Monday, August 1, 2022

Jonathan McCurley: FoodLife - Life and Food at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, Part II

Today's post is by Rev. Jonathan McCurley. Rev. McCurley is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving through Global Ministries as a missionary in the community life of the Asian Rural Institute in Nasushiobara, Japan. This post is part of an occasional series on food and mission.

At the Asian Rural Institute, the whole school community daily participates in the practices of foodlife work. From the sowing of the crops and feeding of the livestock to the food processing and meal preperation, the community comes together to give of their lives to create food that will sustain life. Not agriculture, or farm work, but this is foodlife work. It reminds us that food is the life God has given us and that our work is part of the process to bring life to the whole world.

Foodlife gives community members of ARI a spiritual experience of connecting and reconnecting to each other, even amidst the conflicts and misunderstandings of everyday life. The ARI Training Handbook states, “Foodlife is a vital activity for human beings to maintain their lives and it connects God, the earth, and human beings – working as a medium for reconciliation and peace building.”[1]

Behind this word foodlife is an understanding of the world and of God.

Foodlife is a term that ARI says was coined by Rev. Dr Toshihiro Takami, or Tom as he was affectionately known by many. Dr. Takami is often known as the founder of the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) and in fact was our first director. For many of the original supporters of ARI, he was also often the face of ARI.

Dr Takami coined the word foodlife in that he took two words that while connected deeply, have become increasingly separated in modern society and joined them into one.

When talking about the reason for coining a new word, Dr Takami talks about agriculture and what it has become. He says:

“Agriculture in a broad sense of the term may be the only human enterprise which would help sustain our planet’s food chain. Almost all other industries are destructive of natural environment. Industrial products as we know them today, especially petroleum based ones, do not help nature’s recycling process. Modern agriculture using science and technology makes agriculture destructive of nature like most other industries. Agriculture destructive of nature is destructive of life. Food produced by destructive agriculture is destructive of human lives. Modern technology which is detached from the art of science is making agriculture destructive.

“Food producing is fast becoming part of big industry on a global scale, and consumers and farmers are being alienated from each other and from the act of food production. Food in this case is no longer a linkage between human beings and nature or creation, nor between consumers and farmers. Food is becoming an agent of alienation.”[2]

That was said almost three decades ago, and in reality, if we think about life today, if you go into a grocery store in almost any modern city in the world, especially in the Global North, you will find a plethora of food. Much of it either has no visual connection to the life it came from, or it has been perfected to the point that it looks more plastic than edible. This 21st century reality is not just about disconnection in the sense that the ARI philosophy speaks of, but it is also a major cause of environmental degradation, the lack of food security in many places, and even regional violent conflict.

For ARI, the reality of the world all comes down to our understanding of food and life. What is the relationship between the two and how are we as humans supposed to relate with them? Genesis tells us God’s ideal. We see humans naming animals, getting their food from the land, being told to subdue, control, or as we say at ARI, be stewards of the world. In God’s ideal world, we see humans interacting with creation in order to see life flourish.

According to Dr Takami, what we call agriculture did not seem so much interested in seeing life flourish anymore. As countries of the world have sought to use technology and business in order to respond to the wants of the consumers of the world, the focus is no longer on life. Instead, he was worried that the work to create food was becoming more and more disconnected from life. He says in the same article:

“When this kind of scheme of meeting the food needs of the world population establishes hegemony, the already energy-intensive agriculture (which would destroy the food chain), will become increasingly energy intensive not only in the method of production but also in transportation, distribution, preservation, processing and consumption. All matters concerning FOOD would become an integral part of giant monopolistic industries controlled by the powerful few. When such takes place, no human person makes profit but only inhuman world wide trading systems make profit. We would do great injustice to the present and future generations and to the whole creation if we allow this to happen.”[3]

Dr Takami ends by saying what an injustice it would be to the future and to all of creation if we allowed this to happen. This then becomes the question before us.

Through its fifty years of practice, ARI has sought to offer an alternative view of how food, life, God, and creation should be connected and how each and every one of us can relate. I believe that in that connection, there is the deep meaning of foodlife. Dr Takami’s question is really a call for you and me, all of us, to participate in the practice and process of foodlife. So, what do you think? How can we best join in the work of creating food that sustains life for tomorrow? We as part of creation have a responsibility to God, ourselves and the rest of creation to respond to this question.


[1] Asian Rural Institute, “The Heartbeat of Takami: A book of Toshihiro Takami’s words”, (Japan, Asian Rural Institute, 2018), 58.

[2] Sharing Food is Sharing Life: In Search of a Genuine Life was a speech given on June 29, 1998 at the United Nations Dialogue on the Impact of Globalization in New York, New York. In this speech, Rev. Takami shared the above words. A copy can be requested from the Asian Rural Institute by contacting info@ari-edu.org

[3] Sharing Food is Sharing Life: In Search of a Genuine Life.

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