I decided that I would talk to the church kids about food waste, and was doing some preparatory reading, only to discover that I had vastly underestimated the true extent of the problem. First of all, I had failed to appreciate how much waste, especially in poorer countries, is caused by inadequate harvesting and poor distribution. But I was amazed at the estimate of total annual food waste in the world: 1.3 billion tonnes and increasing. This means that about 30% of all farmland is producing food that will be wasted. 15 million tonnes are wasted annually in the UK, including almost a third of all lettuce and quarter of all bread. IMG_0396

There is an assumption that if we were not wasting so much we could feed all the starving people in the world. This may be no more factual than my mother’s assertion that the starving children of India might somehow benefit from the uneaten lettuce on my plate. Even then I wondered how she would get the lettuce to them, albeit she was a woman of outstanding determination. Nevertheless if the system can put guavas on my supermarket shelves it could probably make sure that available foodstuffs got to where they are most needed.

But the sheer quantity of waste is staggering, because it must be the unintended result of an equally huge communal carelessness. How did we get to be so bad at estimating the amount of food we need and so tolerant of packaging that forces us to buy quantities in excess of our requirements? The packaging isssue is the responsibility of the food trade, especially of supermarkets and is an example of the truth that capitalism is nothing to do with the needs of the buyer: the needs of the seller are much more important.

Domestic food waste on the other hand makes me much more uncomfortable, because my own household always has the heaviest food and packaging bins in the street. By far. We go through more bottles, more bags, more plastic containers, more cardboard boxes than anyone else, and consign more pasta, rice, bread, and vegetables – we are vegetarians – to the swill pail than the family next door with three kids. As we  would also claim to be good recyclers – good? We’re unbeatable-  with a concern for the planet, this is hard to explain and impossible to justify. And there’s more! There’s all the Internet purchase packages that are too big to go in the bins, which have to be taken to the tip by car. Where are we going wrong?Fresh Food In Garbage Can To Illustrate Waste

1. We don’t really plan our weekly eating but shop daily for our evening meal.

2. We try to stick to a veggie diet even when this means buying more than we need.

3. At least once a week we use ready meals, buying too much rather than too little.

4. We’re getting older and often find we can’t eat as much as we thought we would.

5. We are quite well-off and spend a greater proportion of our income on food than most people.

We’ve noted these behaviours and are trying to modify them, but I’m not sure that change will be either radical or speedy.

But we would like it to be.

The waste of food reveals a lack of appreciation of it; a carelessness that denies any reverence for gifts of nature or agriculture. People become consumers of food rather than eaters of their daily bread. The modesty of daily sustenance and the extravagance of occasional feasts are equally negated by routine overconsumption.

food waste compostingThe prayer of Jesus is relevant:

“Give us this day our daily bread”

1. It acknowledges that no matter how hard-earned, daily bread is a gift.

2. It speaks of “our bread”, that is, nourishment for the relevant community, rather than “my bread”. It includes a responsibility for sharing.

3. It is a daily prayer asking for daily provision. Of course it does not rule out wise storage, but it refers to the old story of the manna in the desert which couldn’t be gathered in bulk and stored because it became degraded after a day. If we try to secure all possible future supply we go against the teaching of Jesus.

4. It asks for bread not caviar. A slightly mocking phrase from my middle class Glaswegian culture comes to mind, “a modest sufficiency” is the ideal.

 

My title phrase was coined by a researcher into the life of bacteria within the human body. I grew up thinking of bacteria as enemies which had to be defeated by washing my hands before eating and after using the lavatory. But modern research has shown that the total number of genes in the human genome – 23, 000- is vastly outnumbered by the millions of bacterial genes in our bodies. The human gut alone contains 40,000 bacterial species and 100 trillion microbial cells. IMG_0390

Most of these cause us no harm, while a substantial proportion are beneficial. Research has also shown that bacteria provide maybe a quarter of the earth’s biomass, and occupy some of the most hostile of its environments. Because they are able to share their genes with one another, they can exchange information easily and adapt to change speedily, as we have seen in the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Because these creatures are so small we have neglected until recently to study them and their relationship with their environment, including ourselves.

Of course, human beings have reacted to the new wave of bacterial research by latching on to its commercial possibilities. Think of all the so-called probiotic foods which are on sale, especially in the yoghurt aisle of the supermarket, promising with a load of pseudo – scientific gobbledygook to improve the bacterial balance of our guts. It would be a pity however if their exaggerations and misunderstandings put us off considering the results of genuine research.

The role of micro-organisms in the evolution of life is central. First of all they came into being and colonised the very unfriendly environment of the young planet. They did so by cooperation with each other, sharing their different abilities for the common cause of survival. Eventually the sharing cells seem to have joined together in one new kind of the cell named eukaryotic, which is the basis of all multicellular life including homo sapiens.IMG_0391

These clever creatures share my life, or maybe I share theirs. Being human includes being a bacterial zoo.

This is a revelation not provided by the first biblical account of creation, in which God’s creation of human beings in his own likeness is separated from the creation of all other life. We can see that account as a theological diagram rather than a description of how God did the job. The second account in Genenis is less exalted: God fashions some dust into a shape and breathes his life into it. Perhaps we can see this dust, a gramme of which contains millions of bacteria, as the source of bacterial life in humans.

The two accounts are not mutually exclusive: the first depicts the making of human beings as similar to the making of stone “likenesses” of themselves by contemporary rulers, to represent their presence in their distant territories; humans are meant to be images of God’s rule on the earth. The second depicts the actual origin of human beings, as of all beings, from the dust, the fertile dust of the planet, reminding men and women of all they share with the planet and its other life. Indeed the Genesis story tells how germane this reminder is, as it shows how human arrogance leads to expulsion from God’s garden into the familiar harshness of the world we inhabit, and threatens to make it uninhabitable.

Although I have responsibility to represent the rule  of God in the world, along with a range of skills which enable me to do so, I am also a composite creature, made of the soil of earth, sharing the life of innumerable tiny creatures. The latest science joins the Bible in directing me to a wise humility ( Latin: humus =dust), to realise the intimate ecology of my existence: I  am a shared life, whose continued health depends on my partners. I cannot simply be or do anything I want without an understanding of my place in the web of life. And the life I share is not only inside me, it does not end at my fingertips: my very breath is an exchange with the planet, and if I pollute it, I pollute myself.

IMG_0392This “dustiness” does not negate the revelation that I am made in the image of God, for God is the life which humbly shares itself with all creation; nor does it exempt me from the duty of representing God’s rule, which persuades all creation towards the perfection of shared goodnesss. Me and my microbes are called to cooperate.