Global Food Crisis: A Theology of Sustenance1

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 4 »Global Food Crisis A Theology Of Sustenance

Jojo M. Fung, SJ

Jojo M. FUNG, SJ is director of both the Skudai Catholic Center, Johore Baru, and of the Orang Asli (Indigenous Peoples), Malaysia. He holds a PhD in Theology from the Catholic Theological Union, Washington D.C. His recent book, Ripples on the Water, was published by Majodi Publications, Johore, Malaysia. His earlier publication, Shoes-Off: Barefoot We Walk, was published by Longman, Malaysia.


The recent global food crisis has occasioned much discussion on food security and sovereignty. On the part of the Church, there is a need to develop a theological discourse on sustenance in relation to sustainability and solidarity. This article represents such an attempt, without pretending to be exhaustive. This discourse represents reflections occasioned by local circumstances and enlightened by Scriptures, the Catholic social doctrines, papal encyclicals and addresses, and curial and extracurial documents.

This article begins with the voices of the grassroots communities among the indigenous peoples of Malaysia. The narrative is then linked to global and regional contexts before being analyzed in the second section. The references to Scriptures in the third section aim to offer some understanding of the biblical notion of sustenance. The fourth section makes references to the social doctrines of the Church and the last section offers a theological framework for explaining the relation of sustenance to sustainability and solidarity.

Local Narrative

I had an interview with Awang, the village headman of an indigenous village in Tanah Abang, Johore, Peninsular Malaysia. The conversation between him and his brother-in-law still reverberates in my mind.1

Awang: Recently, the price of basic goods has hiked up considerably.

Brother-in-law: Wow, how can we afford to buy anything? It used to be 3.00 ringgit for a can of luncheon meat; now, it’s 5.50!

Awang: For all these goods that man is ordering from my shop, he won’t have the cash to pay. He will pay with the rattan he collects from the forest and I will deduct from his earnings on a monthly basis.

That Sunday night of 27 April 2008, along the Endau River, under a canopy of stars, I could not but hear the repeated cries of the Orang Asli: "We are suffering from loss of identity, land, and now, the spiraling hike in the prices of basic commodities!"

This local crisis in Kg. Tanah Abang reflects the global food crisis that, according to World Bank President Robert Zoellick, "could push at least 100 million people in low-income countries into poverty."2 Josette Sheeran also admonishes that the rising cost of food is "a silent tsunami. … The price of rice, for example, has risen from $460 a metric ton in March 3, 2008 to over $1000 a metric ton just last week. So in seven weeks we've seen a doubling of prices. … This is really a crisis for the world’s most vulnerable."3 Paula Kruger, a reporter, remarks that "the doubling of the price of rice prompted protests and violent riots in Haiti and Egypt earlier this month. There also have been food riots in several other African countries, along with Indonesia and the Philippines. The violence is expected to spread as the crisis continues."4 Raju Gopalakrishnan remarks that "the crisis over rice showed no signs of easing … as the price of the world’s benchmark jumped 10 per cent in just one week, fanning fears that millions across Asia will struggle to afford their staple food."5 The high-level FAO Conference on World Food Security, held on 3-5 June 2008 in Rome, issued a statement in which the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, urged that the pledged $13 billion be used to "focus both on the immediate needs and on the longer-term issues starting right now and the focus is on the smallholder farmers in developing countries."6 The Food Summit adopted a Comprehensive Framework for Action that called on the international community to increase assistance to developing countries, in particular, the least developed countries and those that are hardest hit by high food prices to "expand agriculture and food production, and to increase investment in agriculture, agribusiness and rural development, from both public and private sources."7


There is little doubt that the global food crisis is occasioned by multiple factors.

The first factor is land use for the production of biofuels rather than food. The demand for biofuels has been created by the need to become "more environment friendly," especially by the world’s richer nations. This has resulted in diverting land away from growing crops for feeding people to growing biofuels for feeding cars. Diversion of land for more highly priced products is evident in the USA, where land formerly used for rice production has been diverted instead to corn, wheat, and soybean production. Little wonder that Jean Zeigler, the UN’s special rapporteur on The Right to Food, called for a suspension of biofuel production and at the same time criticized the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for "[imposing] on the poorest countries the cultivation of non-food products, thereby cutting down further food production."8

The second factor is the questionable practices of speculative investors. Jean Zeigler explained that "speculative investors are also contributing to the increased cost of food. After the crisis of the financial markets, many of the very big investor hedge fund speculative investors moved out of the financial market and moved to another market, the one of raw material, agrarian raw material—rice, wheat, sugar, and so on. And this new speculation, this flaring speculation, is driving up the prices."9

