Earth Notes: Ruminations on food

By Sally Chappell

Lately I’ve been ruminating on the ethics of eating. Our vegan friends point out the misery inflicted on countless chickens, cows, pigs, etc. from being confined in crowded conditions (Confined Animal Feeding Operations —CAFOs) with slaughter as the ultimate end. Vegans separate themselves from this abuse by avoiding consumption of animals as food or animal products such as leather, honey, fur, etc. They correctly point out the amount of rainforest land being converted to cattle grazing and the negative effect this is having on the climate.

Vegetarians likewise avoid eating animals but accept their products that allow the animals to live (e.g. milk, eggs and honey). Then there are the rest of us, the omnivores as Michael Pollen refers to us. What and how much we eat has to have an impact on the health of the planet as well as our personal health. For those of us fortunate to have food choice, eating becomes a moral act.

There are good resources to inform an environmentally just component of nourishment. The Unitarian Universalist Association has an excellent guide on ethical food choices. UUA stresses the importance of locally and organically produced food. When we do consume products from warm climates like coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate and bananas, fair trade helps farmers in those areas earn a living wage. It does take discipline to pay more for food that serves the health and wellbeing of people and the planet, especially when industrially produced, processed food is so heavily advertised, cheap and available. Underlying any food ethics, of course, is the requirement that all people have enough to eat.

Besides animal and human welfare in the production of food, sustainability is the other consideration. For us here in New England, this must involve the use of animals, according to University of New Hampshire Professor Emeritus John Carroll. In his book, The Real Dirt: Toward Food Sufficiency and Farm Sustainability in New England, he informs readers that New England is less than 10 percent food self-sufficient and that we must separate agriculture from the use of fossil fuels. He recommends that our land grant colleges of agriculture help revise practice away from energy-intensive and capital-intensive agriculture; focus on smaller-scale local agriculture; stop energy-intensive animal confinement; bring animals to food rather than bringing food to animals; decentralize, not concentrate, animal waste, and treat that “waste” as the resource it is; graze animals on grass, not feed them grain; extend the season through capture of solar energy; provide local food for local markets with direct farmer to consumer contact; and for New England, increase significantly food production capacity.

Recently I have become encouraged about solutions to climate change and its equally serious companion issues of desertification and biodiversity. Soil regeneration is one of those solutions. When soils are healthy, they act as powerful carbon sinks, but big agricultural corporations like to sell soil-depleting pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that displace the beneficial microorganisms necessary for healthy soil. Read all about it in two excellent books on the subject: Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith Schwartz, and Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Save Our World by Josh Tickell. Now all we have to do is convince some of our state and federal leaders that solutions are available for problems they don’t want to admit!

Native Americans are another source of knowledge about living and eating in a mutually beneficial way on what Mother Earth bountifully provides. In her captivating book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, “Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society.” The land provides for our needs when we respect and observe the Honorable Harvest, an indigenous covenant of reciprocity and acknowledgement that all beings are persons. See and hear Kimmerer’s TED talk:

Like maple syrup, it all boils down to choice. What will I eat that will nourish my life and help sweeten the life of the world?

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