Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice

In 2008, the UUA’s general assembly adopted for congregational study/action the issue of ethical eating: food and environmental justice.   This three year study will hopefully result in a position paper called a Statement of Conscience and will result in a final year of study and implementation by the 2012 General Assembly.

My initial review of this congregational study was that ethical eating was an issue facing only the privileged elite classes.   They are the ones that can most afford to purchase meat from grass fed animals at high costs per pound.  They are the ones that could make choices in their dietary consumption.  They are the ones with the most mobility to purchase foods from other markets beyond their local region.  

One of the pieces of information in the study guide is the treatment of factory farmed animals.  Whether they are caged or free range and the costs involved that are passed onto the consumer seemed to me to be a concern that only the affluent could afford to choose.   Again, if you are poor, you may not like to know that chickens are de-beaked in factory farms to keep from pecking other chickens to death in their cramped quarters but in order to afford chicken as a part of having diversity in your diet, there may not be an alternate solution that is within your means.  In other words, being poor in this country oppresses and suppresses your options for food sources.  Live with it or go without is the message from these farmers and the policy makers.

The authors of the study resource for congregations, write:
The point of this Guide is not to propose a dietary code or insist on adherence to a particular set of rituals or religious beliefs. It aims instead help you feel confident in making easy, tasty, nutritious food choices that fit with your individual ethical and spiritual values, and thus. Imagine that!

However, as I have begun reading on the issue of food in our country.  Changing our dietary code is exactly what this guide should be recommending.  For more than a generation, we have seen the health of Americans deteriorate with rising cases of diet related chronic illnesses.   The culprit is the Western Diet.  This  is no longer a speculation. This is a fact.  Where ever the Western Diet is adopted the following illnesses rise dramatically:  Coronary Heart Disease, Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes Type II, Stroke, and Cancers.   We have gotten better in reducing deaths from these illnesses through advances in medical treatment but we have not been able to reverse the rising number of cases. 

Aborigines in Australia who had moved off the land and into the city revealed they had all developed these diseases.  Were these diseases reversable?  These people had retained the ways of their ancestors and so they participated in a seven week study in which they returned to the Outback and lived off the land as their ancestors had.  In every case, these individuals returned to health.  The diseases they had developed on a Western Diet disappeared.   The suggestion from this study is not that an Aboriginal diet is the best but rather adds to the knowledge of the many cultures over the course of history developed a diet that was diverse in its offerings to provide the essentials needed for a healthy life.  

The Western Diet and the ideology of nutritionism that feeds it, has the arrogance to believe that because science is behind it, that it therefore must be the best.  Yet, what we are finding is that healthy diets are greater than the sum of their parts and no one component can lead to healthier lives.  What we are learning albeit at a snails pace is that food scientists cannot use reductionist science to find single causes for diet related diseases.   Real Food is synergistic in its abilities to nourish. 

What this guide does not include is the relationship of our food industry and the growing health care crisis that is enveloping this country.  Health care costs for these chronic diet related illnesses is in the billions.  I realize billions of dollars no longer seems like a lot of money these days, compared with the trillions of dollars being allocated to avert our economic crisis.   But if we could see ourselves clear from the Western Diet of refined carbohydrates, reconstituted fats and proteins that we pass off as food but are in fact poor imitations of the original, we could find the health care crisis as solvable.  

That will take work.  It will mean a radical shift in how we purchase food.  It will mean supporting farmer’s markets and local farms selling locally grown and fresher fruits and vegetables.  It will mean advocating for a change in how our major farms operate by insisting that they move away from fossil fuels and use more earth friendly farming techniques that are being used successfully in Argentina and other countries.  It will mean advocating food stamps to have double value at farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes  to encourage poor families to purchase fresh whole foods instead of imitation foods that boast health claims.  

There is much that can be done.  The study guide only grazes the surface of the issue of food sovereignty and sometimes comes across as elitist in its attempt.   But it is a study that we must endeavor in so we can collectively add our voice for justice in acquiring food.  Blessings,