Monday, February 8, 2010

Ethical Eating: After Lunch (February 7, 2010)

Ethical Eating- After Lunch

A few months back I preached a sermon called “The Ethics of Lunch” in which I challenged each of us to think carefully about the food we chose to bring to the lunch table. Just last month we gathered here for an Ethical Eating Potluck, and the kitchen was overflowing with delicious food prepared with organic veggies, local bread and eggs and lots of creativity and love. Many of us have chosen this year to acknowledge our power as consumers to influence the marketplace and to make choices with mindfulness. But what if we didn’t have a choice? After we watched “Food Inc.” here together last month I started to realize that we can’t take our power to choose for granted. I believe that in order to eat ethically, we need to protect the truly free marketplace, with a genuine diversity of growers, of crops and of growing methods in our own community and in local communities all over the world. To protect these rights, there is work that must happen after lunch- in court rooms and in capitols to preserve our access to ethically grown and harvested food.

There is an amazingly complex web of issues that emerges as we start to pay attention to food politics, so I want to focus on just 3 areas today: The right to know what is in our food, our need for small scale alternatives to industrial agriculture, and the right of all people and communities around the world to food security and sovereignty.

Let’s start with the right to know. We can’t make informed choices if we don’t know how our food was made or where it comes from. On the one hand we’ve made some progress in this area- there is a common standard for “organic” now, and the nutritional information on packaged food is something I use every day as I decide what to eat. But still manufacturers are not required to include information about whether your food includes genetically modified materials. “Neither the FDA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done any long-term human health or environmental impact studies of GE foods or crops” In 2000 the FDA said labeling would be voluntary, and so far not a single company hasd stepped forward so far to label genetically modified food. How can I make a choice about the genetically modified food already on my grocery store shelves without the kind of labeling laws in all 15 European countries, Russia, China, Japan and in fact most of the developed countries of the world? We aren’t really free to choose, if we don’t know what is in our food.

The next example is right out of science fiction – cloning animals for meat. Did you know that although cloned animals are tracked, there is no mechanism for tracking meat that comes from cloned animals? And the offspring of cloned animals are not tracked at all. The National Academy of Sciences has called for post-market tracking of the meat of cloned animals and their offspring, but because such tracking is not required, it is possible that offspring of cloned cows are in the food stream right now. There is no way of knowing for sure. Even though a majority of Americans have expressed a desire for labeling of food from cloned animals, the FDA said they will not requires such labeling.

In January of 2008 the FDA issued a report concluding that “meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones and the offspring of any animal clones are as safe as food we eat every day” and approved food from cloned animals.

Margaret Mellon, Director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists offered a different opinion saying: “Animal cloning is a controversial technology with few, if any, benefits to consumers. Most cloned animals have severe defects and are more likely to die at an early age than ordinary farm animals. Although successful clones may appear normal, the possibility remains that some may harbor subtle genetic defects that could impair their health or make them unsafe for consumption. The FDA should have required that cloned products be labeled as such and kept them off the market at least until it established a mandatory tracking system to allow retailers to avoid purchasing the products.”

Other countries have already asked that cloned meat be restricted while we have the time to research more subtle and long term health effects and ethical issues. So what’s our rush? We have learned from the flood of genetically engineered plants into our ecology that once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to control. Now, before any cloned meat goes to market, is the time to create a tracking system for cloned animals, and the offspring of cloned animals, and to call for the labeling of the meat of cloned animals. How can we make a wise and ethical decision if we don’t have the right to know?

This leads us right to my next area of concern: how can we chose if there is no longer any choice in the marketplace? If we don’t protect diversity of farming methods, and the diversity of our seed stock, there could be no choice to make. Take, for example, genetic engineering. For such a young industry, I was amazed to find that through licensing agreements with seed companies, Monsanto genes are in about 96 percent of U.S. soybean crops and 80 percent of all corn crops. That’s a lot of power for one company to have over this country’s food supply. The power is shored up because Biotech companies like Monsanto require growers who use the patented seeds to sign a “technology use agreement” which says the farmer can not save the seeds produced from their harvest. Since time immemorial, farmers have saved seeds from one year to make sure they can plant again the following year. The 3rd century Rabbi ‘Ahai ben Josiah wrote “He who purchases grain in the market place, to what may he be likened? To an infant whose mother died; although he is taken from door to door to other wet nurses, he is not satisfied... He who eats of his own is like an infant raised at its mother’s breast” By growing patented seeds, by giving up their right to save seeds, the farmers are giving up the source of their sustainable nourishment- their seed stock. In so doing, they are also giving up a lot of independence, and adding to the power of Monsanto and other corporations. It sounds like these companies are becoming “too big to fail.” because their failure would take the whole food system with them.

