Fresh mangos in March?

by Andrew Sensenig

For a long time, I have recognized the luxury of eating live oranges, bananas, pineapples, mangos, spinach and tomatoes in the middle of winter. I enjoy their diverse flavors thanks to a huge network of ships, trucks, trains and airplanes that deliver them to my table from faraway lands.

I happen to know what a mango tree looks like, having climbed on them in Somalia.?But most people eat a mango in the northern latitudes such as Kansas without any idea how they are grown.

By the way, if you do ever climb a mango tree, be aware that they are closely related to poison ivy, and can deliver a similar rash to sensitive skin.

We are strangely separated from many of our food sources. And not just from the foreign food. Most Americans have probably never touched a wheat plant in a field, or smelled a broken tomato leaf, or slaughtered a chicken. Instead, the food appears wrapped in plastic in the grocery store.

The food is made by specialists with huge and fast machines, on average over 1,000 miles from where we eat it. As Mike Huckabee recently said, ?No one wants to see sausage being made.?

The lowest price is the goal of much of our food system, but are there any hidden costs? Or am I just being na?ve and nostalgic because I have romanticized the farms of yester year?

Ecologists cite several ?hidden? costs of industrial agriculture, such as soil loss, climate change and species loss. In the drier language of economics, hidden costs are known as negative externalities.

Epidemiologists also cite some other hidden costs, such as obesity and antibiotic resistant bacteria that develop due to the chronic use of antibiotics in some livestock facilities.

While these costs are ?hidden? by some accounting practices, they can still be assigned monetary values. For example, antibiotic resistant bacteria now cost our health-care system and economy about $55 billion per year.

I have been reading a book ?Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture? by the theologian Ellen Davis. It ties ancient poetry and history with modern ideas about food production and science. She claims that to understand the Bible, we have to recognize that much of it was written by agrarians and for agrarians.

Agrarians are persons directly involved with growing much of their food, and hence agrarians usually have extensive knowledge of plants, animals, soil, seasons, dearth and plenty.

Davis?s book cites some cultural costs of industrial agriculture. In a world where we do not grow our own food, we lose sight of our finitude. We no longer see ourselves and our environment as complex entities that require wisdom and careful management, and many sections of Holy Scripture lose meaning.

This coming Sunday at my church, I will be delivering a message about food. It will literally be about food, and not just about food rituals as sacrament or analogy for consumption in general.

An agrarian reading has increased my understanding of several mysterious stories and verses in the Bible. Come to my message at 10:30 a.m. at First Mennonite Church, Hillsboro, to learn more.

Andrew Sensenig is assistant professor of biology at Tabor. College. Email him at

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