A Theological Perspective for Creating a New Food System

[1] Basic to a theological formulation about any issues is the question of what informs theology. Many of us have a similar answer worthy of continual study and reflection. We work from our faith traditions in the Bible, from our heritage of experience within our Christian religious community, our own experience within our historical contexts, and from our human faculties of reflection and reasoning. I work out of my experiences of a half-century of service and observation as a Christian agronomist and ethicist in may parts of Africa, parts of north and southeast Asia, Latin America, the Pacific communities, the Caribbean, and my own country. Out of this experiential context, with a focus on agriculture, I reflect upon my faith experience and heritage. For me, insights about Old Testament understandings of the land (creation) are foundational for the construction of a renewed theology of the land. The insights are ancient. In the Old Testament, the land (creation) was understood to belong to God, not humans. We are not free to use the land as we wish. We ought to relate to the land (not use it) in a way that guarantees justice and preserves righteousness (the right order of creation). This is how I understand the biblical injunction “having dominion,” (Genesis 1:26).

[2] Dominion does not mean domination, but rather signifies responsibility for the maintenance of justice and righteousness within the sphere of one’s own domain. I conclude from my career and ministry related to agriculture and rural community justice that my theology and agricultural and ethical stance fall into the category of what I call “dominion ethics.” The concept of the forbears of our faith was unquestionably wise. They understood within the context of their world view that the land was God’s, and had a purpose for the Creator of all things. The human responsibility is to relate to the land as stewards, as a species capable of reflection and able to express gratitude for life for the created order of the planet Earth, in its galaxy, that sustains human history and the processes of the evolution of life in all of its fullness. This is what it means to be “created in God’s image.” We need to see ourselves at our proper place in the created order, not at the top of a hierarchy in which one life form has greater value than the other, but rather as a part of an interdependent “common-unity,” a united in which humanity finds itself with the gift of responsibility. It is within this theological context, based on the Old Testament concept of having dominion, that the ethical question “What is good agriculture?” emerges. This is a most proper and urgent question to raise at the beginning of this 21st century.

[3] The predominant land ethic operative in our nation at this time can be defined as an ethic of profit-taking. “The good” is commonly understood in our contemporary society to be related to wealth accumulation. A good farmer is a wealthy and prosperous farmer. A “bad” farmer is a bankrupt farmer. A good agricultural system is a wealth-generating system. Within such an ethical frame of reference, efficiency in crop production is the standard for evaluation. For many years, even up to the present, agricultural research has been devoted primarily to this standard. Such an ethic and measure of progress is mechanistic, materialistic, reductionistic, dualistic and anthropocentric. Within the construct of this measure the value of private land ownership provides license to allow the “owner” of the land to do as he or she pleases.

[4] In contrast to this outcome, dominion ethics offers an idea of regenerative agriculture that restores, sustains, preserves. What a challenge this is in the context of seven thousand years of human destruction of the land. What a challenge this is to our sophisticated science and technology to invent, with new biological, physical, and social tools, an agricultural or food system, that restores and preserves the elements essential for the long-term maintenance of a global food system… a regenerative agriculture. Such an agriculture, moving in a radically different direction from our presently exhaustive and environmentally destructive global food system, is coherent and consistent with the tradition of “dominion ethics.” Such an ethic requires that our relationship to the land be restorative and preservationist. Such an agriculture will be solar and biologically intensive. Farmers will be understood as “managers of micro-biotic communities of life” of which there are thousands. We will call this type of agriculture an “agro-ecology.” The design of this type of agriculture of biologically complex, not truncated as are today’s monocropping systems. Farms and farming systems will be designed as analogues or original biotic community ecosystems. Agricultural colleges need to be understood as schools of agroecology, or schools of biotic community management. Farming must be site-specific, and should harmonize and enhance the massive diversity of ecological niches. Zero tillage, or permaculture, must become the rule, as perennial grasses, tress, and indigenous animal species are integrated into the system. There are twenty thousand presently identified edible plants to be explored as food sources-today 85% of all food consumed by humanity comes from fourteen plants. An agroecology works symbiotically with creatures that have evolved within their habitats for tens of thousands of years and have contributed to the health and balance of plant communities of their natural environment.

[5] The values incorporated into a regenerative and therefore sustainable agriculture (an agroecology) or food system involve six principles: health of the land, welfare of future generations, social and interspecies justice, integrity in meaningful work and relationships, caring for every aspect of the ecosystem in which we live, and reverence or respect for life. Consequently, “good” agriculture ultimately enhances the health and maintains the integrity and stability of the natural system within which it operates… systems upon which all life, including human life, are totally dependent. As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it goes the other way.” (Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 217)

[6] From the Old Testament theological understanding of “having dominion,” good agriculture preserves species rather than driving them into extinction or modifying their gene structure to such a degree that they become an entirely new species introduced into ecosystems that have no history of these modified species. Good agriculture assessed the health and fertility of the land from generation to generation. Such an agriculture maintains ecological integrities and justice in personal and community relationships. Its technologies are self-reliant and regenerative. An agriculture functioning within guidelines of a dominion ethic would seek to improve ecological integrity by increasing symbiotic relationships of land, agriculture, and society, and would seek to improve the economic and social health of the whole community of life.

[7] In summary of this brief reflection, on can suggest that the idea of dominion ethics requires regenerative relationships with the land. Abusive relations with the land are ultimately as hazardous as the threat of nuclear weaponry. The end result can be the conversion of the earth to another lifeless planet in the galaxy. Time is running short for making the transition to a post-modern world in which our theological understandings about creation and the human place within it are renewed and returned to Old Testament understandings. In a time in which many are recognizing that humanity is on a collision course with planetary pollution and resource exhaustion, we need to shift to a food system which is creation-centered, not human-centered. The theological task before us is awesome, promising, and transforming.