A Prayer in the Anthropocene – Carmen Retzlaff reflects on food scarcity and food sovereignty.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 31 – August 6, Year A (2023, 2026)
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
“Food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food as defined above.”
(Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food Security: Concepts and Measurement” in Trade Reforms and Food Security: Conceptualizing the Linkages. Rome: FAO, 2003.)
The well-known story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes can point to issues of hunger, nutrition, and access to food, certainly a reality in ancient Palestine, and illuminated in a new way in the light of climate change and climate displacement today. In response to growing numbers of people around the world without enough food in the 1990s and early 2000s, “peasants, small-scale farmers, farm workers and indigenous communities organized in the transnational agrarian movement La Vía Campesina” and advocated for the use of a new term other than “food security.” Food security has been linked with large-scale production and market systems rather than local production, autonomy, and food preferences and cultural norms.
“The term ‘food sovereignty’ was coined to recognize the political and economic power dimension inherent in the food and agriculture debate and to take a pro-active stance by naming it. Food sovereignty, broadly defined as the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures and environments, has emerged as a critical alternative to the dominant neoliberal model for agriculture and trade. (Wittman, Hannah, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe, eds. “The Origins and Potential of Food Sovereignty” in Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community. Oakland: Food First Books, 2010.)
Modern migration patterns from rural areas to cities impacts farming and local food production. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report in December 2023 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that “approximately 29.6 percent of the global population, equivalent to 2.4 billion people, did not have constant access to food.”
“The report also looks at increased urbanization as a ‘megatrend’ affecting how and what people eat. With almost seven in ten people projected to live in cities by 2050, governments and others working to tackle hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition must seek to understand these urbanization trends and account for them in their policy-making. In particular, the simple rural and urban divide concept is no longer sufficient to understand the ways in which urbanization is shaping agrifood systems…”
And 2000 years ago, we have Jesus with a crowd coming out of the towns and into a “deserted place,” with no food in sight. People living under Roman control of their economy and production, and surviving day to day on subsistence wages.
“When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’” (Matthew 14:15)
Today’s gospel reading speaks across generations and continents about sovereignty, and is possibly more relevant than ever in this unprecedented time of world-wide global climate displacement. Again, Jesus speaks to those not traditionally in power or afforded honor.
“God became flesh and launched his movimiento [movement] among those who were despised and rejected by both their Roman colonizers and the elite of their own people. Jesus didn’t go to the big city and seek recruits among the religious, political, and economic elite.… To change the system, Jesus had to start with those who were excluded from the system.… Riling under the double burden of Roman colonialism and economic and spiritual oppression by the elites of their own people, [the underclass of Jesus’ day] needed first to hear the announcement of God’s liberation. Though…they were thought to be less honorable, Jesus gave them greater honor. (Robert Chao Romero, from Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology and Identity. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. Quoted in Daily Meditations of the Center for Action and Contemplation, July 3, 2023.)
And in this modern epoch, the elite are not only controlling the systems of production, but have changed the planet entirely, affecting first the most vulnerable among us. As Larry Rasmussen, Lutheran ethicist and environmentalist, writes to his grandchildren,
“Previous powers did not revamp the chemistry of the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the cryosphere (water and ice), wrinkle the lithosphere (the Earth’s crust), or bludgeon the biosphere (the community of life)…This means that in the Anthropocene everything, including extinction, turns on ethics (our choices and actions).” (Larry Rasmussen, The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing. Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2022, p. 174.)
It is easy to despair in these days of growing awareness of how much destruction our species has wrought. Here we can tie in a bit of the sentiment of the Romans passage in the lectionary with the feeding story. The agony Paul seems to feel seeing his “own people” choosing a path he feels is not fruitful or life-giving. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”(Romans 9:2).
Always, Jesus brings a message of hope to those with the poorest prospects. And in part he does so by encouraging us, his disciples, to work together to feed those in need. Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16).
Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, in the SOFI report, links our feeding action to food sovereignty, supporting local farmers, and especially indigenous knowledge of food production, in providing the food their communities want and need.
“A world without hunger is possible. What we are missing is the investments and political will to implement solutions at scale. We can eradicate hunger if we make it a global priority. Investments in small-scale farmers and in their adaptation to climate change, access to inputs and technologies, and access to finance to set up small agribusinesses can make a difference. Small-scale producers are part of the solution. Properly supported, they can produce more food, diversify production, and supply both urban and rural markets – feeding rural areas and cities nutritious and locally grown food.’’
Similarly, Rasmussen ends on a note of hope in his letters to his grandchildren in the face of climate catastrophe, calling on their generation to work together to change the way we live in community and ensure all have enough.
“Especially the young often get things done because they didn’t know they couldn’t…So dream of a world…that levels the standard of living, with a steady state economy attentive to Earth’s regeneration. A world of jobs and healthcare for all in need of them. A world where quality of life for household and community is the economy’s purpose, not the profits of big firms and corporations. A world of widespread public transportation in and between green cities. A world of clean renewable energy sources. A world of diets low in the use of animals. A world where spiritual well-being replaces gaudy consumerism. A world where diversity plays out as strength, not inequity, and where colonialist and environmental debt is settled with reparations on the way to liberty and justice for all (Rasmussen, p. 188).”
This gospel reads as a prayer in the Anthropocene, that people need not go away from their homes, and that we can not only provide enough for everyone to eat through sharing and generosity, but through advocating for the rights and listening to the wisdom of local and indigenous growers and tenders of the earth.
Originally written by Carmen Retzlaff in 2023