Warnings of an impending world food crises are currently being issued by multiple organizations and media of mass communication. A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation press release points out many factors that are threatening to bring about a famine of Biblical proportions: climate change, legacy of COVID-19, public debt burdens and, last but not least, shock waves of geopolitical conflicts. The website of the World Food Programme tells us that “there are 50 million people in 45 countries at the ‘emergency’ phase of food insecurity in 2022, just one step away from a declaration of famine.”
It is tempting to conclude that there is not enough food to go round, and new and more intensive ways of producing it should be sought. But such a conclusion would be false. The same sources continue to affirm that enough food is produced on this planet to feed everybody. A more likely answer might lie along the lines suggested by a traditional English football fans’ chant: “Who ate all the pies?”
As it turns out, a staggering amount of food produced in this starvation-threatened world is not eaten by humans at all. The Economist magazine article, aptly entitled “Against the Grain”, states that 43% of grain is either burned as biofuel or fed to animals, who are then going to be consumed by humans. (The overwhelming majority is used for animal feed, rather than biofuel.) The quantities thus used, the article informs us, “equal to six times the grain output of Ukraine and Russia combined”. The animals are, of course, ultimately intended for human consumption, but this process is incredibly wasteful, since for every 100 calories contained in the grain, only three get to the person if the grain is fed to a cow and the person eats the beef (“Against the Grain: most of the world’s grain is not eaten by humans”, The Economist, June 25th 2022).
The answer to the crisis then seems fairly obvious and involves radically decreasing the consumption of animal products. While it is true that it will not eliminate all the multiple factors that contribute to world hunger, such as those to do with armed conflict and climate change, it will at least reduce the wasteful use of both land and agricultural products.
It is not surprising therefore that ethically conscious consumers are increasingly turning to either a vegan lifestyle, abstaining from animal products altogether, or to what is now described as a “flexitarian” diet, aiming to at least reduce the consumption of meat and food derived from animals, such as eggs and dairy products. The Vegan Society, quoting external research, states that the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, while in 2022 Ipsos research found that 46% of Brits aged 16-75 are considering reducing their intake of animal products.
Christian believers may be forgiven for thinking that these positive lifestyle developments have side-lined them, consigned them to the ethical ghetto prepared for them by Lynn White Jr. and Peter Singer, the former blaming Christianity for current ecological problems, and the latter accusing Christians of focusing on the interests of humans to the detriment of other sentient life.
The good news is that, at least in the case of Orthodox Christianity, this does not have to be the case. The Orthodox have, even on parish level, maintained a tradition of fasting which involves precisely the kind of reduction in animal consumption that is needed as one of the ways of tackling both the current threat of famine and the long-term problem of world hunger. It has been said, though only as a metaphor, rather than formal research, that if the whole world fasted like the Orthodox, the problem of hunger would be solved. (Formal research can be even stricter, putting the extent by which we have to reduce eating meat at 75%.)
It is important to note that Orthodox fasting is, first and foremost, a devotional, ascetic practice, designed to aid the spiritual growth of the psychosomatic being that is the human—not solve social and ecological problems. St John of the Ladder, for example, describing one of the “steps” of the Ladder of Divine Ascent as controlling “that clamorous mistress, the stomach”, writes: “It is amazing to see the bodiless mind defiled and darkened by the body, and likewise the immaterial spirit purified and refined through clay” (Step 14). The Fathers of the Philokalia make use of the same fasting paradigm. Evagrios the Solitary, though thoroughly disliked by St John of the Ladder, agrees with him when it comes to fasting and its aims: “Fast before the Lord…for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the mind, drives away the demons, and prepared you for God’s presence” (Philokalia, Vol.1, 36).
The ascetic character of Orthodox fasting does not, however, preclude “side benefits”, such as, at this moment in history, contributing to saving the world from hunger. The causal relationship between the material and the immaterial is mysterious and complicated, as the words of St John of the Ladder cited above show. It is not unreasonable to suppose that we do not understand, or do not understand as yet, the full benefits of our fasting tradition, and that the full significance of the Christian ascetic practice is something that is being gradually revealed to us as time goes on, even through scientific research.
Thus, far from being side-lined from the global ethical process, the Orthodox have an important contribution to make. In the West the fasting tradition has largely been lost. In the introduction to the English translation of the Lenten Triodion, Bishop Kallistos (Ware) writes that “in Western Christendom over the past five hundred years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic.” Given the current global concerns, it appears that not only individual humans as microcosms, but the macrocosm itself needs to practice abstinence in order to survive and flourish. The Orthodox, especially in the West, have a vitally important tradition to share.
Natalia Doran is an Orthodox Christian and a trustee for the animal protection organizations Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals, Animal Aid, and Farplace Rescue.
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.