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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Food Democracy

From the first chapter of Genesis:

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (vs.29-30, NRSV)

That is food democracy. The radical yet at one time commonplace idea that all beings “have the right to an adequate, safe, nutritious, sustainable, food supply.”
A lot has happened since the sixth century BCE when those verses were likely penned.

The great farmer-poet-essayist Wendell Berry writes:

By farming we enact our fundamental connection with energy and matter, light and darkness, In the cycles of farming, which carry the elemental energy again and again through the seasons and the bodies of living things, we recognize the only infinitude within reach of the imagination…we align ourselves with the universal law that brought the cycles into being and that will survive them.

Food is about relationship: ours with the earth, the elements, the soil, the animals, the plants, and each other. Food expresses our relationship to justice and moral sensibility. Because food springs from and relies on death as much as it assures life, there is a primacy to our relationship with food like nothing else. Thus our relationship with food, not just what we eat, but how we eat and by what means, forms a core of our spiritual and physical being.

The word “religion” comes from religare. To refasten, to return to what binds us as beings to one another, and to whatever we find holy. How we relate with food and its creation or production either refastens us to what matters—what is sacred in us and around us—or it sets into a motion a deep sense of alienation—from each other, the earth, the elements, the plants and animals, the soil and cycles, life itself.
Right now in the world, here and abroad, we have loosened the ties that bind dangerously far. By replacing the agrarian with the industrial to point where small farms are under threat of extinction and local economies have been largely usurped by a global one, it’s not simply that people no longer have access to an adequate, healthy, sustainable food supply; nor is it simply that we have traded our souls for sugary non-nutritive edibles that no longer resemble food. We have traded farming for factories, and exchanged the energy of work for dependence on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. We have cut billions off from food supplies and self-reliance. Two weeks ago I preached on wandering in the wilderness. The state of our relationship with food has turned the garden of Creation into a barrenness more bitter than wandering itself.

Again, Wendell Berry:

The word agriculture, after all, does not mean “agriscience” much less “agribusiness.” It means “cultivation of land.” And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both “to revolve” and “to dwell.” To live, to survive on the earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root of the idea of a cycle. It is only by understanding the cultural complexity and largeness of the concept of agriculture that we can see the threatening diminishments implied by the term “agribusiness.”

John Peterson, a third generation farmer and the subject of a documentary called “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” puts it this way: You’ve got two types of agriculture… One is the agribusiness model, or the chemical model, and it’s very, very dominated by capital. The other model is powered by something that may not be inexhaustible, but it’s more inexhaustible than capital. It’s powered by what I call a moral principle. You have people who are inspired by a moral impulse in relating to the soil and relating to the food, to the farmers and to the planet . . . There was no community supported agriculture farm in this country 20 years ago. Now there are maybe as many as a million people being fed from about 3,000 CSA farms—from zero to a million. This came out of human beings just deciding how to spend their money. It’s an incredible thing.

On an international scale, “agriculture remains part of the global capital market. Peasant, indigenous, and family farmers cannot compete with the rules of free trade, which are biased toward multinational corporations. Small producers suffer not only from failed domestic policies but also from the consequences of economic globalization.”

If we take a look at the seven principles affirmed by the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association in relation to food and the means by which we get it, a path out of the wilderness emerges.

Let’s begin with the seventh principle and work backward. Our seventh principle affirms our respect for the interdependent web of all existence. If we are to embody the respect we espouse for the interdependent web, how we nourish ourselves is the literal expression of embodiment.

Dr. Vandana Shiva who founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, writes, Our study on “Biodiversity based organic farming: A new paradigm for Food Security and Food Safety” has established that small biodiverse organic farms produce more food and provide higher incomes to farmers. [They] contribute both to mitigation of and adaptation to climate change… especially in Third World countries [where they] are totally fossil fuel free. Energy for farming operations comes from animal energy. Soil fertility is built by feeding soil organisms by recycling organic matter. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Biodiverse systems are also more resilient to droughts and floods because they have higher water holding capacity . . . .

In the U.S. we “consume 17% of our fossil fuel . . . to grow . . . food with fossil fuel fertilizers, and use diesel on the farm, and use diesel to move the food and process [it]” ; we subsidize industrial farms that grow corn, soy and cotton while insisting that poorer countries lower tariffs. Yet our seventh principle is about decreasing toxicity in the soil, water, air, plant, animal and human life. It’s about stopping the assault on nature, which is to say the web of existence that contains us all.

Our fifth and sixth principles call for the right of conscience and the democratic process, with a goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. This means food sovereignty: “The right and freedom to grow diverse and nutritious food and the right to have access to save healthy adequate and affordable food.”(Vanda Shiva) As Haitian farmer Jonas Deronzil says, “People in the U.S. need to help us produce, not give us food and seeds. They’re ruining our chance to support ourselves.” All over the world, people strive to regain food sovereignty, from Haitian farmers vowing to burn Monsanto’s hybrid rice seeds to farmers in Thailand and South Korea “educating their people about the effects of global trade policies and pressuring their governments to respect the role of farmers.”

In the U.S. we call it food democracy not sovereignty but it’s the same thing: “food with the farmer's face on it.”

Our third and fourth principles call for acceptance of one another, encouragement of spiritual growth, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This entails examining our food practices and beliefs, not just individually, but as a congregation. What we eat and serve in community. We’re off to a good start with fairly traded coffee and chocolate, and milk from small local dairy farms. And think of the impact we could have buying the land on Fisher Road and gardening it—not just for ourselves, but some of Fitchburg’s more recent immigrants who may have farmed in their home countries but now live in a city with out land of their own to grow—or enough money to buy—healthy fresh food.

