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We Are What We Eat

Friday, 25 April 2014  | Dianne Brown

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

 - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin “Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante” (1826)

Many equate the saying “You are what you eat” with the notion that your bodily health is determined to a large extent by what you put in your mouth. Billions of dollars are spent, tomes are written and people agonise over how our health is affected by what we eat. Looking at the original French quote, however, maybe the original meaning has less to do with a narrow, individualistic view of dieting and is related to the idea that what you eat reveals the type of person you are, the values you hold and your world view.

Twenty-five years ago Wendell Berry told us that eating was an agricultural act[1].  He linked agriculture, which had fallen off the political, popular and religious agendas, to one of our most basic human needs.  He asked us to consider our relationship to the land, and its use, in providing nourishment.  A century and a half after Brillat-Savarin, he again invited us to take into account our values when deciding what we eat.

Agriculture has been the primary means of feeding humans for the past 8-10 millennia – working with nature to domesticate animals and plants to provide settled communities their nutrition. Yet these days, few spend time considering the values underlying the agriculture that provides their sustenance. As Christians we are told in Micah to seek justice and love mercy but do many of us ask these questions in relation to how our food is produced?

Current Situation – Industrial Agriculture
Industrial agriculture is the predominant method of providing nutrition.  It is a relatively new phase of agriculture only becoming entrenched in developed countries in the middle of the twentieth century. Industrial agriculture takes many forms and while no formal definition exists, it can generally be characterized by

  • high yields from monoculture crops and livestock on large farms;
  • high reliance on external inputs; and
  • high levels of mechanization.

Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with "inputs" (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and "outputs" (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (such as bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale.

- Union of Concerned Scientists. Industrial Agriculture: Features & Policy


The success of industrial agriculture in lowering the price of food and increasing the yield from an acre of land is undeniable.  Nature magazine reported that one person can now be fed for a year on no more than 2,000m2 of land while at the time of Malthus’ famous essay predicting population growth being dampened by famine, it required ten times as much land.[2]  Thanks to Industrial Agriculture food is cheaper and more plentiful so for the last two decades the world has been able to produce enough to provide everyone on the planet the 2,700 calories a day necessary for human physical survival.[3]

As the cliché tells us, nothing in life is ever free and the increase in yield from Industrial Agriculture has come at a price.  In Economics, if the cost of something is borne by someone other than the consumer or the producer, an externality is created.  The negative externalities created by Industrial Agriculture are most heavily borne by the environment, agricultural communities, the animals that are part of the system and the land itself (see breakout box).


Waste Fertilizer and Pesticide
50-70% of applied nitrogen fertilizer and 55% of applied phosphorous fertilizer is not used by crops and contributes to nitrogen loading in waterways around the world causing algal blooms that kill fisheries and poison ground water[4]. Similarly pesticide waste is problematic in the US where stray pesticide results in crop loss, destruction of beneficial insects and decimation of bee colonies (essential for pollination)[5]

Water Wastage and Salinity
FAO estimates that about 13% of the world’s irrigated land is either waterlogged or excessively salty, and another 33% is affected to some degree. Salination affects 28% of the irrigated land in the United States and 23% in China…Water use in irrigation is extremely inefficient: the FAO estimates that crops use only 45% of irrigation water. In the case of China’s Yellow River, only 30% of the water extracted for irrigation actually reaches crops.”[6]

Loss of Biodiversity
Wheat, rice and corn provide 60% of human food. This dependence on 3 species for such a high proportion of global food can potentially create a highly insecure food supply as pathogens may develop to which they are susceptible[7].

