Our Relation to Land and Sea: An Ethical Reflection on Our Food System

by Chris Durante

Image: iStock.com/AlexRaths

With the fifth Halki Summit on the environment scheduled to take place in June 2022, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which we, as Orthodox Christians, can more fully embrace the ecological message that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has repeatedly delivered for more than thirty years. The Patriarch has called upon Orthodox Christians and people of goodwill across the globe to recognize that the environmental catastrophes that we have caused, and continue to perpetuate, are sins and that we ought to be repentant for having committed them by engaging in a transformation of our mindsets and daily lifestyles. Two crucial aspects of our daily behavior that are contributing to environmental destruction, yet which have historically received little attention from Orthodox Christian theologians, are global society’s food cultivation and distribution practices as well as humanity’s current consumption habits.

Reflecting on the ethics of food is of utmost importance, for it ties together the economic and ecological dimensions of our daily lives on both individual and collective levels. Ultimately, our attempts to live the “good life” by pursuing a vision of “prosperity as abundance” have led to our failure to truly achieve a state of flourishing as a global community and has led us to forego our responsibility to care for creation as we attempt to achieve such prosperity through industrial means. We must come to realize that to carry on with business as usual without amending our consumption practices and without altering our food systems is to perpetuate one of the primary sources of ecological harm. As with any authentic repentance (metanoia), an ecological metanoia entails a transformation of each individual’s personal lifestyle, in this case: what we consume, the way we consume, as well as the method and location of our food sourcing. By raising awareness of this aspect of the ecological crisis and by advocating for more sustainable methods of food cultivation, the global Orthodox Christian oecumene can help humanity begin to sincerely repent for its ecological sins by transforming our relationship to our food, our lands, our seas and ultimately to creation itself.

The Ethics of Food

 Agriculture was a profession that St. Basil the Great of Caesarea believed was the noblest of all, writing: “agriculture is the best since of its nature it provides the necessities of life” (LR, 38). While it is still true that agriculture provides humanity with the “necessities of life,” sadly our current agricultural, aquacultural, and food distribution systems, as well as our consumer behavior, have all become unsustainable and are harming our natural environment. This is largely the result of the industrialization of our food production systems, which entails an altered relationship with the land being cultivated. Today, agriculture no longer represents a simple agrarian lifestyle in which farmers hold a deep sense of connection to the land they live and work on as they cultivate food. Rather, modern agriculture has succumbed to the pressures of industrialization and the neoliberal economic system’s demands for overspecialization and perpetual growth. As a result, industrial agriculture has transformed farming from a livelihood that contributed to the common good by cultivating the earth in order to provide sustenance for the larger community into a global profit-oriented system of food production and distribution that has become one of the most serious contributors to the ecological crisis we are currently experiencing.

With its use of heavy machinery, industrial agriculture is one of the largest producers of carbon emissions, far exceeding even automotive emissions, and with its reliance on chemical fertilizers and a monocultural paradigm of cultivation, it is an industry that is causing a host of other environmental problems. These include: (a) groundwater pollution and increased levels of toxic chemicals within the bodies of the humans that consume industrially produced food items; (b) deterioration of soil quality and fertility due to a lack of crop diversity; and (c) desertification and deforestation by turning forestlands into farmlands. Furthermore, industrial agriculture has become one of the largest contributors to water-waste; amid other reasons, this is the result of turning deserts into farmlands as well as the high levels of freshwater required for the production of enough beef to meet current global demands. In all these cases, the land is seen as an instrument for profit as its sacrality as the divinely created source of life’s sustenance is neglected.

Yet, we must not only focus our attention on the land but must also turn our ethical gaze toward the world’s seas and oceans. Currently, mass-scale industrial fishing operations and aquaculture are: (i) polluting the world’s oceans and seaways; (ii) depleting fish stocks to the point that some species are being threatened with extinction due to over-fishing; and (iii) causing irreparable destruction to ocean and sea floors with the use of industrial trawling; again to meet global society’s excessive demands for seafood. All of this harms the health of the human community in myriad ways and also leads to the eradication of traditional farming and fishing communities—many of whom can no longer sustain themselves due to either the financial and social difficulties associated with attempting to operate a small-scale farm in a region dominated by industrial agricultural companies, or the lack of fish reserves and socio-economic pressures placed upon them by large-scale fishing conglomerates.

