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Scapegoating the food industry

You don’t have to search far on the internet to find criticisms of “the food industry” for making us fat and otherwise unhealthy. The assumption seems to be that a “good” food industry would result in a slim, athletic, and otherwise healthy populace. Since this is couched in moralistic terms, it is attractive to many Christians.

But this whole view of reality seems problematic. Food scarcity has been all too common in most places until relatively recently. The Bible actually addresses the issue, telling us it goes back to the first sin of mankind (Genesis 3). While various “lifestyle diseases” are a sad fact of modern life that we need to address, do we really want to return to a time when starvation was a possibility and people were shorter because of the food supply (though the prevalence of childhood diseases was also an issue)?

“The food industry” is a vague phrase covering agriculture technology, refrigeration, and transport that results in grocery stores loaded with foods on shelves (under most Presidents, anyway). This is a blessing, not a curse. But it is a blessing with challenges. To paraphrase what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker (and the future Spider-Man): With great prosperity comes great responsibility.

And who is responsible? “The Food Industry” isn’t a central organization with a mission to feed people. It is not a charity or ministry. It is people making a living. It is the market as it relates to food. The only reason that food appears on grocery store shelves or on Amazon.com is that people want it. People will pay money for food that they enjoy eating. If you can develop something they want to eat, they will reward you. In a real sense, consumers are as much a part of the food industry as producers, because producers are keenly interested in what the consumers signal to them regarding their demands. Consumers are powerful directors in the food industry.

There are marginal efforts producers might make to perpetuate a market after data turns up showing that it is dangerous, like some of the things that happened with tobacco. But the fact remains that the shelves of your grocery store are a reflection of consumer demand, not a result of an MK-Ultra operation to get people to make themselves sick. The various product line suppliers that collectively make up the food industry have no knowledge of your height, weight, maintenance calorie number, or insulin sensitivity. All they can do is make the product as desirable as possible to the segment of the market. Each consumer is responsible for their own choices.

So railing against “the food industry” for making food highly palatable is foolish. Businesses who make less palatable food lose money to businesses that produce more palatable food. Restaurants that offer healthy options suffer or prosper according to the same rule. Consumers decide.

What about product lines and grocery chains that profit by offering purportedly healthier fare? If there is any source of “healthy” food that you choose to spend your money on, that is “the food industry” just as much as the makers of sugary soft drinks or doughnuts. I would bet if you interviewed the workers in such businesses, you would find their intentions are not especially saintly, just like workers who ship boxes of sugary breakfast cereal don’t do so from demonic motives. They're just making a living.

Demonizing the food industry is really a “self-own.” It is an observation that the populace has unhealthy habits in eating and exercise, but with a deceptive pretense about who is in control. It is true that cultural habits can seem entrenched and irresistible, an objective force that pressures us to conform. But that feeling doesn't justify blaming the market providers for what the market demands.

If you want to change your culture’s eating habits you need to engage in persuasion by setting an example and making an argument based on data. In the meantime, be glad that food is widely available at a relatively low price. That is a blessing from God.

Mark Horne has served as a pastor and worked as a writer. He is the author of The Victory According To Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, Why Baptize Babies?,J. R. R. Tolkien, and Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men. He is the Executive Director of Logo Sapiens Communications and the writer for SolomonSays.net.

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