What does it really mean to care about what one eats? Many Americans are obsessed with their diets, but not many—certainly not as many—seem to know much about the country’s food economy: where their own food comes from, how it gets to them, and what happens to it before they put it in their grocery cart. If people knew more, would they care more? Would they eat differently?
Consider the humble chicken. Most chickens today are raised by one of a few massive conglomerates that contract with farmers to raise stock. The farmers buy both the stock and the feed they raise it on from the same conglomerate. The birds live in closed, crowded sheds, and are then processed and packaged so they can be consumed as chicken nuggets and frozen dinners. The entire system is set up to maximize the profits of massive businesses. It is not designed to maximize the health of chickens or consumers.
Or think of the enormous crops of corn, soybeans, and wheat grown in the arid Great Plains region. Decades ago, farmers used primitive windmills to draw up water for their crops from the vast underground Ogallala Aquifer. The windmill pumps usually produced about ten gallons per minute. Fly over the Plains today and you’ll see vast crop circles, all centered on pumps that draw up to twelve hundred gallons a minute—an unsustainably high rate, according to experts. Slowly but surely, the aquifer is going dry, as the demand for government-subsidized grain continues to increase, with much of that grain going to feed animals raised for meat.
Most consumers probably aren’t aware of the connection between our country’s excessive consumption of meat and the gradual desertification of the Great Plains, and no doubt some of those who are aware aren’t about to let the problem change the way they eat. But for those Americans who are prepared to make a change, there have never before been so many opportunities to buy better food—food that is healthier for themselves, for the communities it comes from, and for the land. Organic produce and “free range” meat are increasingly prominent in grocery stores. The “locavore” movement is gaining ground. Its proponents see it as both an environmental measure and a means of supporting local economies. (Even Walmart has begun to buy locally grown produce, through what it calls its Heritage Agriculture program.) Many municipalities are making space for farmers’ markets, and more and more people are participating in community-supported-agriculture (CSA) programs, in which a household takes out a “subscription” to an area farm and receives a regular share of seasonal produce. Locally run food cooperatives, once associated with bulk containers of tofu stocked by local hippies, have become successful retail operations, offering many of the conveniences of large supermarkets but oriented toward food that is healthier or more local. Even the community garden has begun to make a comeback, and, for the first time since World War II, there’s a vegetable plot in the South Lawn of the White House.
These developments have the potential to make our food economy not only healthier and more sustainable, but also more careful and loving. These may seem like strange categories to apply to any kind of economy; growth and efficiency are the more conventional measures of economic success. We are used to thinking of love and care as domestic rather than ecomomic virtues. But as Pope Benedict has written in Caritas in veritate, “authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” In other words, Christian caritas (from which we get both the words “care” and “charity”) is not merely a private affair “outside” economic relations, or even an add-on of charitable giving that occurs after the market has done its work. Rather, love belongs within the relations of the marketplace. The pope calls for economic forms that go beyond “the exclusively binary model of market-plus-state.” What is needed, Benedict writes, is “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise.” He recommends “mutualist” or “cooperative” economic principles and organizations that embody the twin goods of solidarity and subsidiarity.
It is tempting to dismiss this vision as a pipe dream: What would it mean, for example, for large-scale investment banking to be animated by “gratuitousness” and love? There may be good answers to that question, but they aren’t obvious. Our food economy, by contrast, is a case in which we already have before us a range of opportunities to incorporate the logic of caritas into our ordinary routines. Not only are organic and sustainable farming methods better for the environment, not only are the foods they produce better for our bodies, but the forms of economic exchange they enable tend to be ones in which “authentically human social relationships” can take root. At farmers markets, producers meet consumers, consumers meet one another, and products are bought and sold in ways that sustain local communities rather than international corporations. (One study found that customers have ten times more conversations at farmers markets than they do at supermarkets.) Similarly, community gardens and CSA programs bring people together and connect them even more directly with the source of their food, while grocery cooperatives embody a business model that seeks the common good and supports local economies on a scale beyond that of farmers markets. In all this there is the possibility of restoring care to a sector of life where the imperatives for growth have done so much to exclude it.
Historically, Catholics have paid great attention to these issues, especially in times of crisis. In addition to advocating the general economic approach of “distributism”—that is, the deconcentration of productive wealth away from large corporations and government and toward household and neighborhood—the U.S. bishops’ 1919 program for social reconstruction included a lengthy section advocating both producer and consumer cooperatives. The bishops chided Americans for their “individualistic” refusal to “make the necessary sacrifices” and “be content with moderate benefits and gradual progress.” Similarly, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference has been an important voice for reform in the American food system since 1923, and its Web site (www.ncrlc.com) features campaigns encouraging Catholics to support local farms and to remember that “eating is a moral act.” Peter Maurin’s original vision for the Catholic Worker movement famously included “agronomic universities,” farms where people would divide their time between labor and learning—a new version of St. Benedict’s ora-et-labora regimen. These ideas and movements all found their roots in Catholic social encyclicals, which insisted that widely dispersed ownership of property is essential to a Christian economics.
