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Eating for the Health of the World

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the scope of today’s environmental problems. The more we learn about global warming, deforestation, species extinctions, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution and depletion—and their diverse, accompanying effects—the more tempting it is to give up in despair. But despair is not an option if we love children, neighbors and neighborhoods.

What can we do? We can decide to eat for the health of the world. Most of us know that poor eating decisions adversely affect personal health: We eat too much fat, preservatives and refined carbohydrates and not enough whole grains, fruit and vegetables. But we also need to know that what we eat has far-reaching effects for the health of our lands, waters, animals and agricultural communities.

Every time we eat we are making a choice that is personal, but it is also social, ecological, agricultural and spiritual. The food items we purchase communicate what we value in each other and in our world. When we buy a dozen eggs, for instance, we are voting for whether or not we want chickens ranging freely or crammed into stacked, wire cages in dark barns. We are communicating whether or not we value the happiness and contentment of animals and the just compensation of agricultural workers.

Today’s global industrial food system abuses the land and its eaters. To make the food we buy as cheap and convenient as possible, farmers grow massive quantities of commodities like corn, wheat and soy that can then be processed into multiple food products or fed to animals in crammed confinement. As crop rotation and plant diversity disappear, lands are kept productive and pest-free through the unrelenting application of fossil fuel dependent fertilizers and even more toxic chemicals.

This system is not sustainable because: a) it draws down soil fertility by destroying the micro-organismic life in the ground; b)it depends on massive amounts of freshwater that are quickly running out; c) it depends on fossil fuels to grow, process and move these commodities around the globe; d) it erases plant and animal diversity, making our fields and farms more vulnerable to disease; and e) it does not respect food democracy, the idea that farmers, regions and eaters should have the say and the responsibility for what they eat.

If we decide to eat for the health of the world, one way to start is by growing some of our own food. This is hard but honorable work. Perhaps it is even necessary work because it teaches us that food is never cheap or convenient. It cannot be because the ecosystems our eating depends on are vulnerable and precious. Today’s generation of eaters is the most food ignorant and, therefore, the most destructive the world has ever known.


In addition, we can support the gardeners and farmers who grow healthy soil and plants, who honor and care for animals and who protect water and species diversity. These are the indispensable foundations of sustainable agriculture that will feed us well into the future. The way to support these farmers is by paying a just price for the food they produce, a price that factors in and rewards the labor-intensive work necessary to care for the land and its creatures properly.

This is not a recommendation for expensive food. Rather it is an acknowledgment that cheap food is dishonestly priced because its price tag does not include the many ecological and agricultural costs I have mentioned. Nor does it include the costs to our own health that accompany a highly processed and high-convenience diet. American households only spend about 10 percent of their overall income on food, the smallest percentage that any generation ever has. Many of us can spend more on better food and in so doing contribute significantly to a healthier world.

We can also join community efforts led by student groups, civic clubs and faith communities that grow food together, often making this food available for low-income households. Municipalities, schools, universities and faith groups currently have considerable land devoted to parking lots or manicured lawns and ornamental bushes and trees. Could not some of this land be put into food production and in doing so bring races, classes and generations of people together around the work of growing healthy food? The Duke Campus Farm, a project that began in the course “Food and Energy” taught by visiting assistant professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment Charlotte Cark, that now provides fresh, organically grown produce to Duke’s dining halls is one such effort.

Now imagine a whole world of eaters devoted to the sharing and the celebration of healthy food. How wonderful! How delectable!

Norman Wirzba is a research professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke Divinity School. His latest book is titled “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.”


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