar situation in 1974 that led to recommendations that were never implemented. So, here we are again. I really would not do it justice by trying to summarize so please go read it. He concludes with this…

The problem is more than food vs. feed. It is more than food vs. fuel.

Virtual Cereality

This past week my wife and I watched I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. It looked funny… but was disappointingly boring. BUT the DVD had a trailer for an upcoming movie called Flakes featuring Zooey Deschanel (of Elf fame and recently making music with M. Ward as She and Him…sorry I dig Zooey okay?). The plot is that Deschanel’s boyfriend manages a cereal bar called Flakes, but wants to be a musician. She encourages him to pursue his dreams and then helps him along by scheming to shut down the cereal bar.

I thought… a cereal bar? That’s a funny idea. Quirky and kind of neat in a movie, but definitely too ridiculous for reality. Well, maybe it’s too ridiculous for reality, but not for Cereality. That’s right nothing is too ridiculous to actually exist. This new franchise has five locations in California (where else?). Employees dress in pajamas and there are cabinets full of cereal on the walls. Framed art features specimens of various cereals and the milk station is called the “Moo Bar.” You can mix cereals, add toppings and get your choice of milk. A bowl of two mixed cereals with two toppings and your choice of milk will cost you $3.99. You can get two boxes of cereal for that.

The Ethicurean skewers the concept at The Cereality show, coming to a college town near you! The post pretty much covers a lot of what is wrong and disturbing about the concept. The craziest part is the way that this idea adds another layer of markup to an already ridiculous processed food. Grains like oats are ridiculously cheap compared to their processed counterparts from Cheerios to cereal bars. Michael Pollan points out that the more processed something is the more companies make off of them, because they have taken a cheap commodity, oats and grains, and convinced you to pay through the nose. Now you can not only get ripped off buying cereal, but pay for the novelty of a café that marks up the price of these processed foods even further.

But hey… Lord knows people will pay to be served by people in pajamas!