Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Holy Trinity Geneva on Sunday 17 September 2023 morning – 3rd Sunday of the Season of Creation

We are what we eat- Christian Responsibility for our food

We’re nearly mid-way through our observance of the Season of Creation which started on 1 September.  We began by looking at the role of water in creation, in the world today and in our lives and then last week, we explored the subject of our use of energy.

Today we’re going to look at what we eat and the role of food production in relation to the environmental crisis which we are facing. There is an old adage which says, “You are what you eat”.  I think we need to take this seriously because there are very important physical, moral and spiritual consequences relating to what we choose to eat and what we do with the food we buy.

A report on food security and nutrition around the world published by FAO, WHO and other organisations in 2022 shows some disturbing trends.  Growing figures of people affected by hunger – between 702 and 828 million people and the figures has risen by about 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic. Around 2.3 billion people in the world were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021, or nearly 30 percent of the global population – more than 350 million more people that in 2019, the year before the COVID -19 pandemic unfolded. As well as the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine has put further pressure on world food supplies.

The Bible shows us that hunger and want were certainly not part of God’s plan for his Creation.  In the book of Genesis, as we’ve heard today, God creates plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind bearing seed. It worked – the earth bought forth every kind of plant bearing seeds and a rich variety of fruit trees with seed. Those seeds point to a future hope that the food supply will reproduce and multiply.

In an astonishing coincidence, the Epistle chosen by the church in our lectionary today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, deals, amongst other topics with the subject of vegetables. It’s a passage in which St Paul appears to imply that Christians are free to eat anything without consequences – what matters is that they are tolerant towards each other and don’t let their diet cause others to lose their Christian faith.

There is a measure of truth in this and it is undeniable that this section of Paul’s letter provides a good model of how Christians can live together well whilst handling sensitive matters of difference. However, I believe there is a qualification in what Paul says here and it is a big one which should give us pause for thought. This qualification is as follows:

Paul states, “Those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; whilst those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God’. He goes onto to say, “We do not live for ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord: so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are then Lord’s.

There are two important messages here for us to note.  The first is that if what we are doing in our life style, in the type of agriculture and manufacturing we are supporting as consumers, by our choice of diet and treatment of our fellow human beings who produce our food is not good and is actually harming others, then we are not honouring God. In fact, we are dishonouring Him – marring His image in us.

The second point is this. That we are not free agents – able to do exactly as we wish within a benevolent cloud of tolerating the ways and customs of others. Paul reminds us we are accountable – accountable to God both in our daily lives and before Him when we die – and accountable to each other because each one of us is made in the image of God.

And the reality is that much of what we are doing both actively ourselves and what we are tolerating because it makes our lives pleasant and more comfortable, is actually dishonouring God.  This is because of the damage our choices are causing both to the environment and to our fellow brothers and sisters in parts of the world where life is considerably more precarious than here in Geneva. I want to explore this in relation to four main areas: the food we eat; our modern farming practices, our access to food and food waste.

Starting with our food choices, one of the key areas which is causing problems at present is the level of our consumption of meat, particularly in the West. Over the past 55 years, global meat production has almost quadrupled from 84 million tons in 1965 to 340 million tons in 2020 –  On average, every person on Earth currently consumes around 45 kilograms of meat per year (Global Agriculture Report 2022). This is putting immense pressure on land which could be used for cereals and plants, rather than  for raising animals and producing animal feeds.  Even modest changes we might make in our diet here could make a big difference.  It is estimated that European consumers went meat-free one day a week this would save enough grain and land currently used to feed livestock to offset the 23 million tons of wheat that Ukraine produced in 2020.

But there is another major consequence of our current levels of consumption of meat and that is linked to emissions. A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions currently come from food and agriculture.  Reducing the amount of meat, we eat would significantly help reduce this.

Our modern farming practices and food production systems especially in the West are also causing problems. The domination of some of the main food producers in the world can have a stranglehold on farmers particularly in developing countries. As a result, smaller famers often lose out or simply cannot compete and also local food producers do not receive a fair wage for the food they have grown.  It is then very hard for them to invest for future development or event to provide adequate education and health care for their families.

There is also the issue of how we care for the animals which we either consume or use their products.  Every year we farm around 70 billion animals globally.  In some of the wealthier economies such as the US, over 90% of these animals are in ‘factory farms’, living in poor conditions which cause them suffering.

A third cause of concern is sheer amount of distance our food travels today, driven in many cases, by our desire to have any food we want regardless of the season.

But perhaps one of the biggest causes of both worry and shame is our waste of food. It is estimated that worldwide one third of all the food we produce is thrown away without being eaten. This is equal to one trillion dollars’ worth of food every year – enough to feed 2 billion people or every single undernourished person in the world four times. 

And apart from the sheer waste of food, the rotting food is a major source of methane. Producing, transporting and letting food rot accounts to 8-10% of global greenhouse gases. According the UN’s FAO, if food waste was a country, it would have the third largest carbon footprint after the USA and China.

It’s a fairly damning list of ways in which we are damaging the world and hurting each other through the diets we eat and the food production systems we tolerate and implicitly support. So what can we, as Christians, do to change this – to make a difference?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear me say, as I have already pointed out in relation to our use of water and energy, that small changes each of us make can and will make a difference.  That’s why I’d like to suggest that we consider the following steps:

  1. Make a commitment to reduce the amount of meat we eat each week – perhaps by committing to cut this down by one day a week.  Let’s as a church community, each keep a ‘Veggie ‘diary for a month, starting today and note how many ‘vegetarian days we’ve managed to observe. Rather than see it as a penance – let’s see it as an opportunity to learn new and imaginative vegetarian recipes and share with each other, the best ones we can find.  Who knows – we might produce our very own Holy Trinity vegetarian cookbook!
  2. Try, wherever possible to buy Fair Trade and ethically sourced products.   If we can’t find them, to ask the directors of our supermarkets to source and stock more. We can make a start by doing this in our own church kitchen!
  3. Buy local food and buy seasonal foods –   this shouldn’t be difficult here in Switzerland or in France where there is an amazing choice of seasonal food throughout the year.
  4. Reduce food waste by buying less and making a major effort to use what we buy. Turn brown bananas into smoothies, soft plums to jam; wilting greens and vegetables into a nutritious soup.

Finally, bearing in mind the message of our Gospel today, let’s think where we stand in the parable which Jesus told Peter, in response to his question., “How many times should I forgive my neighbour?”. We are like the servant who has been forgiven much by God despite the appalling impact which our lives have had on others, on the animal world and on our planet. Rather than going out to see what more we can grab and extract from the earth, let’s resolve to live more lightly to bring healing to the world.