Monday, August 17, 2009

The Ethics of Lunch (August 16, 2009)

Is it peculiar that I seem face my greatest ethical dilemmas while standing in the grocery store? Yet it would seem I’m not alone, because UUs from around the nation have voted to take a closer look at the ethics of eating for a 4 year period as our Study Action Issue. We are a strongly ethical faith but lacking the dietary laws of some of our neighbors, we crave an ethical framework to support us as we make the perilous journey down the grocery store aisles.

Just a few generations ago people knew what to eat- it was guided by what crops had done well, what grew best on their land and what season it was. Today changes in food technology have removed this natural feedback loop which constrained our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and our ancestors who lived on a family farm. Now when I go to the grocery store the only feedback factors are the cost of the consumer goods, the effectiveness of packaging and my desire. Yet we know that the true cost of our food is not represented in its retail cost, so the feedback loops which have historically connected me to the food chain have been broken, and it takes a considerable act of consciousness to be an ethical eater.

So lets pull apart some of these tangles and see what grounding UU provides for our ethical framework. Our UU principles encourage us to: remember our interconnection (which leads us to consider the impact of our eating on animals, the eco-system, our carbon-footprint, and even the war for oil in a food system based on oil) and to remember the worth and value of every person (which reminds us to consider the justice of food distribution, and justice for those who harvest our food.). I also want to invoke the Native American vision to remember 7 generations in our decision, believing that what my son feeds his children is a valid ethical guiding post. I also would like to recommend the Buddhist encouragement toward compassion. Says the Dali Lama : “ For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe." [from The Compassionate Life]

So though we don’t have the benefit of the chapters and verses of dietary laws in Leviticus, these principles can help us tease out a few ethical guidelines. And I want to start with one of the thorniest ethical dilemmas- meat. Most of us have heard that statistics about the inefficiency of meat as food- that it takes fare more of the sun’s energy, more grain, more water to create a meal which contains meat than one without.

For these reasons, and because their compassion for all sentient beings has so moved them, many UUs have become vegetarians. But for a variety of reasons, this is not a choice all of us are ready or able to make. So I offer a more inclusive guideline that strict vegetarianism- (1) eat less meat. This means that for each meal where we do not include meat, or each time we take a smaller portion of meat than we are accustomed to, we are making a positive difference in our eco-system, and in the world food system.

For those of us who choose to eat meat, we still have more choices to make. The meat in most super market aisles and at most restaurants is currently part of a system that is not humane to the animals, and that creates toxins for our environment. Friends of mine decided a few years ago that they were only going to eat meat if they could know that the animals were treated humanely, and in a way that reduced the load on the environment. They’ve been building up their homestead over the past few years, and now have a whole flock of chickens, turkeys and ducks. They have goats for milk, and recently found two calves on Craig’s list who they are raising for meat. When they purchase animals for meat in the past, the do the butchering themselves, so that they can be assured that they are butchered in a humane way. These women love animals- they care dearly about not only their dogs and finches and rabbits, but also these animals who they raise for eggs or milk or meat. This is a strong ethical place to stand; I am constantly impressed with the courage of their convictions.

Because even when we buy meat that is “grass fed” or “free range” we don’t’ really know what that means. Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma exposes not only the seedy side of the meat industry, but his surprise on his visit to industrial organic farms that the “free range” chickens have only a marginally better existence than the conventional ones, despite the cute pictures of happy hens we see on the shelf at the store. Of all the choices I make when I shop for food, I feel best about the eggs I buy from my friends, because I know those chickens, I have seen where they live, and I know how deeply my friends care about the earth and about their animals. So I offer a second guidelines: (2) where possible, know your farmers. Visit the places where your food is raised. What you witness with your eyes and ears and nose will tell you much more about the compassion and ethics with which your food is raised than any USDA label on a product in the supermarket

Let’s move to something easier, like carrots. We all feel pretty good about eating carrots, still we remember with gratitude that these carrots are living beings too, and we live because of them. When you buy a carrot you don’t have to read an ingredient list to check for MSG, it is exactly what it purports to be- it looks like a plant root and tastes like a carrot. It is at the bottom of the agricultural food chain (it eats compost and sun and in turn is eaten by animals) and it is also at the bottom of the industrial food chain (it can be processed into those cans and boxes and listed as an ingredient in fine print on the side. When you eat a fresh carrot it is a very efficient conversion of the sun’s energy, and all the nutrients are still just the way the carrot grew them. It’s good for you and good for the earth. This is our 3rd guideline: (3) eat as low as possible on the food chain. This is just common sense. Corn is healthier for you and for the earth when it is still on the cob than when it has been processed into either a hamburger or into puffs. The less processing a food has endured, the more nutrients it retains- not just the ones listed on the side of the box, but other more subtle nutrients that scientists are only just discovering are necessary for healthy life. Eating less processed food is not only healthier, it’s also cheaper- you can buy 5 pounds of rice for the cost of a couple of “Lunchables”. This is partly because you are not paying the marketing cost of your rice, which doesn’t have to run commercials during Saturday morning cartoons to convince us to buy it. My 5 pound bag of rice, and my bunch of carrots together has way less packaging than said Lunchables, which reduces your footprint further both in terms of less packaging to end up in landfills and petroleum needed to make the plastic packaging in the first place.

But even though you are eating a carrot, there are still ethical dilemmas. Just because carrots don’t come with a list of ingredients doesn’t mean they aren’t full of chemicals or drenched in fossil fuels. For industrial agriculture grows carrots in a way that includes bonus chemicals that may or may not be safe for you and your children, and are definitely not safe for the water supply downstream from the conventional farm where chemicals were used. Because of these concerns, our fourth guideline is “buy organic produce whenever possible”. (our 4th guideline).

