The Moralities of Food

Deep moral issues exist within the topic of food, whether we are talking about the devastation being laid on creation or the starvation of body and soul. The issues at the global level are not the same as the issues in this country and furthermore, often change when looking at a particular community.  While there are overlapping concerns for the global, national, and local communities, the scale of the problems are not the same, and their solutions play out differently.

The most pressing world food issue today is the feeding of the more than seven billion people on the planet, a number projected to increase to over nine billion in less than 40 years.  The numbers are staggering.  Currently more than two billion people are food insecure, either because they don’t have the nutrient and caloric intake they need each day or because they are unsure of the availability of food for the coming day.

Moreover, the policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) continue to erode the abilities of developing-nation populations to take care of themselves.  A number of these policies developed from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Treaties (GATT) in 1994, just as it was transitioning into what would become the WTO.  Powerful corporations like Monsanto were able to get wording in place that made it illegal for farmers to save seeds and to sell them, a basic practice of farming for over 10,000 years.  Having to buy new seeds each year and the costs from imposed, western-industrial standards have put many farmers into a cycle of debt that in India has led hundreds of thousands of farmers to commit suicide.  On a brighter note, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has found that small, sustainable farming practices can actually yield greater food production than the industrial farming methods currently being promoted by world financial institutions.

In the United States, the largest food problem is what we are eating and how much we are eating, a mostly silent crisis in public health.  As a consequence of our nation’s eating habits, we spend billions of dollars every year on health care.  Treatment for diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease make up the bulk of health care costs.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 70 percent of our annual health care costs are behavior related.  What we eat, the exercise we get, the stress levels we experience, and smoking generate most of our actual health care costs.  We continue to waste our time in Washington and around the country trying to figure out how we are going to pay these costs, whether through public or private insurance, when we should be putting our energy into eliminating the need for those costs.  Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has suggested the following rule to guide our eating habits: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Following this advice would reduce many of our health problems.

Certainly we have additional problems with food as a nation.  Much of this is the result of competing federal policies on agriculture, energy, and nutrition, as well as the relationships that our governmental agencies have with the major corporate players in each of these fields.  The current Farm Bill has subsidized farmers’ production of the major commodity crops, primarily corn and soybeans.  These crops are used to create products that we use for many purposes other than food.  Forty percent of our 2010 corn crop went to make ethanol; its manufacturers are subsidized, as are the oil companies for putting ethanol into their gasoline.  Meanwhile, the energy required to make ethanol is nearly equal to the energy derived from its use.  It is estimated that keeping our nation’s tires fully inflated would save fuel and also prevent topsoil erosion and chemical runoff caused by plowing and by herbicide, fertilizer, and pesticide application. These consequences of industrial agriculture have already created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, equal in size to Massachusetts.

In many communities in this country, fresh food, fruits, and vegetables are not readily available.  They are known as food deserts and occur in both urban and rural areas. Almost no place has an excess of fresh, local fruits, and vegetables. Fortunately, with the growth of farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and community gardens, more and more people have access to local food.  Local farmers are also starting to work with schools in their areas to supply lunch programs. Many of these smaller, locally based farms use organic and other sustainable methods.  Buying locally reduces support for industrial agriculture and use of fuel for long-distance hauling, while it promotes local economies.

For most of us, the answers to the problems around food can be solved locally.  The Transition Town Initiative helps in areas where it can be found.  Many places have organic and permaculture support groups, and Farm to School programs are growing.  We all need to help where we can, especially by grounding our solutions in caring for creation and feeding both body and soul.

Recommended further reading:

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Companion. Chelsea Green Publications, 2011.

Lappe, Francis Moore. EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, To Create the World We Want.

Nation Books, 2011.

Quaker Earthcare Witness. Food for a Healthy, Just, and Peaceable World.

1 thought on “The Moralities of Food

  1. Several years ago my sister Paula informed me of “The China Study”. She had recently been diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer,and had radically transformed her diet to one of being a vegan. She fed me the plant based diet for two weeks, I didn’t starve, I felt better. After reading the book I took on a vegetarian diet with occasional forays into eating eggs and ocean fish.
    Not one to consume of poultry or animal flesh, except on occasion as a condiment, I feel that most societies will conclude that a vegetarian diet to be both an economical and healthy dietary choice for their future populations to enjoy.
    Just Peace, Chris

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