It is estimated that livestock breeds are disappearing at rate of 5% p.a. which is equivalent to six breeds per month. In Europe, half of all breeds of domestic animals existing in 1900 are gone, with 43 percent of those remaining endangered[8].  This erosion of biodiversity in the global animal husbandry systems has been described as “a time-bomb for the collapse of livestock production “[9]  

Intensively Farmed Animals

Animal Welfare
Intensive farming practices require animals to be housed in environments that restrict their natural behaviours such as chickens scratching and dust bathing, pigs farrowing and rooting around.  Proponents argue that well-maintained CAFO (concentrated animal farming operations) provide opportunities to lower carbon emissions and are able to maintain good animal welfare despite their restricting natural behaviours.  Previously accepted practices such as de-beaking of chickens, farrowing crates for pigs and vealing crates have all been phased out in many jurisdictions indicating that our understanding of animal welfare is evolving and  incomplete. 

Antibiotic Resistance
It is estimated that 70% of the
antimicrobials used in the US are given to animals, in the absence of disease, for nontherapeutic purposes[10].  The WHO has raised concerns about such practices: “There is mass administration of antimicrobials to many animals at the same time for the purposes of disease prevention and growth promotion. Such practices provide favourable conditions for the emergence, spread and persistence of AMR (antimicrobial resistant) bacteria capable of causing infections not only in animals, but also in people.”[11]


Soil Degradation
The soil and its fertility is being eroded with soil eroding much faster than it can be replenished--taking with it the land's fertility and nutrients that nourish both plants and those who eat them.

“Many farmers (in Kenya) report yields of only a quarter of those achieved 25 years ago.  Erratic rainfall is partly to blame but the main reason is that the soil is exhausted after decades of farming using the same methods that extract nutrients from the earth but put nothing back”[12]

Agricultural Communities

Loss of Independence
High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of seed is often sterile thus seed and other inputs need to be purchased each year.  The system is thus bias towards cash cropping rather than self-sufficiency making farmers dependent on good access to markets which is often not available in developing countries.  Even in the US, farmers are forced by government subsidies, market power and previous investment to grow corn even when they are losing money.[13]

Dependency on Fossil Fuels
To maintain low cost production, modern industrial agriculture requires cheap fossil fuels. The average modern U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy to produce 1kcal of food energy, this ratio increases to 35:1 in intensive feedlot beef production.[14]  The food crisis of 2008 is largely attributed to the high cost of fossil fuels at that time.  Human nutrition is highly dependent on this cheap energy source. 

Many argue that this is the price we must pay to feed the world’s growing population and maintain the current standard of living in the developed world while improving that of the developing world.  It is not clear why proponents of this argument think that the current paradigm will be any better at feeding 9 billion in the future, than we are at feeding 7 billion now; where 1 billion are not fed sufficiently while 1 billion are fed well beyond sufficiency[15], but the entrenched nature of Industrial Agriculture means few governments, corporations, academics or the general populace are looking elsewhere for their dietary requirements.  Despite this, the view that there is a viable alternative to Industrial Agriculture is gaining traction, not just with fringe groups, but major academic and policy-making organisations. 

The term 'sustainable agriculture' has been coined to cover the idea that it is possible to farm in such a way that the needs of both the current and future generations are met and that society as a whole benefits when all the pros and cons (including the externalities) are taken into account.[16]

Sustainable agriculture’s answers to the questions – what should we produce? How should we produce it? And, who should produce it? – are fundamentally different to Industrial Agriculture.  Emphasis is placed on producing high quality, diverse, nutritious food for local consumption using practices that close the nutrient cycle and integrate crops and livestock on smaller farms.

While many of the practices espoused by bodies such as the FAO and UNCTAD (see breakout box) can be labeled “traditional”, Sustainable Agriculture in no way eschews technology.

The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification” approach.  This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerable improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.  We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (eg water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation).

Agriculture itself is a technology – taking what nature provides and melding it to our human needs – and agriculture has always used technology to improve.  Whether it is the scythe, Egyptian irrigation practices or selective breeding, technologies have always been used to improve current and future yields.

The major problem faced by Sustainable Agriculture is that when the full costs of caring for the environment, ensuring food is nutritious and of good quality and is produced by a functioning community of farmers, the price of food may alter.  Few in the wider community have an appetite for this.  We have grown accustomed to diverting our incomes away from basic food expenditure to discretionary spending.