The third factor is unprecedented population growth and globalization. Kruger believes that the current crisis is not unrelated to population growth, which has put pressure on supply. In addition, "globalization means that some countries no longer grow their own food, so they are vulnerable when the prices of imports steadily increase."10 Moreover, "the boom in Asia has also led to a change in what people eat. For example, those who used to have a mainly rice diet are now including more meat and milk. To supply more meat and milk, cows need to eat more grain. The increased demand for grain pushes up the cost."11

The fourth factor is the adverse impact of climatic changes on food production. Andrew Hewitt remarked that weather patterns, some caused by climate change, have affected food production. This has led to a decline in the amount of food aid, which is at a five-decade low level. When the prices of food go up, food aid goes down.12

The fifth factor is the enforcement of stringent protectionist policies. In Gopalakrishnan’s view, this policy has occasioned exporting countries to restrain export so much so that "a tender from the Philippines, the world's top importer, attracted offers to sell only about two-thirds of the half a million tons it sought."13 He added that "increased food demand from rapidly developing countries, such as China, India, and Iran, are all blamed for pushing prices of staples such as rice to record highs around the globe."14 Finally, stocks have declined while the need for food aid has increased. Bob Papanos, the head of Rice Trader, a weekly rice marketing publication, underscored that the shortage of rice in the world market has been part of the "declining stocks-to-use ratios in the last 15 years."15 Given the current food crisis, Papanos stated that "rice could be even more volatile, since governments in many nations—including across Asia’s ‘rice bowl’—consider rice a national security priority."16

Scriptures on Sustenance

The Old Testament offers an understanding of the God of material sustenance. God sustains the Israelites during the Exodus (Ex 16:35-36) with bread from heaven (Ex 16:4) or manna (Ex 16:14, 31; Wis 19:21) and meat (Ex 16:8). Yahweh also provided the Israelites with water from the rock (Ex 17:6-7). In the Second Book of Kings (4:42-44), Elisha commanded the man from Baal-Shalishah to feed a company of a hundred men, although he only had twenty barley loaves and fresh grain still in the husk. But they all ate and even had leftovers.

In the Synoptics and John, God sustains the disciples in the feeding of the four thousand (Mk 8:1-10; Mt 15:32-39) and the five thousand (Mk 6:35-44; Mt 14:15-21; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-15). Mark, despite the differences in his two accounts of the four thousand (8:1-10) and the five thousand (6:35-44), highlighted their similarities in the theological motifs of God’s feeding of the people in the wilderness, the messianic banquet, and the anticipation of the Eucharist. The only distinctive theological difference is found in the "number of loaves and the baskets of leftovers—seven, often taken as a reference to the Gentile mission of the early Church."17

Matthew’s account of the feeding of the four thousand appears to be a doublet of 14:13-21, and by the use of the number "seven," which recalls the nations of Canaan (Acts 13:19) and the Hellenist table servers (Acts 6:5; 21:8), "makes it a feeding of the Gentiles ... who have been incorporated into the fullness of Israel."18 However, in Mt 14:13-21, the crowd represents all of Israel, the twelve tribes who have been gathered by Jesus under the twelve disciples. The two feeding narratives have thus a social character: "Jesus is presented as feeding a tenth of the population of Palestine."19 In this way, "as the feedings anticipate the Eucharist, the Eucharist anticipates the messianic banquet in the Kingdom."20

Lk 9:12-17 portrays Jesus as "giving his disciples, who have just returned from preaching and curing God’s people, a new charge: they are to feed the reconstituted Israel—with the eucharist."21 In vv. 12-15, the Lucan theme of food is given a further dimension: "God is fulfilling his promises of feeding hungry creation" in the Kingdom-mission of Jesus, in addition to Jesus’ joyful fellowship with sinners (5:27-32).22 Unique in this account is that Luke immediately links this feeding account with Jesus’ prediction of his passion and his instructions about bearing one’s cross daily (9:18-27). Hence, "to celebrate the eucharist in memory of Jesus (22:19) is to share not only his mission (9:1-6) but also his dedication and destiny, symbolized by the cross (9:18-27)."23

In Jn 6:1-15, the initiative of feeding lies with Jesus, who is concerned about feeding the crowd and who then distributes the bread. This gesture "points forward to the discourse on Jesus as the bread of life."24 Though the crowd grasped the truth that Jesus is the messianic prophet, they failed to understand that the "true nature of Jesus’ kingship, which is not that of a national liberator, can only be revealed at his trial (18:33-37; 19:12-15)."25 Later in 6:22-40, John portrays Jesus as "the bread of life," thus moving away from the Old Testament connotation of "bread from heaven." The bread refers to eternal life, the intimate life of Jesus with the Father. Yet John (6:27) warns the disciples not to work for food which perishes—food is not so much the "bread" of the Eucharist as Jesus’ word. Jesus is both the living bread and the living water (4:14; 6:35). In both accounts, the "key to receiving the gift of Jesus is faith that he is the one from God."26

