Thinking about good stewardship

Last week I had a meeting with a business owner in a South East Asian country. I was asked to explain why ‘organic’ foods made business more difficult and how it could be worth it. These are not simple questions so I decided to write it all down as a way to process it all. Until recently for me, caring for creation revolved around natural resources, conservation, waste and pollution. But as I wrote, I realised that food production is indeed part of caring for God’s world and the people in it.

I am a consultant with a number of social businesses which aim to use profit from running a business to achieve social outcomes, rather than wealth for the owners. Some of these businesses produce organic food and offer a range of environmental, economic and social benefits (see diagram).

Two examples of these social businesses are:
• An organic farm producing a range of herbal teas and other healthy products.
• A catering business supplying organic meals for workshops, trainings, events and meetings.

The food is healthy. Some say it is tastier. Both businesses struggle with profitability. There are extra costs involved in organic production since other solutions are needed are needed for pest, weed and disease control. Yield is often lower, too.

Solutions are challenging to find. Instead of chemical fertilisers, organic manure and compost are needed to supply nutrients for plant growth. Manure and compost take time to collect and make. It is expensive to transport and generally requires high quantities to supply enough nutrients. It can cost up to ten times the cost of chemical fertilisers. The options for organically protecting plants from pests take much more time than applying chemical sprays. Farm labour is also becoming scarcer as young people move from rural to urban areas. Being organic and profitable generally requires a higher level of technical expertise and cost.

Does the food need to be organic to be healthy? Not necessarily. However, the one that uses harmful chemicals isn’t usually the one who pays all of the costs. People, wildlife and the environment—sometimes a long way away or without a voice—can bear the suffering.

Living in a city, my own family is increasingly becoming disconnected from production. We shop at markets or supermarkets. We don’t know much about its source or how far it has travelled, and we want it cheap. The reality is that organic production needs at least a 20% price premium to make it work.

Is this good stewardship of the natural resources we have been given? I find myself wanting to support these businesses even though I am not a ‘die-in-the-ditch’ organic consumer. The social, environmental and health outcomes offer an excellent wholistic context in which to minister to the owners, employees, other farmers and customers. Both of these businesses have operated for more than five years, and aim to be at a sufficient scale to make a difference and be sustainable. Relationships are being built and our respect for both people and the environment in which they live demonstrates God’s love for all creation.

Roger has lived in South East Asia for over ten years, working with various social businesses.

Names have been changed.