So, as Christians, why should we care about the struggle between Industrial and Sustainable Agriculture?  Why is it an issue of faith? 

I believe the choice between food supplied by Industrial Agriculture and food supplied by Sustainable Agriculture can only be made based on value judgments.  It reveals the type of people we are.  These value judgments go to the core of any belief system and address issues such as stewardship of creation, intergenerational justice, equity for communities and the limits of human knowledge.  How you answer these questions, based on your values and understanding of what God requires from us, will determine which method of agriculture deserves your patronage.

Stewardship of Creation
The first story of the bible talks of humans being creatures of the earth – Adamah, dust of the ground – formed from the humus and then told to till (abad) and keep (samar) the land.  Humans were also given dominion over (radah) and told to subdue (kabash) creation.  Many more skilled than I at understanding the bible, will argue that this means we are able to do with the earth and nature what best serves humankind, no matter the cost to other creatures and creation itself.  To have dominion and to subdue are understood to mean domination and subjugation.  Other non-religious people concur, arguing that whatever furthers human existence is justifiable. Industrial Agriculture is the natural outcome of this understanding of God and the world.

If, however, your understanding of humanity’s role is to be stewards of creation, benevolently attempting to pacify and exert authority over nature for the good of all (see Jonathan Cornford’s article “So Shall We Reap” for further discussion of this view), then you need to be informed about how the land and its creatures are affected by Industrial Agriculture.  The treatment of animals in the prevailing intensive farming systems and the ecological cost of nitrogen-based fertilisers and pesticides used in broad-acre monocropping are just a few of the outcomes of Industrial Agriculture that call our stewardship of creation into question. 

Whilst a vegan or Sophist philosophy may argue that stewardship requires no harm should befall any living creature from any human activity, a less extreme view of stewardship may simply require that animals are not kept under conditions that bring distress during their short lives.  It is only one’s values that can truly guide this often-difficult decision but all too frequently the choice between the well-reared chicken and the intensively farmed chicken is merely based on price while the value judgment is pushed to the back of our minds through our lack of knowledge and interest.

Similarly, our inadequate understanding of the impact of our farming methods on our rivers, soil, habitat, biodiversity and eco-systems limits our ability to decide if the corn-fed beef or the grass-fed beef is a better choice or whether the premium paid for organic, local vegetables or rare-breed meat is justified.  Whether you decide it is or is not justified, as a good steward you at least need to take an interest in the facts to make an informed that value judgment. 

Intergenerational Justice

1947:  “Faced with demands for higher yields, the farmer has grasped at most desperate of all methods, he has robbed the future.  He has provided the huge output demanded of him but only at the cost of cashing in the future fertility of the land he cultivates.”[17]

1981:  “But if industrial agriculture is a failure, then how does it continue to produce such an enormous volume of food?  One reason is that most countries where industrial agriculture is practiced have soils that were originally good, possessing great natural reserves of fertility.”[18]

1991:  “Conventional farming does not recognise and pay its true costs: the land is mined of its fertility to produce annual grain and vegetable crops.”[19]

It could be argued that the sins of the father are visited upon the son in the context of Industrial Agriculture practices.  Fertility is “mined” by the current users of the land, degrading its use for future users. This is not a new phenomenon nor purely the province of Industrial Agriculture.  Large parts of the Fertile Crescent, the first agricultural region, became a desert[20] and some claim that the Roman Empire’s decline is a “story of deforestation, soil exhaustion and erosion”[21]. The modern scale of the degradation is, however, far greater than its previous incarnations, with the periodical Nature reporting that between 1945-2002, 17% of vegetated land has undergone human-induced soil degradation and has lost its productivity.[22]

We’re told in the Old Testament that “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  We are here but a short time and really only claim our place on earth for a blink of the eye.  So what do we owe future generations? 

