Thanking God for Factory Farms and Processed Food

2013 November ChristianityToday ran a nice warm fuzzy rainbowy article on local [organic] farming as a particularly Christian way to thank God for the food we eat. Maybe killing chickens helps the author thank God, but the premise of "local, organic" farming is deeply flawed. I blogged my thoughts here (with some source links), then got up the nerve to write them a letter, which is undoubtedly too long for them to print, and too wholistic for them to print a reasonable fraction of it. This is the whole letter I sent to CT the day before Thanksgiving:

Killing the chicken

Whenever somebody claims "This (activity) is more spiritual than that one," I need to give due diligence to determine whether I should adjust my own spiritual life to encompass the claimed benefit, or if the claim is really nothing more than "I like my secular tradition more than your secular tradition." After substantial research, I think your chicken farm article falls into the latter category.

I do not begrudge author Bret Mavrich any spiritual benefit he might get from using small tools to kill a chicken in his hand, and he should not deny my spiritual benefit from using larger tools to kill many chickens a thousand miles away: we both thank God for providing chickens for us to eat, and for farmers to grow them, whether that be in small farms like Lamppost as featured in his article, or in factory farms like Tyson runs elsewhere in the country.

Make no mistake, Christians around the world have derived substantial spiritual (as well as financial) benefit from factory farms and processed food, because those scorned links in the food chain have freed up millions of people from the drudge of growing and preparing their own food, so that they can do other things to create wealth in this country, making it the richest country in the world and in all time. Most people squander their share of that wealth and freedom in "riotous living" but many have invested a portion of it to pay for a smaller number of the same people (also not needed to grow food) to preach the gospel in countries where the population is still largely preoccupied in growing and processing their own food in the manner recommended by Mavrich and/or the owners of Lamppost, and who therefore cannot afford to pay their own pastors and missionaries. Other people freed from food preparation used their time to invent computers and to program them to do publishing kinds of things, so that ChristianityToday can tell us about Lamppost farm and C.S.Lewis and other spiritually uplifting things, which would not be possible if this were not the wealthiest country in the world, largely because we uniquely do not need to spend vast amounts of time in farming and food preparation and clothing manufacture and other activities that so filled the days of our great grandparents.

Factory farms and processed food did that for us, but it's not obvious. Lamppost farm has a website with an email address, and the owners, Steve & Melanie Montgomery were kind enough to answer my questions. I also searched the internet for differences between organic and factory farming methods. The food value appears to be scientifically indistinguishable, and after you demythologize the hype there aren't a lot of other big differences, except labor. Everybody agrees that organic farming is labor intensive, but hardly anybody will say how much, probably because it looks so bad. I found one farmer who admitted that his organic farm used three times as much labor as the same acreage would by conventional farming methods. Another wanted cooks everywhere to be raising and killing (and presumably plucking by hand) their own chickens.

I buy TV dinners or canned soup for about $1 each, slightly more now after the Obama tax on poor people (aka inflation) is added, and I heat them in five minutes in a microwave, during which time I can do other things. I can prepare a comparable meal from fresh ingredients in an hour or two of total attention -- assuming I do not restrict my purchases to local produce, which there isn't any here this time of year. If I search out and buy local when it is available, then preserve it for the winter, it doubles or triples the time I would spend on feeding myself from California and Arizona produce. That means I'd spend essentially all day just on food preparation. As a computer programmer, I can earn 500 times the cost of that TV dinner or can of soup in the time it takes me to prepare it from local fresh. That doesn't seem like a good investment of the "talent" God entrusted to me. If I eat TV dinners and cheap soup and spend my time programming Bible translation software (which I do), then I can work a very long time on the money I earned programming computers for pay 20 years ago, when I ate better but still spent my time more productively than growing and preparing food. I tried growing my own garden, but gave it up when it consumed a couple hours a day picking big worms off tomatoes I can otherwise buy all year around for $1/week. It's not a good use of my time. Different people will of course have different multipliers. If God had made me a plumber or a truck driver or a school teacher, I might earn a little less per hour than I can as a programmer, but still far more than the cost of buying factory food instead of making it myself in the same time I would otherwise be working.