When we talk about our future, let us remember that our principles call us to spiritually evolve, to search responsibly, not to sit satisfied. When we have an opportunity to restore our relationship with food, to nurture in our children and in the wider community an appreciation for the earth and its cycles, and our embedded connection, let’s not hold back.

Our first and second principles affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all and express our commitment to justice, equity and compassion. There’s no way to do that if we turn from the reality of food insecurity worldwide. A billion people lack access to clean water or adequate and healthy food. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s yield cheap meat by denying the dignity or worth of animals and desecrating the environment.

Marion Nestle, Professor and former chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, says: “I see nationally everywhere people who are increasingly concerned about the quality of what they’re feeding themselves and their children. This is grassroots democracy in action.”
It matters what eggs we buy. It matters to the chickens, the land, our children, and ourselves. When we resist advertising that markets unhealthy products in packaging that gobbles resources instead of insuring people have enough nutritious food to eat, we live out our principles. When we realize the complexity of decisions like buying Stonyfield organic yogurt thinking it’s a New England company that buys from local farms, only to learn the blueberries are trucked in from eastern Canada and strawberries flown in from China, we wrestle with what a responsible search for truth really means.

We cannot solve a global problem ourselves but we can make local choices that impact the world. At the heart of food democracy or sovereignty is a local economy. In the words of Michael Pollan, “Local food economies are our best hope for checking the drift toward the total global economy. And food is where these economies begin.”
Wendell Berry writes,

People are trying to find ways to shorten the distance between producers and consumers, to make the connections between the two more direct, and to make this local economic activity benefit the local community . . . This is the only way presently available to make the total economy less total . . . To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

In the Spring 2011 UUWorld magazine, Susan Bagby, a member of a New Mexico congregation writes of her family’s efforts to buy locally. They purchase a share in a CSA farm only to be so inundated with eggplants they decide not to re-enroll the next year; but they continue to buy most of their produce from a local farmers’ market.

In the same issue, there are letters to the editor about Monsanto’s ethics, or lack thereof, and an article by Rev. Kate Braestrup about the value of beginning a meal with a table grace. As she says, “Saying grace can remind us every meal is holy.” Across our denomination, we are re-evaluating our relationship with food. To be sure, it is a relationship fraught with geo-political and environmental complexities, but as a starting place we can participate in food production to the extent we can. As we consider the land on Fisher Road, we can cultivate a plan for congregational participation.

We can garden and prepare meals together; we can learn the origins of the food we buy and the ingredients in them. Whenever possible we can buy locally grown or raised food. We can educate ourselves as a congregation about food democracy and food tyranny, and from that stance of knowledge, act and activate for change. We can listen to farmers and insist that our elected representatives do, too. We can find out why the farm bill in Congress is a food bill that affects us all. We can learn best practices for farming and gardening and come to each meal with a deeper awareness of what goes into it, how it gets to us, and whether or not it refastens us, or moves us further apart.

What binds us as beings is the need for food. How we are bound together: in a relationship of mutual respect or exploitation, mindfulness or ignorance, sustainability or profit, is up to us with every bite we take.

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (vs.29-30, NRSV)

To paraphrase Wendell Berry, Let us not make shoddy the work of God.

Testimonial of a Burgeoning Locavore

by Rick Caspers-Ross

I started a journey a few years ago when my wife came home
and announced that she had declared war on products containing High
Fructose Corn Syrup. Until this point in my life I had never
thought much about the food we ate and to be honest, I wasn’t
really on board.

Since then I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the politics
of food. I have become deeply concerned that our food systems, and
therefore our very survival, are in the hands of corporations. I'm
worried about how healthy and safe the food we eat is and our diet’s
effect on the environment, on the lives of the animals and the workers
it relies upon. The issues are so large that I find it hard to wrap
my arms around them all.

In response to these concerns, and before even moving to Massachusetts, we
started dreaming about the fruit trees, berry bushes, perennial and
annual vegetables we would plant. We wanted to create sustainable
systems that wouldn’t require toxic pesticides or chemical
fertilizers. I learned the words “food forest” and “permaculture”.
We researched bees knowing we would need to create a pollinator-
friendly environment in our garden, and consequently learned about
Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon which caused unexplained and
unprecedented deaths in bee colonies. That day we decided we would
keep bees.

Some of the plans we made have come to fruition, some are in
progress, while others have changed. We are growing mushrooms,
blueberries and raspberries but for now our plans to raise chickens are on
hold due to zoning laws.

I have found great joy in growing our own food and sharing our bounty.
It has led me places I never expected, and I have met some wonderful
people. Food has great power to bring people together, to heal and
nurture. No one likes to eat alone.

This past fall I found a farm in Gill that was still selling seed
garlic late in the season, and I arranged a visit to purchase some one
night after work. Just before leaving the farm I asked if they could
point us to a good local restaurant as it was getting late and I had
my wife and son with me. None of us had eaten. Farmer Dan said,
"Absolutely," and pointed toward his house, saying, “My kitchen is that

We shared an amazing meal that night and I was blown away by
Dan and his wife’s generosity. When I think back to that night I am
reminded of that simple act of kindness to a total stranger and how I
would like to see more of that in the world. I want to help create more of
that in the world.