Bring back Friday’s fast

Recent news about the global impacts of blighted local ecosystems spotlight how human consumption—especially in the developed world—can have significant impacts elsewhere, and everywhere.

This goes particularly for food consumption.

For instance, widespread cattle ranching in and around the Amazon Rainforest is causing dire effects to one of the planet's most critical ecosystems. NASA has a terrifying array of information on the issue here, as does the National Science Foundation.

And this recent story from the Kansas City InfoZine reports on work by Marcelus Caldas, an assistant professor of geography at Kansas State, who worked in conjunction with researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Michigan State University. The group published “Statistical confirmation of indirect land use change in the Brazilian Amazon" in the journal Environmental Research Letters. In part below, we read just a little of the complexities and the seriousness of the issue—such as the relation of changing food and biodiesel markets and how the global demand for soybeans and for beef play off one another, and the effects of it all.
"Between 2003-2008 soy production expanded in Brazil by 39,000 square kilometers," Caldas said. "Of this 39,000 square kilometers, our study shows that reducing soybean production by 10 percent in these pasture areas could decrease deforestation in heavily forested counties of the Brazilian Amazon by almost 26,000 square kilometers -- or 40 percent."
Caldas said he hopes this link between crops and deforestation will motivate Brazil's environmental policymakers to develop more dynamic agricultural regulations to slow deforestation.

Although the numbers and data back this connection, the notion that deforestation will cease completely is unlikely because of other complexities like money and livestock. Demand for Brazil's crops is high and there's a desire to produce more for buyers. 
"In the international market, China is buying a lot of soybeans from Brazil," Caldas said.

The Brazilian government says soybean and sugarcane are grown largely in degraded pasture, but data from the team's work with geographic information systems, or GIS, shows that many of these crops have crept into the Brazilian savanna, a large area bordering the Amazon that's used for cattle. Consequently, this has created deforestation in the savanna, driving cattle inside the Amazon.

"Our data shows that the Amazon now has 79 million heads of cattle," Caldas said. "Fifteen years ago, it had less than 10 million. That means that there's a problem with cattle moving inside the forest."
Of course, the messy business of cattle ranching and beef processing creates problems here in America, too. This news from the Department of Justice tells how last month Swift Beef Company, a subsidiary of JBS S.A, the world’s largest beef producer, agreed to pay $1.3 million to the United States and state of Nebraska to settle alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Nebraska state law at its Grand Island, Neb., beef processing plant.

All this has people urging us to cut back on our cheeseburgers. The Meat Eater's Guide, for instance, is a wonderful source of information and suggestions about being a carnivore in the modern world. Naturally, this is the type of thing that gets a lot of press coverage. (See here, and here, and here, and there’s much more, too.)

But when Catholic ecologists do the math, we have to come to one simple conclusion: Bring back the Friday fast.

Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays all year long, not just during Lent. If we were to return to that practice, the world's 1.2 billion Catholics could, theoretically, cut their beef intake by some 14%. Not too shabby!

But we shouldn’t simply transfer our Friday appetites to other areas. That would just transfer the problem of over consumption. The fish industry is one that can suffer, too.

(Of course, some of our non-Catholic ecologist friends are going to say that the world’s population is the biggest problem, and that the Church should change its ways on artificial birth control and abortion. But I for one would like to think there are better ways to get at the pollution-from-over-consumption-of-food issue than rejecting the dignity of the human person, or by outright murder.)

And so for those Catholics who medically can do so, year-round Friday food (especially beef) consumption could be reduced—for spiritual, penitential and ecological reasons.

I’ve covered the ecological reasons above. As for the spiritual, fasting has been part of Christian (and many other faiths) history since the beginning. Remember Christ in the dessert? His immediate followers, and their followers, and so on (and on), have routinely fasted as spiritual exercise—that’s how we got our year-long Friday fast in the first place. So how come so many of us don’t fast any longer?

And as for the penitential aspect of fasting, a good many in the Church have much to make reparation for—and so we as members of the Body of Christ must all do our part, too. A Friday fast would be a good start. Indeed, the bishops in Ireland are saying exactly this.

So, how ‘bout it? I’ll be starting a Friday fast this week. Who’s joining me?

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.