The significance of inheritance within Old Testament is very strong.  Biblical scholars tell us there is little evidence of land being bought and sold during the time of the Israelites[23], rather it was passed on from generation to generation to feed and nourish the family.  Taking into account what you leave behind is a key biblical value. To be true to this value, therefore, we must consider if, and how, our current production methods are mining future fertility to provide our current food supply.  Particularly in light of the fact that the current provision is an over-supply with nearly one-third of all food produced globally being wasted – in the developed world due to aesthetics and convenience while in the developing world due to poor infrastructure.[24]  If our understanding of the bible is that intergenerational justice is important, then the condition of the soil, its fertility and its ability to feed future generations needs to be a factor when deciding what food we should eat.

Equity for Agricultural Communities

On a trouve en politique le secret de faire mourir de faim ceux qui en cultivant la terre font vivre les autres.

“Good politics has found the secret is to starve those who work the land to feed others”.


The destruction of agricultural communities, like the destruction of agricultural lands, has a long history.  Voltaire commented on this in the 18th Century, while the Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th Century left much of the British peasantry without any land or livelihood.

Despite the current very low levels of employment in agriculture in developing countries, nearly one-third of the world’s workers are involved in the provision of food and fibre[25].  While in Australia employment fell from 40% to 2.8% over a 130 year period[26], countries like Cambodia and Vietnam still have half their workforce participating in agriculture[27].

Industrial Agriculture by its nature places enormous stress on agricultural communities leading to the US government agency reporting in 1986 that:

“We have found depressed median family incomes, high levels of poverty, low education levels, social and economic inequality between ethnic groups, etc., … associated with land and capital concentration in agriculture “[28]

The destruction of agricultural communities is generally accompanied by the concentration of production into large corporations creating monopolies and monopsonies that paradoxically restrict the operation of a “free-market”.  In the US, two companies (Cargill & ADM) purchase nearly one-third of all corn grown[29].  While Monsanto controls 23% of the global seed market and 87% of the total world area devoted to GM seed crops[30].   This is a major shift in power away from farmers into corporations.

“(They) estimate that between 1910 and 1990, the share of the U.S. agricultural economy going to farmers declined from 41% to 9%, while the marketing and farm input industries’ shares increased by similar amounts”[31]

Equity and the Christian values underlying people’s understanding of equity are fairly broad.  Income inequality and power imbalance are considered by many Christians as the essential ingredients required to motivate people to work hard, while others would take Matthew 19 at face value and argue that God requires us to relinquish all wealth to save ourselves and the world.  Regardless of one’s view of how equity can be achieved, it is clear from the Bible that we are all one people – equal under God’s sight – connected to each other as God’s children.

Sustainable agricultural practices attempt to develop such connections by linking the farming community to consumers.  CSAs (community supported agriculture), community gardens and farmers’ markets attempt to not only create this connection and understanding but also to decentralise the power and the monetary returns back into the wider community.  Ellen Davis in her book “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture” describes the healing brought to a community in North Carolina through their community garden project.[32] Thus our understanding of the type of community and the role of equity requires us to consider how our food should be supplied and by whom.

Limits of Human Knowledge

“There is more information in a square inch of soil than all the terrabytes that exist”[33]

Proponents of Industrial Agriculture hope many of the problems it creates – soil degradation, salinity, algae bloom, loss of biodiversity, dependency on fossil fuels – will be solved by technologies that we are yet to discover.  Their faith in human ingenuity, creativity and ability to innovate, draws them into a conviction that there are no limits to human knowledge.  No problem we cannot solve.  Some scientists even claim if worse comes to worst, we can just put it all under glass and recreate nature in some science-fiction hothouse or grow our protein in laboratory test tubes.[34]  For some, such faith in the omnipotence of human resourcefulness reaches almost religious fervour.    

An undeniable tenet of the Christian faith is that God’s knowledge is greater than ours.  Humans don’t and humans can’t know everything.  We are part of creation, not the Creator.  So systems that rely on us solving the problems they create at some point in the future should be considered hubris – requiring excessive confidence in man’s ability to mimic God’s creative power.  

