Food security is such a complex matter that incorporates many different factors. One of the not so obvious factors that relate to food is religion. Food security is most significantly impacted by non-secular factors such as a country’s economic status, environmental/geographical matters, political stability etc., but faith-based links still have their contributions. These contributions differ depending on the country at hand and their individual conditions.
How does religion increase food security in the UK?
There are religious outreaches within the UK that aim to alleviate hunger at both local and national levels. At a nationwide level is The Trussel Trust. This a UK charity that coordinates the only nationwide network of food banks in the country and is founded on Christian principles and inspired by the words of Jesus. They have over 1,200 centres across the UK and in 2017/18 gave 1,332,952 emergency food supplies to the hungry.
At a more local level is the Christian outreach City Church Sheffield, which organises the Jubilee Food Bank. Their aim is to help those who are struggling to buy enough food for themselves or their families’ through food boxes which are delivered to people in need.
Also within the UK, Sikh’s offer the service of langar. This is a community kitchen within every Gurdwara offering free hot meals each day for anyone and everyone. Thousands of people are fed through this Gurdwara service in the UK. Furthermore, two Sikh Langar charities have even received the ‘Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service’, demonstrating the Sikh religion’s impact and contributions to feeding the hungry in the UK.
Moreover, religious leaders and faith groups within the UK have also taken action through liaising with political figures to deal with the root causes of hunger. For example, in 2014 over 40 Anglican bishops and 600 church leaders signed a letter attempting to deal with causes of food poverty, including low wages, rising food prices, and an inadequate welfare benefit safety net.
It is important to note that these organisations and provisions do not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, gender or age and will help any type of person that requires it. It goes without saying that food security is increased for many people due to this religious help – even if it is only temporary.
What about other, less developed countries?
However, just because in certain countries religion makes a helpful difference to the levels of food security it doesn’t mean that is the case worldwide.
For example, India is an example of a densely populated country with much higher levels of poverty than England and food security there is much lower despite the strong frequency of religious people and groups. According to this UN report, a shocking 194 million people starved for food in 2014-2015 in India. This is the case even with a vast number of religious organisations and practices trying to alleviate food insecurity. For example, the Golden Temple serves over 50,000 free meals every single day through langar, an immense amount but still not enough to put a dent in the levels of hunger present.
It must be questioned if religion in India is actually hindering food security rather than helping it. Dietary restrictions are a large part of Indian religions, for example, Hindus do not consume beef and Muslims forbid the consumption of pork– these are the two most prominent religions in India. Nevertheless, there are over 5 million stray cows freely roaming the streets of India. If there were no religious dietary restrictions could people in developing countries have increased levels of food security? Would they have easier access to food?
Of course, religion is by no means the sole cause of hunger in India but it is potentially contributing to the problem more than it is helping, unlike in other countries such as the UK. Should people in developing countries abide by religious dietary restrictions if so many of them are struggling to feed themselves? This would be a very drastic viewpoint to hold but is perhaps worth thinking about. Political instability, poverty, agricultural problems, and many other factors all contribute to food insecurity in developing countries and in comparison to them, religious dietary restrictions are only a minor contributor.
Globally, conflict is a major cause of food insecurity. What is often a major cause of conflict? Religion. Religious extremists can contribute to conflict escalation. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfil God’s wishes. Using Syria an example, the last few years has seen the country in turmoil with religious extremists playing a large part in this. Only last year it was found that over 10.5 million of Syria’s inhabitants were food insecure. Iraq is another country where there has been major conflict relating to religious ideology and according to the World Food Programme almost 75 percent of children under the age of 15 are working to help feed their families instead of attending school. There is no denying that the religious aspects of the conflicts within these countries, and others like them, may have significantly affected these statistics.
So what does this mean for food security?
Ultimately, although religion may in some places improve food-related conditions, it is not a religious obligation to do so and responsibility for food security should be at the hands of the state – not religions within the state. Help that religion provides is a bonus that comes from religion being present, not a preconceived obligation. Developing countries need much more help than religion alone could offer, and perhaps if some of their other internal issues improve, such as poverty or religious extremism, food insecurity may reduce. Even in more developed countries such as the UK, there is still much that needs to be done to increase food security despite the help that religion provides.
Non-secular efforts are what ultimately needs to be made to ameliorate the unacceptable levels of food insecurity that are present worldwide.