The biblical texts speak of Yahweh who provides for the basic sustenance of the Israelites. The evangelists underline the providence of God through Jesus the Son whom God offers to all Israel and even beyond, to the Gentiles, as the "bread of life." Whoever comes to faith in the Son will have the life of intimacy of the Father and the Son. This sustenance is continuously offered to the disciples through the eucharist. In the Old Testament, God sustains the Israelites with food from heaven; in the New Testament, the God of sustenance further offers the gift of eternal life through the son Jesus, "the living bread," so that whoever believes in him as sent by the Father shares in the life of filial intimacy.27

Teachings of the Church on Sustenance

The Church has made numerous pronouncements regarding the environment and the goods of the earth as being for the common good. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §466, the Church is convinced that the environment is "a common good, destined for all."28 In §467, the Church exhorts individual states and the international community to exercise "a common responsibility for the environment, the common heritage of humankind that extends not only to present needs but also to those of the future."29 In §470, the Church further argues that "programs of economic development must carefully consider the need to respect the integrity and the cycles of nature because natural resources are limited and some are not renewable … [thus] the needs of economic development [should be reconciled] with those of environmental protection."30 In addition, we are reminded, also in §470, that "the climate is a good that must be protected [and] consumers and those engaged in industrial activity [should] develop a greater sense of responsibility for their behavior."31 Climatic change thus ought to "be opportunely and constantly monitored at the scientific, political and juridical, national, and international levels."32

Benedict XVI, however, has cautioned that "it is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances."33 He added that "if the protection of the environment involves costs, they should be justly distributed, taking due account of the different levels of development of various countries and the need for solidarity with future generations."34 Efforts to protect the environment should seek "agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances."35

The Compendium, §481, counsels that "the goods of the earth were created by God to be used wisely by all … they must be shared equitably, in accordance with justice and charity."36 This conviction is the basis for what John Paul II’s Centessimus Annus establishes as "the right to abundant life," which is related to the notion of "life in abundance" in Jn 10:10 and best explained as a full and whole human life. In §245, the Compendium speaks of ensuring adequate food supplies for the integral development of vast numbers of the world’s children.37 In §477, biotechnology scientists and technicians are urged to "work intelligently and with perseverance in seeking the best solutions to the serious and urgent problems of food supply and health care."38 Similarly, entrepreneurs and public agencies involved in the research, production, and selling of products derived from the new biotechnologies should promote the common good by ensuring that the food supply, along with medicine, healthcare, and the environment, are given due consideration.

Benedict XVI, in an address given in Latin America,39 said that "the lack of adequate nutrition not only impedes the full development of the personality of men and women, but also constitutes an evident negation of their rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life, of which nutrition is an indispensable component."40 The main requirement of food security, according to the Pope, is "to transfer to the human dimension those forces ... which technology and new scientific research make it possible apply to agriculture and, hence, to food production."41 This involves "considering not only the difficulties in agricultural production provoked by environmental and territorial factors" but also "those deriving from unfavorable trade policies caused by the absence of progress in multilateral negotiations on trade in agricultural products."42

These impasses, the Pope believes, must be resolved because the economies of many countries depend "almost exclusively on the export of a limited number of typical products, while their food security depends on the importation of many food products."43 He further adds that agricultural reform continues to be "an open and problematic question … and its slow evolution in countries of the region confirms the need to adopt land ownership strategies and laws that can be effectively implemented."44 This has to take into account the situation of small scale landowners and of indigenous communities, "whose traditions are often far distant from the institutions and from the advantages offered by new production criteria."45 Finally, the Pope urges that "investment in the agricultural sector has to allow the family to assume its proper place and function" and "local communities also need to be involved in choices and decisions concerning land use, since farmland is being diverted increasingly to other purposes, often with damaging effects on the environment."46

Concerning the relation of farmers and land ownership, Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, Southern Philippines, has argued that the food crisis is related to the crisis of skewed land ownership in the countryside, which keeps farmers still landless and without the capacity to feed their own families. He stressed that agrarian reform becomes more urgent and called on Philippine legislators to extend the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program and institute progressive reforms to address the major flaws of the law and other implementation problems.47

A Theology of Sustenance

A theology of sustenance needs to explain sustenance in relation to sustainability and solidarity. The Creator God sustains the earth and its environment because God is in solidarity with creation.