Industrial Agriculture requires such faith.  We must roll the dice and rely on humanity’s limitless ability to know and understand the created world in order to fix the problems it has and will continue to make.  The biblical tradition, where Isaiah 28 tells us that how the plowman opens, harrows and plants his soil is informed by God (“His God instructs him and teaches him the right way” Isaiah 28:26), surely requires us to tread more lightly and to question the limits of human’s understanding of Creation (Job 38:4). To place our faith in Industrial Agriculture is to place our trust in human knowledge in a manner that seems to be at odds with biblical principles.  So if these problems can’t be solved now, one must question if this is a system with which we should persist.


We live in a country where the abundance of food is a blessing where few need to worry about it being sufficient in their daily life.  This abundance is also a curse, as food is relegated to the back of our minds.  In addition, our world is full of moral relativism where drawing any moral conclusion or conviction is seen as judgmental. It is little wonder that applying our Christian values to our food choices is rarely encouraged, poorly informed and little understood. But if it is true what we eat reveals what we are, it is vital that we begin. 

[1] Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” in What Are People For? (1989)

[2] Trewavas, “Malthus Foiled Again and Again” Nature 418 (2002): 668.

[3] FAO: World Food Summit – Food for All (Nov 1996)

[4] Tillman, et al, “Agricultural Sustainability and Intensive Farming Practices,” Nature 418, (2002): 673.

[5] Pimental, et al, “Environmental and Economic Costs of Pesticide Use,” BioScience 42:10 (1992): 750-60.

[6] Horrigan, et al, “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110:5 (2002): 448.

[7] Tillman, et al, 674

[8] Genetic Resources Action International (undated, p.2)

[9] Tisdell, “Socioeconomic Causes of Loss of Animal Genetic Diversity: Analysis and Assessment” (2002) Ecological Economics 45:3 (July 2003): 365–76.

[10] M. Mellon, C. Benbrook and K. Lutz, “Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock,” 2001 Union of Concerned Scientists

[11] World Health Organisation, “The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance: options for action,” (2012): 51

[12] X. Rice, “The Eco Evangelist,” The Observer 7/6/2009 (

[13] Pollan, “Omnivores’ Dilemma”: see p. 36 for a good example of a US corn farmer “trapped” into mono-cropping.

[14] Horrigan, 446

[15] Swinburn, “The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments,” Lancet (2011) and Raj Patel, “Stuffed and Starved” (2007)

[16] Tilman

[17] Albert Howard, “The Soil and Health” (1947)

[18] Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1981): 118.

[19] B. Mollison, “Introduction to Permaculture,” Tagari (1991): 2.

[20] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1989), 410.

[21] Jacks “The Rape of the Earth:  A World Survey of Soil Erosion” (1939)

[22] Tillman, et al, 674. 

[23] See E. Davis Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (2009), 39, where she discusses the work of C. Wright.

[24] FAO “Global Food Losses,” 10.

[25] FAO

[26] ABS, “A Statistical Account of Seven Colonies of Australasia" (1890), 134 – NB women were not counted as being employed, 6105.0 Australian Labour Market Statistics (2012)

[27] World Bank (statistic for 2011 accessed at

[28] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Technology, Public Policy, and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture. OTA-F-28 Government Printing Office, 1986. Cited in Horrigan, 446.

[29] Pollan, 43.

[30] ETC Group, “Who Owns Nature?” (2008): 12-14.

[31] Horrigan, 453.

[32] Davis, 118.

[33] Douglas Rushkoff  from episode 34 of The Conversation at 26 min mark

[34] A. Brown, “It Tastes Like Chicken,” Wired (September 2013)


Dianne Brown
May 8, 2014, 7:56AM
I lucked upon 3 great podcasts about food and thinking about how what we eat is grown/ raised. I’ve copied both the itunes podcast address as well as the ABC website address

Joel Salatin

Raw Milk

Mobile Butchers

Hope you like the listening and pass on to anyone else you think may be interested

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