In practice, of course, consolidation has its benefits. Industrial farming techniques can produce food in tremendous volumes. Economies of scale make for efficient production and inexpensive channels of distribution. But aside from the social costs of leaving a few multinational corporations to produce our food and ship it halfway around the globe to us, the threats posed by climate change and the worldwide depletion of energy reserves raise serious questions about this model’s long-term viability. And contrary to those who insist that small-scale farming is inherently inefficient, there is a growing body of evidence that small farms can be more productive per acre than larger ones if they’re well managed and adopt practices such as intercropping (the planting of several crops close together in arrangements that enrich the soil and control pests). Small farms usually require much less capital investment, which makes them particularly well suited for developing countries. Smaller-scale techniques do require more physical work and more workers—more farmers, more paid laborers, or more community members who “buy a share” and help out with harvest. Such work is no doubt difficult and dirty, but it can also be satisfying; and when it’s properly valued, it can provide a good living.
Despite a lot of evidence that, at a certain point, labor-replacing technology can create more problems than it solves, we continue to believe in it without reservations: the more technology, the better. The essayist (and Methodist Sunday school teacher) Bill McKibben jokes that our society is like a person who drinks two beers, feels good, and therefore decides that drinking ten beers will make him feel five times better. What we need is a technology that operates on the two-beer scale, what the economist E. F. Schumacher called a “human-scale technology,” which enables small producers to work effectively—and with nature rather than against it. One well-known example in the food world is the development of small mobile chicken coops and pig pens, which allow a farmer to move animals gradually around between grazing grounds (to prevent overgrazing), while also allowing the animals’ waste to refertilize the same ground that feeds them.
Does this mean that traditional and small-scale methods of food production will once more be able to “feed the world,” as proponents of industrial agriculture claim only their methods can? This is an empirical question, and we don’t yet know enough to be certain of the answer. But we can be certain of this: In a rich and fertile country like the United States, we could do much more local, small-scale agriculture without courting calamity. To begin with, we could try to chart a course between the extremes of bioengineered monocultures and a purist emphasis on the “organic” label, each of which presents its own set of problems.
Sustainable agriculture can be renewed only from the bottom up, by gradually changing both economic and cultural patterns. Some policy changes might be in order (for example, eliminating federal subsidies that strongly favor industrial farming), but many more changes will depend on families, associations, small businesses, and local communities. Above all, we cannot allow ourselves to draw a false dichotomy between the “boutique” lifestyles of a few socially conscious individuals and the business-as-usual practices of everyone else. The dichotomy is false because it treats responsible consumption as a kind of hobby and because it doesn’t consider reasonably scaled models of local economy to be real alternatives to the biggest-is-best model that now prevails. To address the practicality of alternative models, one would have to look beyond the boutique practices that cater to a small, enthusiastic clientele, and instead analyze larger systems that do business differently. There are parts of the United States—such as Vermont, Minnesota, and the Bay Area—where interest in these issues is sufficiently large and longstanding to have produced local food economies of a considerable scale. But one would also have to look at analogous examples of reasonably scaled reforms in other parts of the world—for example, the work being done by Bangladeshi farmers, which Bill McKibben writes about in his book Eaarth.
The emphasis on smart-but-small technologies also helps correct a common misunderstanding that has hindered the contemporary food movement. There is no denying that eating in a loving and careful way often requires a fair amount of work. But it’s important not to conflate the pope’s message in Caritas in veritate, for example, with the sort of go-it-alone mentality that some might think has driven the recent surge of homes with backyard chicken coops. Such endeavors can be wonderful in their own right, but Benedict’s ideal of a loving economy doesn’t require people to remove themselves as much as possible from the cycle of buying and selling. An economy informed by caritas will still have room for the market, and it is compatible with a division of labor. It does not require a nation of homesteads. Instead, it reintegrates the choices we make as consumers with the choices we make as citizens and neighbors. In such an economy it would be possible for more farmers (who are likely to be much better at dealing with chickens than most of us are) to earn a real living raising and slaughtering birds. In such an economy the rest of us would take the time to use what we buy from those farmers more wisely. It certainly costs more to buy organic boneless chicken breasts from the supermarket than it does to buy “conventionally” produced ones. But as our grandparents knew, buying a whole chicken and then getting all you can out of its many parts will go much further than buying those boneless breasts. It also costs substantially less. Shopping and cooking this way requires more time and skill, but what if we spent one less hour a day on various media distractions and instead learned what to do with a chicken? Making the effort to learn the simple arts of cooking not only saves us money, but almost invariably benefits our health, and allows us to make better, more informed decisions as consumers.
Some will no doubt find all this a bit overwhelming. Regrettably, there is no simple three-step formula for eating with more caritas, just as there is no formula for how to love another person. The possibilities discussed here should be seen as invitations to a different way of thinking about eating—about all that goes into this most basic aspect of our material lives. The farmer and essayist Wendell Berry argues that many of our economic and environmental woes can be traced to a deep cultural carelessness, a lack of real concern for the sources of our bodily sustenance: for farmers, for our land and communities, for all God’s creation. When we care for something, we pay attention to it and do what we can to preserve it. Whenever possible, we consume it in a way that doesn’t use it up. When we care, we cultivate long-term, stable attachments. We become responsible to those we buy from and sell to. We work on an appropriate scale, and we encourage others who do the same.