Multiply that times the entire country, and you have a huge amount of labor that can be invested in all kinds of other stuff (besides food preparation), which creates wealth exponentially, with enough left over for us to be God's benefactors to the world, in food and technology as well as Christianity. We can even afford to let some people grow organic food (at a high price) and occasionally prepare things from scratch, if that makes them feel good about thanking God for it. I have done some recreational cooking myself -- but not very often: it's not a good use of my time.

I have also spent too much time writing this letter. I need to get back to the work God gave me to do ;-) -- and to thanking God for produce farms in California and truckers who drive it 2000 miles to the local grocery stores, and for factory farms in Iowa and Arkansas that package up processed foods that I can eat so inexpensively, and for putting lots of oil in the ground in Saudi Arabia so it doesn't cost much to get that factory food from the farms and food processors to my grocery store and then to my house. And I can also thank God that there are so many people with time (and money, because they don't have to spend all day in food preparation) who are willing to study God's Word and to preach the gospel here and elsewhere. God is awesome!

Tom Pittman
PO 128
Grants Pass, OR

[This essay was also reprinted in Animal RightsISBN 978-0-7377-7207-4, p.88, and more recently adapted for Cultural Engagement ISBN 978-0-310-53457-0, p.205]


The CT editor made some changes, deleted the political references and added words that I would not have said and don't believe, then posted it in their on-line forum. A dozen or so people commented on it; about half were mostly defensive about their own enslavement to "organic" food and gave the usual arguments. Others were more substantive.

The first had some thoughtful remarks on the larger context, which I did not address (it was too long already), before dropping into the usual refrain:

...this article does little to comment on a Christian vision of all things. ...I however believe the Scriptures and a Christ saturated worldview causes us to think differently about society, culture, the environment, and the poor.

There is a good amount of research to show that we should all be eating a lot less meat... I mean come on, how long does it take to steam some broccoli with a side of rice and beans?

I agree with his sentiments on "a Christ saturated worldview," and if he had read more of my writings, he would know that. I don't know about that research he referred to, but a couple of studies (only hearsay, like most of this stuff) that stuck in my mind pointed the other way. One found that a particular exceedingly belligerent tribe somewhere in the Amazon jungles ate only fruits and nuts. The low level of protein in their diet resulted in low blood sugar, which sapped their strength, but when they got angry, the adrenaline raised the blood sugar and they felt better. So they sought out occasions to become angry. The other study involved all the centennials in Colorado, people 100 years old or more. Every one of them ate red meat twice a day. The doctor reporting this said it's because cattle (like people) get sick if you don't feed them trace elements, and sick cattle don't sell well, so the farmers make sure they have all those trace elements. Everything is sold by weight, and veggies grow big and heavy if you give them nitrogen and phosphorus, but trace elements have little effect. The result is that eating red meat gives you those necessary trace elements, but veggies do not. But come on, cooking beans from scratch is several hours; if I get the beans from a can, steamed broccoli with a side of rice and beans is still a half-hour or more of preparation time. I do it often enough to know that (except I mostly eat the broccoli raw, because some vitamins are destroyed by heat).

Another commenter was less thoughtful: failed to mention how unhealthy those processed foods are. Why would God want you to eat something that is unhealthy? If this causes you health problems later in life...
I never found anything in the Bible that teaches us to spend a lot of effort on healthy food. I did find a couple places where we are told to eat what is set before us. God gave our bodies the marvelous ability to get necessary nutrition from what we eat, and to crave what we need if we aren't eating it. Anyway, I am in later life, and considerably more healthy than most of the people my age I know. The processed foods don't seem to have had the effect she claims of them. She later posted a second comment in which she admitted to buying the stuff she belittles, "because there is really no other way I can get clothes or food given the place that I live in and the money I have." That was exactly my point, that factory farming reduces the cost of living, and we all benefit from it.

Another thought "Maybe a cookbook on simple cooking would help this author..." I have such a cookbook, because my sister wrote it. I made every recipe in it (because I did the pictures), so I know what I'm talking about. It's a lot of work.

