Food is one of the few absolutely basic requirements for life on the physical plane. So, at a time when rising food prices, food riots and the spectre of famine in parts of the world are concentrating people’s minds everywhere, it is good to explore the meaning of food and our attitudes towards it.
One of the oldest social remains from early human existence are cave paintings. These have been found predominantly in Europe with some being about 20,000 years old, though there are examples to be seen all over the world. Among the many things these paintings tell us, is that hunting for food appears to have been a ritualised community activity. Speculation abounds about the form of these ceremonies. But one favourite theory is that they focussed round a shaman who communed with the spirits of the animals to seek their help in the provision of food for the community. We discover from this that not only is food a physical essential, but, precisely because of this, human beings in all societies in the world and throughout history have invested it with social meaning and spiritual power. They have embodied these ideas in patterns of sharing and mutual support and in the great rituals that are to be found in all spiritual traditions which inspire and strengthen the heart of communities everywhere. This pattern seems to have been lost sight of in our modern tendency to snack at any time of the day or night. And for office workers, the mid-day meal in particular is not usually an opportunity for conviviality, but a hurried refuelling snatched alone at one’s desk.
For many societies food is not only regarded as a sacred trust, but also as a celebration of community. It is a spiritual joy and duty to welcome the stranger and the traveller to your table and honour and feed him. Family get-togethers and community celebrations such as weddings and other rites of passage have often involved elaborate feasts of great conviviality. Even in our present-day secular world with its fragmented ‘nuclear’ family, the daily routine still normally involves sitting down together for at least one meal a day, sometimes observing the tradition of preceding the meal with a grace or prayer of gratitude.
A more ascetic approach towards food is found in many monasteries where it is customary for the monks to eat in silence while listening to readings from scripture. This symbolises the fact that not only do our bodies need nourishment, but so do our minds. Without the consumption of food the body will eventually die; without the stimulation of ideas the mind will similarly atrophy.
A feature of all spiritual traditions is the encouragement – sometimes requirement – that their adherents should undergo periods of fasting. Two examples are Ramadan in Islam, and Lent in Christianity. The great eastern religions also have their traditional times of fasting. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that it helps us demonstrate to ourselves that we can control our desires and appetites. Another is that consciously abstaining from food helps to atone for mistakes and sins.
Food has often been used by the great spiritual leaders of humanity as a symbol of right relationships. "For I was hungry and you fed me", said the Christ in the New Testament. Thus, how food is regarded and distributed is a good litmus test of human motivation. When we are motivated by personal considerations our activities are directed to selfish ends with often harmful consequences to society and the environment. But, motivated by the soul, human creativity and genius focuses on service and the good of the whole.
So how does humanity regard and distribute food today? It is worth noting that in the developed world since the Second World War government policies have supported agriculture with subsidies to ensure that plentiful food is available for all and that hunger and malnutrition will never again affect populations. This laudable motive has resulted in an abundance of food. However the downside of this policy has been the dumping of food surpluses onto world markets with the consequence that many developing world farmers have been driven out of business, being unable to compete with such artificially low prices and resulting in periods of food shortage in various places. However, it is a testimony to the fact that the soul principles of love and responsibility are in the ascendant that, whenever there are major food shortages in the world, then the aid agencies spring into action and channel the financial contributions of people of goodwill from all over the planet into the transport and distribution of food to relieve the suffering in the areas concerned.
Now in 2008, however, the global community is facing a food crisis unlike any preceding one. The World Food Programme describes it as "a silent Tsunami", and it is being caused by a convergence of various factors. The chief among these are: the increasing percentage of land that cannot be farmed; the rising price of fossil fuels that is having a direct effect on the price of food, putting it beyond the purchasing power of the very poor; the use of crops to make biofuels – in other words to feed cars rather than people; and the increasing demand in China and India for a more western style of diet.
What can people of goodwill do about this? ‘Feed the World’ is the slogan we should work with. Perhaps the first thing we can do is to stop thinking of food as a commodity, and start again to think about it as something special and sacred to us all. While speculators can purchase futures in food as a commodity and lock it up with high prices, food as a sacred trust is there for all when needed. The second thing most of us in the developed world need to do is to eat less. One of the ironies of the present world situation is the simultaneous existence of a major epidemic of obesity and the other diseases of excessive consumption in the affluent West, while elsewhere people are being driven further into poverty and increasing millions of children especially are now malnourished.
Another thing we can all do is to grapple with the issue of the number of human beings the planet can realistically support. It is clear that a further exponential increase in the human population is simply unsustainable. We need to recognise that if we as a global community do not address this issue then Nature will address it in her own – in our eyes non-discriminating – ways of famine, war and disease. Is it not much better to try the way of lovingly applied intelligence this time? We have the knowledge, the skills and a short space of time.
Perhaps it will be considerations like this that will lead to a re-emergence of the values of co-operation, sharing and responsibility within the world community that will mark the beginning of a new phase in human living and ensure the supply of the "bread of life" to all.