But even farmers and consumers who do not choose the patented crops are effected by the Monsanto products, because these genes don’t stay where you put them. In 2001, two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published a paper in Nature magazine, which claimed that native maize in Mexico had been contaminated, across the miles, by GM pollen. That is to say that even the corn in the birthplace of corn now includes DNA material from the GE corn, because corm is an airborne fertilizer.

Says the Center for Food Safety: “Farmers' fundamental right to sow the crop of their choice is eliminated when it is contaminated with transgenes, and so is the public's ability to support meaningful organic food and feed production.” These “Genes on the loose” lead to an amazing lawsuit in Canada in which Monsanto sued Percy Schmeiser, a farmer who had been growing canola for 40 years. Schmeiser plants his crops most years from seeds saved from the previous year. He claims that he has never bought seeds from Monsanto, but that “more than 320 hectares of his land is now ‘contaminated’ by Monsanto's herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready canola” For this Monsanto sued Schmeiser for planting the patented seeds without paying royalties on it. Hundreds of such lawsuits have been filed by Monsanto against farmers in both Canada and the US. Most reach out-of-court settlements. But Schmeiser fought back. “He claims Monsanto investigators trespassed on his land -- and that company seed could easily have blown on to his soil from passing canola-laden trucks. "I never put those plants on my land," says Schmeiser." Well, the courts found for Monsanto both at the trial and the appeal, and Schmeiser was ordered to pay nearly $20,000 in damages and $150,000 for Monsanto’s legal fees. They argued that he knew there was cross contamination in the seeds he saved from his harvest, and planted them despite the contamination without paying royalties. The Supreme Court ultimately said Schmeiser did not have to pay damages to Monsanto, because he did not gain from the actions- that is to say, having the Monsanto patented genes in his seeds did not improve his crop productivity. Schmeiser counter-sued in small claims court, refused to sign a gag order, and won $660, the cost of cleaning up the contaminated seed off his land. A protracted legal fight against such a litigious corporation with a team of its own attorneys has ruined many farmers. It took 8 years for Schmeiser to win that battle, and most farmers choose not to fight.

Another David v Goliath is the story of Bev Eggleston who wanted to create a small, local meat processing plant. Those of you who watched Food Inc. last month remember Polyface Farm, which feed its cattle on grass and provides a sustainable alternative to the High Density Feed lots that produce most of America’s meat. We observed the stark contrast of the open air processing of chickens at Polyface farms with the huge industrial slaughterhouses we saw. Well Bev wanted to help Joel be able to process his grass fed beef locally, and mortgaged himself to the hilt to build a processing plant for the state’s grass farmers. Patiently Bev took his new plant through the tedious and exacting process by which the USDA was approved his plant, then after he’d been open for business just a short time, the USDA pulled their inspector, saying that Bev wasn’t processing enough animals to justify their time. That is to say- only large scale processing is effectively legal. These stories about Bev Eggleston and Percy Schmeiser illustrate my point that in order to retain our right to choose small scale local agriculture, we must make sure that corporations like Monsanto and Government offices like the USDA are not putting obstacles in the way of farmers who opt out of the industrial agriculture system. If we appreciate corn without GMOs, and locally grown grass-fed beef, we have to watch the backs of the farmers that feed us, or we will be left with no choice at all.

The final issue I’d like to address this morning is food security. We need to make sure that the policies of our own government and the international banking system do not undermine the food security of local communities around the world. We’ve all had the people of Haiti on our minds lately, so I thought I would try to learn more about their history. In order to receive international aid and development loans from the International Monetary Fund, beginning in the 1980s Haiti was required to open its doors to more imports and reduced tariffs. Since that time total rice consumption has roughly doubled, but imports from the US are 30 times what they imported in 1985, while local production has been reduced by almost 40% since the 1980s . But Haiti and the US are not competing on an even playing field- US rice production is subsidized, while Haitian farmers receive no subsidies or government support. Global Exchange says that the deal with the IMF actually prohibited Haiti from subsidizing its own farmers

Over 2/3 of the Haitian population grows rice or is employed by related industries like trading and milling. When Haitian farms had to close down, many people lost their means to support their families. Farmers went to the city to provide cheap labor in factories, but there were not enough factory jobs to go around. And so the average income per person dropped by almost half. (Dobbs) There was plenty of cheap rice, but with family incomes falling, hunger swept the country.

