Navigating the New Food Movement

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Thursday March 22, 2018

The Food Morality Movement

Food has suddenly become the great moral cause of our era. Why?

  • Coming into the contentious November California ballot initiative that would have mandated many foods produced using biotechnology be labeled, The New Yorkers' long-time science, technology and public health reporter, Michael Specter, pronounced bioengineered foods convincingly safe, trustworthy and an efficient way to help feed the world. And yet, unacceptable. "Genetic engineering is only one particularly powerful way to do what we have been doing for eleven thousand years," he wrote. "[But] Here’s what the hysteria is really about: corporate control of seeds....If [citizens] have problems with the morality of an international conglomerate controlling the food we eat, then let’s elect people who want to make that more difficult," according to Specter.
  • To celebrate the 25th anniversary this month of the bestselling book, Diet for a New America, author Joh Robbins is re-releasing the anti-food-system litany, which the book's publisher hypes as startling examination of the food we currently buy and eat in the United States, and the astounding economic, emotional and moral price we pay for it.
  • Safeway announced this month it would require all its natural and cage-free egg lines be officially blessed by the Certified Humane® designation. Certified Humane, a brand mark of the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care association, is not only marketed as the best method to ensure farmers meet their "moral and ethical obligation" to their animals, but according to some actually seems to mysteriously make the meat of those animals taste better.
  • Commenting upon a recent Journal of Pediatrics study showing obese children tend to be more influenced by advertising than non-obese kids, an assistant professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City told one of the local TV stations, "I think it raises the question, and it's a difficult question, of how ethical is it to advertise unhealthy food products to children, especially when we see that obese children are potentially more vulnerable...."

The Food Morality Movement

Every now and then, the increasingly vocal critics of the modern food system (of which the grocer plays a critical part) tip their hands and engage in a little accidental honesty. TIME magazine reporter and vocal critic of the modern food system Bryan Walsh did just that in his piece early last year "Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement." In his essay, Walsh argues that the new food movement represents a potential rebirth for a flagging environmental movement that’s being shunned by the political establishment. “Even as traditional environmentalism struggles,” Walsh writes, “another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat…but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.”

And what’s the common cause that underlies that new revolution? A link through to another Walsh TIME article from the December 2010 issue makes it clear: “Has Environmentalism Lost Its Spiritual Core?”

“Environmentalism,” Walsh writes, “began as a religion.” That’s how Sierra Club founder John Muir saw it a century and a half ago, when he called Yosemite "the grandest of all special temples of Nature." And that’s the way Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai views a sustainable food system, as Walsh also quotes her, “…when she points out that we can't forgo the natural connection that we feel for nature, even if we are becoming an urban animal. ‘A certain tree, forest or mountain itself may not be holy, [but] the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible…. The environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.’"

Today’s foodie-ism is but a new denomination in the church of environmentalism, according to Walsh. It’s “a religion that John Muir would recognize — and one we shouldn't surrender.”

Numerous churches are buying into not only the language of the new food morality movement, but the underlying philosophy, as well, according to Truth in Food author Kevin Murphy. Ironically, it masks a philosophy that often runs counter to the beliefs many traditional church-going Americans hold dear, Murphy wrote in “Christians and the New Food Movement” for the journal Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, which won the Catholic Press Association's 2012 award for Best Essay by a Scholarly Magazine.

“Food has become a moral metaphor,” Murphy says. “Food is a platform into all kinds of social issues, from global warming, sustainability, all the way to labor to treatment of animals to treatment of people. If you want to take a red cord and weave it through the stories, this is what it comes down to – it’s the ethics of food and food animal production.”

“Food today is going to be continually presented under the prism of food morality,” Murphy says. “So when you ask yourself about what you’re doing, you have to look at what you do through the prism of food morality.”

Agriculture and the food system as whole must reclaim the moral high ground, which opponents of modern food production and distribution are working tirelessly to undermine. Traditionally, ranchers and farmers have argued from the camp of reason and science while the system's opponents argue from emotion and ethics. In the new push to make food a moral issue, the race is now on between those two opposing camps to reach the high ground of moral defense. It all starts with asking the complexly simple question of what you do and why do it: "Is this practice right, or is it wrong?"

 Agree or disagree? Use the comment window below to weigh in.



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