China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Jun

A harmonious and sustainable diet

High grain prices are in the news in 2008. Wheat, rice, and corn have become painfully expensive in many countries. Different people have blamed different factors: poor weather, turning corn into alcohol for motor fuel, rising demand, hoarding and speculation. Cooking oil and pork are also more expensive. Worldwide, the results have ranged from grumbling, to panic buying, to food riots. Sad to say, the cost of food may be voted one of the top 10 news stories of 2008.

Social status and diet out of balance

Zhong Yong, (中庸) The Doctrine of the Mean, is one of the four books of the Confucian canon. It extols mental balance and emotional harmony, while urging people to avoid extremes. A century later in Greece, Aristotle said, “Virtue stands in the middle.” A virtuous diet stands midway between starvation and obesity.

For most people throughout most of history, the problem has been to avoid hunger. People spoke of fat years and lean years. Joseph rendered great service to Egypt and beyond by foreseeing bad harvests and storing grain to prevent famine (Gen. 41). Ancient inscriptions in northern China contain a character that is no longer used, written as person + meat. A person with meat? From the context, modern scholars deduced that it meant “government official.”

The elite of the Shang (商) Dynasty loved to hunt. At the dawn of history, China had “charismatic megafauna”: bear, panda, tiger, rhino, wolf and elephant. These large, eye-catching (and sometimes people-catching) animals dwindled in numbers and territory over the millennia. The title of one book on this topic tells the story: The Retreat of the Elephants. Also, there were many bears and lions in northwest Africa before the Romans built the coliseum and 70 other amphitheatres. Later the kings and nobles of medieval Europe socialised and politicked while visiting hunting lodges.

Meanwhile, the serfs survived largely on millet and wheat. An old saying was that the common people “regarded food as God” (以食为天). A good government sent grain from state reserves to districts hit by flood or drought, where honest, local officials sold it below cost, or organised food for work programmes. Greedy merchants or corrupt officials who profited during a famine provoked rebellions in Old China.

Likewise, prophets in ancient Israel denounced those who cheated the poor with dishonest scales (Hosea 12:7; Micah 6:11). Chaff, the outer husk, has to be separated from wheat, the nutritious inner kernel, by tossing the harvested grain in the air. The wheat quickly falls straight down onto the winnowing fan, while the wind blows the light chaff away.

Yet some cheats sold the refuse of the wheat (Amos 8:6). Adding fine gravel to grain, or water to meat and milk, are old tricks around the world. As the prices rose earlier this year, some migrant workers in China wondered if they would be better off receiving their salary in bags of rice, as in the old days.

Balancing quality and quantity

The Ministry of Health recently published Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents. It features a “balanced diet pagoda,” with cereals, tubers and legumes as the foundation. The next layer consists of vegetables and fruits. Meat, fish and eggs have their place, but in smaller amounts. People should go easy on dairy products, soybeans and nuts. Cooking oil occupies the tiny roof of the pagoda. The Dietary Guidelines praise the lowly potato, which is filling while being low in fat.

Why is a food pagoda needed now? Because many urban children are getting heavier and heavier. In the old days “to become prosperous” was a euphemism for “to get fat.” Only rich people could prosper like that. Everyone else worked hard, sweating and burning calories as fast as they could find things to eat, if not faster. Diabetes was rare in Old China. Medical news from the United States of America (US) indicates that the combination of too much food and too little physical activity is already reducing life expectancy in some counties. Does China need to imitate the US in everything?

Vegetarians are increasing. Buddhist monks, nuns and fervent lay believers have always abstained from meat. Some schools of Daoism stipulate a meat-free diet, while others do not. Today, significant numbers of young adults are converting to a vegetarian diet to avoid killing animals, to place less strain on Planet Earth and for better health.

Balancing body and soul

Vegetarianism is not listed in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no Church law on it either way, so Catholics are free to eat as they wish. Animals are only mentioned in four brief paragraphs (nn. 2415-18). The creator has granted a limited dominion over the “mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe,” taking into account the needs of future human generations (n. 2415).