The earth and humanity are always sustained by the God of abundance and are thus sustainable in the theological sense. This arises from God’s offer of life in abundance to all (Jn 10:10) and at all times. In other words, the God of covenantal fidelity will never leave creation in a state of deprivation and dire need of the basic amenities, given the offer of a relationship with God through the Son. Sustainability in the theological sense is the state of life in which all "im-planeted" creatures enjoy the fullness of life that is ever holistic and wholesome, and this enables all to receive God’s free offer of new life and hence relish filial intimacy with God. Indeed, the God of sustenance is the God of the everlasting sustainability of God’s creation. Hence the notion of sustenance and sustainability are mutually interrelated.

God’s solidarity, on the other hand, is based on the covenant that God has entered with all of creation (Gen 8:21-22) and more specifically with the people of Israel (Gen 17:7-8; Jer 31:31, 32:39; Eze 11:20). As God has entered a covenant with all, the covenantal solidarity of God enjoins all who love God to love all through the sharing of goods and the care of the environment. This covenantal spirit is indeed the basis of solidarity with all of God’s creation.48 Solidarity, as John Paul II explains in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, §38, is "is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all." Solidarity ("we") is the basis for the "cultural habits of mutual giving and receiving, with a minimum of calculation"; it is actually social love in action, encouraging "practical recognition, and therefore respect of the other."49 In this way, solidarity points to an "I" in a "we" because it enables the "I" to fulfill her/himself only within a network of relations with others.50 This solidarity is not only for now but also for the future, and thus is intergenerational in perspective. Inspired by love, solidarity enables one to "see in the neighbor another self" who is the imago Dei—the otherness of God in our midst.51

This covenantal solidarity that God has entered with humankind is the basis for God’s actions of sustaining creation. And since God is the Redeemer of humankind and creation, covenantal solidarity is at the same time salvific solidarity. Covenantal and salvific solidarity is the basis of God’s gratuitous offer of sustenance that is holistic—from the provision of material sustenance for bodily existence to the offer of eternal life—so that all humankind of diverse cultures and religions come to share in the new life offered in Jesus.


A local narrative of the cries from marginal communities reflects the negative impact of a crisis that is regional and global, occasioned by multiple factors—diversion of land use, framing food production as a national security issue, reducing gas emissions, etc. The current food crisis challenges the Church in Asia to generate a more comprehensive theological discourse on sustenance that relates sustainability and solidarity. This discourse announces a God of sustenance who fosters greater solidarity among the many peoples of varied cultures and religions in Asia.


1. Interview with Toh Batin Awang of Kg. Tanah Abang, Mersing, 29 April 2008, in his house.

2. "Ban: Don’t Let Crisis Escalate. ‘Higher food prices may hurt global growth and security,’ warns UN Chief," Star (22 April 2008): W48.

3. Paula Kruger, "Biofuels Contributing to Food Crisis," [on-line], available at tm.

4. Ibid.

5. Raju Gopalakrishnan, "Global Food Crisis Looms as Asia's Rice Bowl Empties and World Price Soars," [on-line], available at

6. "$13 Billion Pledged to Feed the World's Hungry," ENS, New York (6 June 2008), [on-line], available athttp://www.ens-new

7. Ibid.

8. "UN’s Emergency Plan against World Food Crisis," Herald (11 May 2008): 7.

9. Ibid.

10. Kruger, "Biofuels."

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Gopalakrishnan, "Global Food Crisis."

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Quezon City & Makati: Claretian and St. Paul Publications, 1993), 613.

18. Ibid., 659.

19. Ibid., 658.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 699.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 961.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. John identifies Jesus as "the bread" rather than as an angelic being who offers a heavenly substance to the pious on earth.

28. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church(Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), 262.

29. Ibid., 264.

30. Ibid., 265-266.

31. Ibid., 266.

32. Ibid.

33. Simon Caldwell, "The Pope Condemns the Climate Change Prophets of Doom," [on-line], available at ge-prophets-doom.html.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Compendium, 270.

37. Ibid., 144.

38. Ibid., 269-270.

39. Given at the Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Brasilia, Brazil, on 17-18 April 2008.

40. "’Agricultural reform must not become dehumanized,’ says Vatican official," [on-line], available at ?q=node/2276.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. "World Food Day 2006 Targets Public and Private Investment in Agriculture Critical to Halve Hunger by 2015," Rome, 16 October 2006, [on-line], available at

47. "People’s Food Summit Declares: Hunger is Governance Crisis!" [on-line], available at

48. See Dean Brackley and Thomas L. Schubeck, "Moral Theology in Latin America," Theological Studies 63 (2002): 142.

49. Ibid., 140, 145.

50. Ibid., 144-145.

51. See Compendium, 583:331.