Friday, September 03, 2010

Eggs, Salmonella, and Theology

Been avoiding eggs recently? In case you have been savoring the last days of summer media free (and good for you), 550 million eggs have been recalled because of contamination with salmonella, and 1469 people have become ill. Here is a link to a summary of the events. Here is what the FDA, the CDC, the Humane Society, and the Egg producers have to say about it. Finally, here is an article that begins to explore some of the complexities of the issues.

There have been calls for improved inspections and safety regulations. Many people who were previously unaware of how eggs are produced received a glimpse into modern factory farming.

Those are good things, but what if we try to think theologically about this situation. Would our response be different? Does our faith inform our response? What does theology and scripture have to do with chickens, eggs, salmonella and modern farming?

The first place to start is with the chickens. Modern poultry farming practices are not designed to be cruel, they are designed to be efficient. But we need to ask if efficiency at the expense of animal welfare is acceptable? What level of confinement is humane? How do we keep chickens healthy and safe? Should we be concerned about their happiness? Do modern poultry farming practices reflect our biblical mandate to care for creation? Do they reflect God's vision of shalom?

The next set of questions concerns our life together. Rural American needs jobs. Does the desirablility of jobs in rural America over ride other concerns? What about the environmental challenges of “factory farms”? How much pesticide use is acceptable? How much waste run off, is acceptable?

What about wages, and the health and safety concerns of farm workers? Farming is dangerous work. What does scripture say about our responsibilities toward each other and toward the evironment? Profitability may be the “chief end” of business, but should it be the only one? Or are there other concerns which should be “chief ends” as well? When choices must be made, how do we know what to prioritize?

The reformed tradition has understood that our work, whether we are workers, management or owners is to glorify God. What does that look like in modern agriculture? Are business owners required by their faith to sacrifice their profit for the common good? What if doing good puts your business at such a disadvantage that your business may not survive?

Finally, what about the poor? According to the USA Today article I linked you to above, "regular" eggs cost $1.10 nationally, cage free eggs $2.99 and organic eggs $4.89. Is it just to increase the price of a food by nearly three times? Given the increasing numbers of food insecure people in the US, is reforming egg production (or any agricultural practice) a luxury we cannot afford? Must we choose between chickens and people? Can we care for both?

I have asked a lot of questions today; and hard questions at that. Normally bloggers are all about answers - we can be an opinionated bunch. As a nation we are also all about the solution, and the faster we have a solution the better. But fast solutions are often superficial solutions. It seems to me, we might have better solutions, if we spend time pondering the complexities of a problem. And particularly if our pondering is theologically driven. Can theological reflection give rise to actual concrete, workable solutions?

I'd like to know, what do you think?


DennisS said...

I think we need to make a distinction between family farmers and big agri-business. Family farmers tend to make wholesome decisions. The corporate farms make decisions based on profit margin. One group is worldly, the other is concerned for their neighbor.

DennisS said...

some day, folks in the big city will wake up and realize that the rural areas have so much to offer. People in rural areas watch out for one another - crime is significantly less, and if you need help with something your neighbors will be glad to lend a hand. One neighbor might produce strawberries and grapes. Another will have eggs and chickens. Another will have cattle, and yet another will be a butcher, or baker, or candle-stick maker.

Maybe folks in the big city will get the idea that life isn't about them, about how much money they can make, etc.

Maybe folks will get the idea to buy their food from the producer directly - knowing where it comes from - and not from some agri-business giant (which is displacing jobs and buying up the land from the family farmer).

Doug Hagler said...

I agree about buying locally where possible, though I think that the city has a lot to offer that rural areas do not.

I think that choosing between people and sustainable food production is a false dichotomy. If we are not choosing sustainable food production, then we are not choosing in favor of people, no matter what eggs cost. If we are careening toward ecological collapse, which we currently are, then we have to change our practices.

It is pretty likely that if we cease externalizing costs for food production, we'll have to change how we eat. If producing an egg sustainably makes it cost five dollars, then eggs are a luxury we can't afford, and we have to eat something else, just as right now not everyone eats caviar or Kobe beef.

Until the price of food matches the cost of the food to the environment and our health, the real cost of producing the food, we'll always be on our way to disaster. It's always better to face reality before reality faces you.