The last commentor claimed,

I am a nutritionist... The "cheap food" you are choosing are empty calories, with close to zero vitamins, minerals, or enzymes.
Every processed food product out there is required to state on their label the nutritional content. Processing does not destroy minerals, and it damages vitamins no more than cooking on your own stove does. The body makes its own enzymes from the amino acids we eat (in protein); enzymes are themselves proteins and are digested and broken down into their constituent amino acids like any other proteins. We do need balanced proteins (grain+legumes, such as rice+beans or PBJ, or else red meat) but eating enzymes is not a particularly good way to get it. Except for the salt and the fat, fast food is a remarkedly balanced diet. And this person is a "nutritionist"?

I prepared a lengthy reply, but posting it turned out to be as big a hassle as preparing food from scratch. Nobody seems to be looking any more anyway. Here is my complete response, most of which appears here only:

It is always gratifying to see my remarks so well received. When I touch somebody's religion (what they believe on faith, not facts), it is normal for them to want to "kill the messenger," and I take their lack of substantive criticism as confirmation of what I said. There were also some substantive remarks I now address.

My original text was restricted to American factory farms and processed foods, which benefitted both us and (indirectly) other countries. That restriction was removed by the editor over my objection. You cannot blame Americans for what bad governments and false religions did to poor people and their farms in other countries. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding.

I did not mention the chemicals factory farms put into the ground because it is not a significant difference. The organic proponents will not tell you that USDA "organic" farms use chemicals also, but they are not as effective, so more must be used, resulting in greater side effects. I lived in California near where they grow carrots. A farmer there told me there are no organic carrots, because if you don't use pesticides, the nematodes eat them. 20 years later, I now see "organic" carrots in the grocery store. They used pesticides. Just now I found 7 CFR 205.601 "Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production" on a government website. There's another for nonsynthetics, some of each harmful to organisms. That's what it's about, isn't it? Bringing harm to some of God's creatures, so they won't eat ugly holes in food we want to eat. Organic farmers do it too.

I mentioned the chemicals they put into processed foods only indirectly as "the food value appears to be scientifically indistinguishable." Nobody, not even my critics here, offer any evidence to the contrary. The labels on my soup and TV dinners list substantial vitamins and minerals, while fresh food labels list none at all ;-) A real nutritionist would know that a carrot or bell pepper in a can of soup has the same vitamins and minerals as (the same weight of) a fresh carrot or bell prepared on my stove. I have been eating processed food most of my life, and I am now older than the average lifetime 200 years ago. The chemicals haven't killed me yet. My friend here is a farmer. They buy local (I think Amish, probably organic) produce and spend multiple days each year in marathon sessions preserving it for winter. It seems like half the Sundays of any given year one or more of his family members doesn't show up for church because they are sick. I missed church for sickness once in the last ten years. Other factors obviously apply, but processed food is not unhealthy. Most people my age eat with every meal a pile of government-approved chemicals (aka pills) greater in size and weight than all the chemicals ConAgra puts into my TV dinner; they eat their chemicals and I eat mine, and we both are still alive. Yes, the chemicals sound noxious, but God made our bodies amazingly able to overcome such things.

But all this is a wash and irrelevant. Labor is the only substantial and measurable difference between local/organic vs factory/processed food.

Some of my critics celebrate their increased labor in food preparation, and I do not begrudge them how they choose to spend their God-given 24/7. Instead I thank God that other people, freed from the previously necessary burden of working in the food chain, can use their time productively creating wealth we all -- including my critics -- benefit from. Some people (and I) can use some of that wealth to benefit people of other countries not so blessed. Maybe those people in less-wealthy countries also thank God for our generosity, maybe not, but I can thank God on their behalf.

My point was not to promote "a Christian vision of all things" (which I believe in) because it would require commenting on Gen.9:3 and Luke 24:43 and 1Cor.10:27 and other texts, mostly all outside the scope of my remarks. Part of the 1Cor.10 context is about giving thanks to God for what He has provided. That was my point at this time of the year.

Edited 2013 December 20