To this end, it is important to note that St. Basil’s aforementioned comment was intended for monastics, and that the type of agricultural practice he had in mind was limited to local monastic communities engaged in small-scale farming in an era that far pre-dates the invention, let alone use, of industrial equipment or synthetic fertilizers. With a long history of monastic engagement in farming and fishing, one that continues to this day in many Orthodox Christian monasteries, the Christian tradition has developed spiritual approaches to, and reflections upon, agricultural and fishing practices that present an ethical alternative to the industrialized forms of food production and distribution currently operative in our global civilization.

The Church as a Agent of Ecological Transfiguration

In addition to offering the laity insights into ancient spiritual wisdom, monastic communities that are still operative today can be a source of inspiration and may help cultivate a eucharistic ethos to guide our production and consumption practices. This is because many monastic communities are currently engaged in sustainable production and sell their wares to visitors or even through the internet on platforms such as Etsy. For instance, in Anatoli Larissa in Greece, the Nuns of the Hermitage of St. Paul of Timios Promodromou are an excellent example of the way in which a monastic community embodies a Christian ecological ethos. Since 1986 these nuns have been engaged in ecologically sustainable forms of agricultural production as well as animal husbandry and sell their products to the local community as a means of maintaining economic self-sustainability. Another contemporary example of a monastic community engaged in ecologically and socially conscious production is the White Field Farm project managed by the nuns of the All Saints Greek Orthodox Monastery in Calverton, NY. Employing female survivors of human trafficking they produce and sell all-natural, locally-sourced and cruelty-free body products. These nuns have partnered with the non-profit HOPE (Housing, Occupation, Potential, Empowerment) project by donating all of White Field Farms profits to philanthropically serve survivors of human trafficking (this is also an area in which the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has been actively involved for a number of years). Given our current ecological crises, and the role that the global food system plays in perpetuating it, these examples of monastics engaging in ecologically and socially transformative endeavors can serve as a source of inspiration for Orthodox Christian communities around the globe to become more active and play a greater role in enacting an ecological transformation of our relationship to food.

Furthermore, with the Department on Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America having a well-established connection to NGOs operative at the U.N. and having recently launched their Greening the Orthodox Parish initiative, and with the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece having recently established a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund in Greece to develop a similar green parish initiative, I believe the time is ripe for the Church to explore the possibility of forging partnerships with environmentally focused NGOs and other environmental organizations operative within the civil arena as a means of directly working to improve the sustainability of our agricultural and aquacultural food systems. An example that comes to mind is the Greek NGO named Archipelagos, Institute of Marine Conservation. In addition to serving as an educational institute, offering marine conservation programs for university students, as well as a sanctuary for dolphins, Archipelagos has been working with local fishing communities to improve the ecological sustainability of fisheries and fishing practices in the Aegean sea.

Conclusion

As we reflect upon our relationship to creation, Orthodox Christians ought to take this opportunity to seriously consider the ways in which they can begin strengthening efforts to ecologically transfigure our global food systems. The aforementioned endeavors are a few examples of local monastic, archdiocesan, lay and non-ecclesial groups working toward the development of more sustainable methods of food cultivation, distribution and consumption. However, if the energies and insights of all such local efforts were harnessed and coordinated together in a global network committed to ecological transformation, the positive impacts for the environment could potentially be enormous.


Chris Durante,  Ph.D.,  M.A.,  M.Sc., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Saint Peter’s University in NJ, a Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics & Human Rights in Rome, Italy as well as a Fellow of the New Visions in Theological Anthropology initiative of the School of Divinity at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, UK. Dr. Durante has also been involved with the “Greening the Orthodox Parish” initiative of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.