Give us this day our daily bread: The importance of food security

When we were growing up, Sunday meals were a highlight – for that was when we had chicken for lunch. We kids (there were three of us) would tussle for the drumsticks (but there were just two!). What a dilemma.

Jun 24, 2022

By Anil Netto
When we were growing up, Sunday meals were a highlight – for that was when we had chicken for lunch. We kids (there were three of us) would tussle for the drumsticks (but there were just two!). What a dilemma.

The rest of the week, cheap and plentiful fish would be our source of protein.

But then something happened over the years. Chicken became relatively cheaper and it was no longer seen as the weekly treat it was. Instead, it was fish prices that soared.

Today, food prices are surging across many countries in Asia. The price of chicken is again rising while the prices of fish and other seafood — now increasingly scarce — have rocketed.

For decades, governments ignored calls to boost food self-sufficiency. Instead, farm lands were destroyed, as developers built condo blocks and office towers.

In Malaysia, a quarter of the land — eight million hectares — is used for agricultural purposes. Of this, 6.5 million hectares is used for oil palm plantations and rubber. What this means is that 80 per cent of agricultural land in Malaysia is used for commodity production.

Just 0.7 million hectares (about 10 per cent) of land is used for paddy cultivation. And another 0.8 million hectares (10 per cent) is used for all other food crops — pepper, cocoa, coconut, fruit and vegetables — as well as the rearing of livestock and fresh-water fish.

Perhaps this limited allocation of land for farming explains why food prices are surging, while the weakening ringgit does not help. Visit a local fruit shop and you will see many imported fruits on display, but it is hard to find good papaya and bananas.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Until the 1970s, many homes had gardens bursting with a range of food crops: rambutan, chillies, mangoes, mangosteens, lime, duku and langsat, papayas, bananas.

Then something happened. Many worked long hours and could not spare the time to upkeep a garden. People also started cementing their premises to make way for more cars. (Ironically, as green spaces were paved over, both inside and outside our homes, the ground lost much of its water absorption capacity, contributing to flash floods.)

Agribusiness, with the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, expanded. Farms run by small farmers gave way to the monoculture of cash crops in large plantations.

This brought material prosperity for some, but farmers lost their livelihoods and many others struggled, as once cheap and plentiful food grew more scarce and expensive.

In some ways, this situation mirrors what was happening at the time of Jesus.

With the Roman occupation of Palestine, the tax burden on ordinary people grew heavier. On top of the 10 per cent harvest tithe to the priestly Levites, an annual half-shekel Temple tax and the usual taxes to the secular authorities of the past, King Herod doubled the secular taxes. One of the reasons was that, as a vassal king in the Roman Empire, he had to pay a heavy tribute to Rome.

Herod also relied on other taxes — customs duties, fishing rights charges, taxes on manufacturing, especially fish processing.

He needed this extra money to finance his mega-project construction spree; his other sources of revenue were simply not enough. The massive renovation and expansion of the Temple, in particular, required plenty of funds.

The result: farmers in Galilee had to cough up 28 per cent - 40 per cent of their harvest and income in taxes (much higher than the nine per cent - 12 per cent elsewhere in the Roman Empire).

This kind of taxation was simply unbearable for small independent farmers and had devastating consequences for Galilee.

Many farmers had to borrow at high interest rates to keep financially afloat; they were often just a poor harvest away from destitution.

One of the petitions upon Herod’s death was for a lowering of taxes. People complained bitterly that Herod had “filled the nation full of poverty, and of the greatest iniquity, instead of that happiness [prosperity] and those laws which they had anciently enjoyed”, the historian Josephus recorded. The people’s suffering under Herod was said to be so great that it exceeded all that their forefathers had endured since their return from exile in Babylon five centuries earlier.

Many of the independent farmers lost their lands after a poor harvest and heavy debt. Their land was then confiscated, and fat crony landlords consolidated these plots into large estates.

This transformation of agriculture — from independent farmers growing their food in small hereditary plots to landlords turning confiscated plots into large estates — took place at a rapid pace during Herod’s time. In the process, many farmers lost their self-sufficiency in food and their sources of livelihood.

In contrast, the large estates, where casual workers and share-croppers toiled, produced a large surplus of key agricultural commodities for export around the Mediterranean. Remember Jesus’ parable of the rich man whose harvest was so great he wanted to tear down his barn and build bigger barns?

No wonder Herod felt compelled to build the port city of Caesarea Maritima and its sheltered harbour called Sebastos. The construction of this deep-sea harbour along the coast, which had no natural protection from the elements, was an architectural marvel. Concrete — a mixture of lime and pozzolana (volcanic ash) — had to be placed underwater to construct two breakwaters at the north and south of the harbour. It was the largest artificial harbour of its kind back then.

The commercialisation of agriculture and the heavy tax burden under Herod had devastating consequences for the ordinary people of Galilee and Judea. Three decades after Herod’s passing, when Jesus arrived on the scene, people were still reeling from hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

God had promised the people “a land of milk and honey”. But human greed — or more accurately, the ruling elites’ greed — left thousands having to pray to the Father to “give us our daily bread”.

So many felt hunger pangs that Jesus, after preaching, had no heart to send them home with empty stomachs. All they had were a couple of loaves and some small fish.

Imagine this in a land so fertile it could still produce plenty of crops for export and near a lake that once teemed with fish.

Today, our land too is also fertile, and we are blessed with abundant natural resources. But human greed — no, the greed and corruption of an elite minority — has resulted in many ordinary people struggling to cope.

Pray that God’s kingdom will come with economic justice, so that the suffering of the many will be eased.

l Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.

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