Earlier this year I was in correspondence with the Head Office of a major supermarket (the one where “every little helps”) over its pricing policy on Fairtrade bananas. In addition to the usual premium for organic bananas, they were charging an additional premium simply because the bananas were Fairtrade. Clearly, supporting poor and disadvantaged farmers was not going to inconvenience the supermarket’s profits, however much they proclaimed themselves supporters of Fairtrade values. Coincidence or not, a month later the Fairtrade price premium had disappeared.
The principles of the Fairtrade movement are simple ones: to look at local situations, determine what is a fair price for a product, and to fix that price as a minimum; in addition, a premium is paid to farming communities to spend on whatever they need – whether it’s schools, clean water or oxen to carry the crops. A monthly church Fairtrade stall is a good way of promoting engagement with what is happening in developing countries. But it is only a beginning: the crucial test for Christians is then how much those Fairtrade principles are carried over into our everyday shopping, and indeed to our whole relationship with food.
Harvest-time brings us up against some harsh realities: The Times recently reported a survey in which nearly a third of primary school children thought cheese came from plants, and one in five thought chicken was the principal ingredient in fish fingers; at the same time, nearly 900 million people go to bed hungry in our world – not people suffering a famine crisis, but an everyday reality for families and whole communities.
Many of us take food for granted. Food is one of those basic realities that we hardly think about. It’s become a commodity, a fuel for our bodies that we consume almost mindlessly. What matters to us is that we get it as cheaply as possible and without effort. Even if we are fit and able, we can choose to have our shopping done for us and delivered at home (though if you’ve ever watched supermarket operatives doing shopping on that basis you might think twice before opting for it for yourself). Other social attitudes contribute: estate agents now excuse the tiny spaces that pass for dining rooms in newly-built homes by saying most people nowadays eat microwaved meals on their laps in front of the television.
The consequence of our casual approach to food is that the care of animals, the fertility of the soil, and human health itself are compromised. It is a long way from the essential Christian insight that food is not primarily a commodity: it is a way of providing for the life of the world – God’s way of sustaining his care for creation. Good food, produced and consumed in ways that don’t degrade and alienate God’s creatures, is a way of witnessing to the continuing presence of God, a way of honouring, and delighting in, what he has provided for us. It nurtures us, in ways that help us appreciate who we are, who God is, and the relationship between us. It should provoke us to be more active in taking care over how our food is sourced, and how farmers and producers can get a fair deal. If indeed, as the psalmist says, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”, then we are accountable for the way we shop, the way we eat, and the way we use the earth for our own ends.
At the centre of Christian life is a shared meal, the Eucharist. The kingdom of God is itself often portrayed as a heavenly banquet. Food is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But first we need to remind ourselves of our dependence on God for the very means of our survival. A sustainable environment begins with humility.