Eating meat is not banned as incompatible with “a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” However, we should not cause animals to suffer or die needlessly, since this is contrary to human dignity (n. 2418). Fasting, especially during Lent (nn. 538-540), is a part of discipleship, an expression of penance (nn.1434, 1438) and a Church precept (2043). Compared to some other religions, Catholicism imposes minimal restrictions on the believer’s diet.

Gluttony is listed as one of seven capital sins; pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth are the others. In the Chinese Church, these deadly sins are called the Seven Sources of Sin (七个罪源) since they are attitudes from which sinful actions flow, just as a river begins from an upstream source. In Mark 7:14-23, during a debate on dietary laws, Jesus locates the origin of impurity in what comes from the heart, not in what goes into the mouth.

In China, the four traditional vices, in order of increasing severity, are food, alcohol, womanising and gambling. Gambling still causes the greatest disruption and the most discussed tragedies, but the long-term hazard of overeating is becoming increasingly evident.

Some lazy “couch potatoes” jump from one extreme to the other. They undertake a severe, fanatical discipline of diet and exercise in order to add more years to their earthly lives. Both the author of Zhong Yong and Aristotle would urge them to strike a healthy balance instead.

Balancing self and others

Mencius (孟子) said, “I like fish and I like bear’s paw, but if I have to choose between them, I will let go of the fish and take the bear’s paw. I like life and I like righteousness, but if I have to choose between them, I will let go of life and take righteousness” (Mencius, A 10). He made this analogy to encourage heads of state to look beyond personal survival.

St. Paul addressed the problem of food offered to idols at great length (1 Cor. 8-10). The problem no longer worries us, but to the new Christians in Corinth, it was a divisive issue. Paul broadened the discussion beyond God and idols, or one Christian and a neighbouring pagan, to consider how other members of the Church would be affected. To avoid causing scandal, Paul was willing never to eat meat again (1 Cor. 8:31).

Paul does not insist on his right as an individual Christian, his personal benefit, nor the bare minimum he has to do. He ends this section with the advice not to cause offence to other groups, but rather to benefit all of them (1 Cor. 10:32-33). In classical western political thought, this is looking to the “common good.” In Confucianism, this entails the welfare of every person “under heaven” (天下). In modern environmental language, this is considering the “environmental impact” of an action. For St. Paul, what is at stake is even higher, eternal salvation.

Eating low on the food chain is eating frugally. Animals have to burn calories to change grain to meat, and the larger the animal, the lower the efficiency of conversion. Choosing a diet high or low in meat has a direct impact on how much grain and soybeans will be left for others.

Balancing today and tomorrow

Food security is a serious, long-term issue. This problem will not go away in a year or ten years. Modern agriculture requires water, land and fossil fuels. Factories have a way of polluting surface water and excess pumping from underground reservoirs requires drilling deeper wells.

Building roads through fields and paving over gardens removes land permanently from food production. Someone said, “Asphalt is the land’s last crop.” Beijing looks ahead and wants to preserve a minimum of 120 million hectares of cultivated land. But on the local scene, there is quick money to be made from converting fields into residential or commercial building sites.

Farm machinery burns gasoline. Oil prices are at a record high. To manufacture one ton of a common fertiliser requires 1,000 cubic metres of natural gas, which has also soared in price. Shipping fruit and vegetables to the city, wrapping them in plastic and keeping the items cool, also takes energy. Urban gardens, or even a few tomatoes grown on a rooftop, can help.

The global population may well peak at 10 billion in another 60 or 70 years. The demand for meat is increasing and shows no sign of levelling off. God knows how much still-edible food gets dumped into the garbage; restaurant staff see a large amount of waste. At least there have been stories in the Chinese media opposed to lavish banquets and in favour of sensibly-sized portions.

Even those religions, like Christianity, which do not prohibit meat eating, at least encourage frugality and condemn gluttony. As St. Paul wrote, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).