This story is repeated in countries around the world. When our subsidized surplus is exported as aide to struggling nations, the short term fix leads to longer term poverty as the artificially lowered food prices destabilize local economies resulting in increased poverty and hunger. Under the guise of food security, our subsidized crops have flooded the world markets and our own markets. We need to change our picture of “food security” from a big brother who can produce huge amounts of corn and soy and rice with great consistency and sameness, to a picture of the safety that food diversity provides. When field after field is planted with plants which are genetically almost identical, if they encounter a disease they are not resistant to, it can destroy all of those crops in a single blow, whereas in a polyculture, some portion of the crop will usually survive due to the resistance provided by their diversity. Any financial adviser will tell you to “diversify your portfolio” well, we have invested all our food security in just 3 crops (Corn, soy and wheat), have bread them to be standardized, intentionally reducing diversity, and have spread these crops all over the world, even to countries like Kenya where the imported plants struggle, especially in times of drought.

Today in Kenya, drought is threatening the food security for around 31.5 million people, and more than one million face imminent starvation. The western food crops grown there are not sustainable in their arid climate, and are depleting the soil. In order to create more sustainable food security, folks like Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, are trying to re-introduce native plants to farmers, to markets, and to local dinner tables. Says Abukutsa-Onyango: “Today, spider plant, African nightshade and vegetable amaranth can be found in Nairobi supermarkets and restaurants, after years of being spurned by the well-fed as food only for the poor, and by the poor themselves as alternatives only in times of extreme hunger,”

Efforts like this to shore up local subsistence-scale farms and local eco-systems, provide not only support for local economies, and food security for local communities, but they diversity the infra-structure to provide a needed safety net for that time when a system too big to fail, finally does fail.

Right now our policies treat agriculture as just one more industry in the marketplace, but agriculture is different from other industries- because you can’t eat iPods or running shoes. Food is necessary for life. Our policies should create food security for every person on this planet rather than adding barriers to people’s production of their own food. For too long we have assumed that it was fine for countries to rely heavily on food imports from around the globe, but as we come to a time of peak oil, relying on fossil fuel intensive transport of the very stuff of life is dangerous to all who rely on those imports at the expense of local agriculture. It is irresponsible for US policy and World Bank policy to undermine, through so called “free trade” the development and survival of local subsistence agriculture in favor of international imports of food. We must support and promote Food security and Food Sovereignty in which communities are able to define their own means of production of food, because food is a basic human right.”

In an age when most of the food in our supermarkets is produced by a handful of companies using only a few strains of corn and soy patented by a couple of larger corporations, our ability to choose food that is truly good for ourselves, our neighbors and our planet is in real jeopardy. If we want to live out our Unitarian Universalist principles through ethical eating, our work continues after lunch is over. Let us work together to protect our right to know how our food is produced, let us protect alternative methods of production by supporting farmers and businesses who opt out of the industrial system, and let us work to ensure the food sovereignty of local communities all over the world, that each community may produce their own food in a way that supports their local economies and sustains the land they tend. After the meal is over, our work as advocates has just begun.

End Notes
2. “Cloned Animals on the Dinner Plate?” from Food and Water Watch and
4. Organic Consumers Association “Take Action: FDA Approves Food from Clones”
6. “Monsanto Focus of Antitrust Investigation” CBS News St. Louis Oct 8 2009
7. quoted in Ellen F. Davis. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. p. 21
8. George Monbiotm “The Fake Persuaders” in This story bumps against our other theme about our right to know- since Biotech companies lobbied the journal to retract the article, the first time Nature has ever bowed to such pressure.
11. Mark Nichols. “Monsanto vs Schmeiser”, Excerpt from Macleans Magazine. May 17, 1999.
12. Doug Pibel. “A Farmer Rounds Up Monsanto.” Yes Magazine. posted Mar 03, 2009
13. Michael Polan. Omnivore’s Dilemma p. 246
14. “Trade and the Disappearance of Haitian Rice” TED Case Studies Number 725 Hune 2004 by Hosine Georges.
15. Dobbs, Michael. "Free Market Left Haiti's Rice Growers Behind." Washington Post: Thursday, April 12, 2003, page A1.
16. “Backgrounder on the Global Food Crisis” by the US Working Group on the Food Crisis.
18. Wendell Berry. The Pleasures of Eating
19. Dobbs, Michael. "Free Market Left Haiti's Rice Growers Behind." Washington Post: Thursday, April 12, 2003, page A1.
20. The 2007 study "Down to Earth" by World Bank economists Luc Christiaensen and Lionel Demery found economic growth of the agriculture sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as any other sector. cited in “Food crisis forces new look at farming” by Joel Millman and Roger Thurow. Wall Street Journal. 06-10-2008.

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