Here’s the tricky part- Just because you’ve found yourself a raw carrot stamped with the USDA organic seal, still doesn’t mean that it isn’t produced in a fossil-fuel intensive green house gas producing way. If your organic carrots are from Venezuela, they are not carbon neutral. So our 5th guideline is “eat local”. This is my favorite, because this is one where I have a lot of choices and control. When I grow cucumbers in my backyard I know exactly what chemicals were applied and the 8 foot walk out to pick them is not only carbon neutral but good for my soul. I think planting a few foods in our own yard or in a container on our balcony is one of the most enjoyable ethical acts I know. Because not only do you have a very light footprint, but you learn so much about the life cycle of your plants, and the cycles of seasons. This is practically a religious practice as far as I’m concerned. But if your yard is as small as mine, this is not subsistence farming, this is mostly just for the joy of picking a cucumber off the vine and serving it for dinner. The next best thing is to get your produce from your neighbors: stopping at the roadside stands, visiting farmer’s markets.

If you do a web-search for Farmer’s Markets nearby, you find our own Andy Fagan as the contact for the market in Muldoon Park on Monday Evenings. You find that Small Castle Farm in Ulster is our local member of the PA buy fresh Buy local network, and I pass any number of farm stands on my way to and from church. Another option is Community Supported Agriculture, where members pay a share of the cost of growing vegetables to the farmers at the start of the growing season, and receive a box of fresh vegetables here at the church once a week. Buyers clubs and Community Supported Agriculture shares not only make sure you have a steady stream of locally grown produce into your home, but it also provides a reliable source of income to small farms at a time when our national legislative bias towards agribusiness makes it hard for small farmers to persist.

By supporting local agriculture, we not only reduce our carbon footprint, but we also preserve the beautiful open spaces we love about this part of the world, and we provide food security for our community by ensuring that local farmers grow a diversity of food people could eat for substance instead of just cash crops. A friend who was driving cross country recently said the worst produce she saw on her whole trip was in an agricultural area in Iowa, because they grow only commercial grade corn and soy which are cash crops, and all the food those farmers eat has to be imported from other parts of the world. Now anyone who’s tried to grow a fruit or vegetable knows that some foods just don’t grow in some places. We are just never going to find local coffee, or local oranges. But Apples, zucchini, maple syrup, honey, corn, these we have in abundance. This brings us to our next precept:

The 6th guideline for ethical eaters is to keep studying and learning. We study and learn not only by reading but by observing- arrange a visit to your local farm or bakery. Watch the cucumbers grow in your own back yard. Sadly most of our food comes from a pretty opaque system. It’s crazy that we live in a time when, as Pollan ponders: “What am I eating, and where in the world dit it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions.” It was only through his writing did I learn that grass fed beef is healthier for us and for the environment than corn fed beef, or learn that the USDA organic label permits additives and synthetics such as ascorbic acid and Xantham Gum (Pollan p. 156) Reading and an inquiring mind is how you find out that “natural flavors” can mean that corn has been broken down and processed in test tubes until it tastes like grape. That what “free range” means anything from hens raised in tight quarters in a barn with a door that is unlocked for 2 weeks of a chicken’s life, to the hens you see running across the street sometimes as you drive through your neighborhood. This is how you find out that most of the farm workers who grow the food in California have to constantly fight for safe and sanitary conditions as they work, and are not even close to a living wage.

And your reading and study will inevitably bring you to our 7th guideline- justice for those who grow our food, and for all who are hungry. I want to devote a whole service later this year to issues of food and social justice, but for today I just want to remind us that this is why we Started our “Feed a Friend” project because we noticed that fresh foods are not always as available to folks living in poverty, and we also contribute foods that are grown the most ethical way we know how, locally in small gardens without industry or chemicals.

But already this is too many guidelines to juggle when you are standing in the aisle of your grocery store, or racing past a farm stand as you are late to work. My friends who are building up their homestead and milking their own goats twice a day have taken several years to get where they are, including a cross continental relocation. So start where you are (as the Buddhists say). Decide what is most inspiring to you and set your intention to change the patterns of your daily life, weaving them in a new pattern. As we enter the harvest season, perhaps you could choose one new thing on your path to ethical eating. It could be something as simple as buying only locally grown corn. On your path you may learn which local farmers grow corn, which tastes the best, which is more convenient to your commute, and when your local corn season is. Or you could decide to make lunch a vegetarian only meal, knowing it will take some time to learn what new foods you like to make for lunch, and how you will shop differently to make that possible. Or you could decide to arrange a farm tour or apple picking trip for you family and friends. Once you have incorporated one new ethical pattern in your life, you will know something new about your self and your world, and maybe what next step you are ready to take.

Changing patterns and habits takes time and energy and a clarity of intention. Part of the reason we buy processed food is because it is easier and less time consuming than buying raw local foods. Getting all your food at one store is easier than picking your own apples at a local orchard. But as Albus Dumbledore said in The Goblet of Fire: "Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." So give yourself encouragement to do the right thing- find a way to enjoy the beauty and balance of a fresh organic carrot, or corn picked that same day, or time spent in the garden watching cucumbers grow.

Finally, whatever you sit down and eat- do so in a spirit of gratitude, grateful not only to the plants and animals whose lives nourish you, but to the farmers and workers and truck drivers who brought you each meal. Eat mindfully, whether you are eating carrot or cheese puffs, because conscious, mindful eating will help you feed the senses and the soul as you feed your body, and is the first step towards reconnecting with our selves and the interconnected web of which we are all a part.