Business & Economy

Factory or local food economy?


David Brooks

“Would You Kill a Chicken with Your Bare Hands?”  Bret Mavrich hopes so, and in this Christianity Today article he expresses the hope that it will be part of a commitment to buy locally-produced food because of the way it reflects God’s purpose for creation.  In a response article entitled “The Blessings of Factory Farming,” Tom Pittman claims the local food movement does not have the moral high-ground over factory farming, which has freed up resources for the spread of the gospel.  So, which approach should inform our food production and consumption: the Cultural Mandate or the Great Commission?

In his article Bret Mavrich introduces us to Lamppost Farm, a chicken farm in Ohio that seeks to reeducate people about the nature of food.  By inviting customers to take part in slaying their own chickens, Lamppost Farm reminds people that a chicken is not the commodity we see roasting in the rotisserie at our local grocery store.  A chicken is a creature of God, the life of which God gives as a “gift” to sustain our life.  It is important, then, that we treat this creature with “dignity” as we take it from being a living, clucking creature to being food on our dinner table.  Our relationship not only with creation but with our Creator is at stake.  And in a peculiar way, our relationship with ourselves, our identity as humans is at stake: “We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever.  That’s not how we’re made,” says Steve Montgomery, the owner of Lamppost. 

The implication of Mavrich’s article is that food cannot be seen in classical economic terms, where the only factors are self-interested humans, whether producer or consumer.  A “producer” cannot simply ask, “How can I produce this chicken most cheaply while ensuring the highest return?”  A “consumer” should not only think, “Which chicken is the cheapest?”  Rather, both producers and consumers, both types of people should consider two other factors: the Creator and His creation. 

It’s a strong argument, isn’t it?  Tom Pittman does not think so.  Pittman responds by extolling the virtues of “factory farming” from a different Christian perspective.  Pittman reminds readers that by producing food more efficiently, factory farms have allowed labour to move into different areas of the economy.  Not only has wealth increased, but people can pursue work in their God-given gifts, including many becoming pastors and missionaries, allowing them to “preach the gospel” at home and in parts of the world where the economy does not allow people to specialize in spiritual work. 

Factory farming has, in short, allowed people in the West “to be God’s benefactors to the world, in food and technology as well as discipleship.”  For Pittman, Mavrich’s argument says nothing more than, “I like my secular tradition more than your secular tradition.”  Whether one takes a local or a factory approach to food, the question is merely one of personal “spiritual” “benefit.”  There is not a higher moral question involved. 

Is one approach to food more appropriate, even morally normative, for Christians compared to the other?  How does one reconcile the Cultural Mandate from Genesis 1 with the Great Commission from Matthew 28? 

It is hard to deny that the modern economy and factory farming have freed up labour to enter other areas of the market.  It is certainly true that this economy has allowed a great number of pastors and missionaries to heed their call, besides allowing people to pursue other callings in which they exercise their God-given “talent” for things other than farming.  Christians must not forget their call to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations. 

But what does it actually mean to be a disciple?  What does God’s Kingdom look like?  Is being a Christian all about carrying the good news about Jesus Christ most efficiently to the world?  Or does God have other values than efficiency and intellectual conversion?  Does God not also care about how we carry His message and what kind of disciples we make?  Does God not want disciples who care for the rest of His creation while they care for people? 

Pittman’s approach risks fashioning God in the image of modern economic man.  However, Mavrich’s approach risks fashioning God in the image of post-modern environmentalist man.  The church, the body of believers, must bring the two into dialogue with each other.  The church must call both sides to heed the other’s critique: to repent where repentance is necessary, and to form a more solid theology of food which allows Christians to honour their Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, acting as salt and light in the world.   

Source: Marketplace Institute

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