Sunday, February 27, 2011

Salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, and faith-based farming (Part Two)

Project: Peace works to connect church members with social organizations that promote just and sustainable societies. The organization is a non-profit run on the principles of Christianity; they state their core values as mercy, justice, and peace. Their event, “An evening with Joel Salatin”, involved two separate talks. The first was specific to the biodynamic practices Joel employs on Polyface Farms, which I described a few weeks ago. In the second talk, he discussed the way his religious beliefs have governed his farming philosophy.

Joel began the talk with a controversial subject: abortion. He pointed out the inconsistency he sees between peoples’ beliefs about human life versus animal life. Being very concerned with animal welfare while also being pro-choice, to him, seems no less contradictory than “hitting the drive-thru on the way to the pro-life rally”. How can we respect and honor people, he asked, if we can’t even do it for animals?

As Joel sees it, all life is sacred, and that means there is a moral dimension to food. If Christianity guides your moral compass, you ought to consider the manner in which your food is grown or raised. He strongly disagrees with the idea that what is spiritual is good and what is physical is bad. Prayer alone cannot make up for immoral actions; you are responsible for what you do. Supporting the industrial food system is an immoral act.

Joel’s faith-based approach to food and farming relies on several core ideas:
  • Transparency over secrecy
  • Decomposition over sterility
  • Humility over hubris
  • Nurturing over manipulation
  • Freedom over tyranny

There are several themes reflected in these principles. First, we are not controllers of nature but an integral part. Our actions affect the natural world, which in turn, affects our well-being. Second, nature is very effective at growing food; nurturing natural processes has fewer ethical grey areas than systems developed to manipulate nature. Lastly, people should have access to the farms where their food is grown and raised. That’s why Polyface Farms has an open door policy unlike, say, a Tyson chicken farm.

Joel explained that a farm with biblical values should be one that fosters resilience and regeneration, leaving room for redemption and rebirth. It is a place that should be aesthetically pleasing, a place of beauty that celebrates the world that has been given to us. Water pollution, contamination, and the stench of industrial farms are simply unacceptable.

Joel concluded with a rather poetic reminder that the food that sustains us depends on a complex system of microscopic organisms living within the soil, an intricate process of life and death, of growth and decomposition. Also alluding to the spiritual world, Joel finished by saying, “you and I depend on a world we don’t even see.”

I found Joe’s talk unexpectedly moving. When it comes to religious beliefs and faith-based political opinions, Joel and I couldn’t be much farther apart. I was raised Jewish, my life philosophy can be best described as humanist*, and I’m a liberal. And yet, Joel and I share the same views on extending morality to food systems and respecting life even when we will choose to end it. We both believe that the beauty of our environment has inherent value and is worthy of protection. And we both believe that we need to approach our interactions with nature from a place of humility knowing that we understand only a small fraction of the processes that make human life possible on the planet Earth.

It is a fascinating and powerful thing that people from such disparate backgrounds and beliefs can come to the same conclusions about the morality and sustainability of food systems. If we could get all of these people to take active roles in fighting for change, we just might have a chance.

Over the past fifty years, our democracy has become much more receptive to the voices and needs of corporations who have the money and the motivation to fight for their own interests. In fact, one of Joel’s farming books is called “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”, in which he describes how hard it is to run a business that doesn’t fall in line with the industrial status quo.

In contrast to the corporate lobbying structure, there are very few groups advocating for the needs and interests of citizens that have enough power to enact policies and truly affect change. But we citizens have something that the corporations do not have. We have votes. A large group of citizens acting together is more powerful than a wealthy corporation can ever be. All we really need is unity and fortitude.

*For those of you unfamiliar with humanism, it is the idea we need to infuse our lives with morality and purpose whether or not we will be judged for our actions after death. Human society may never come to a consensus as to which religion and its corresponding precepts represents truth, so we need to work together to devise a common morality. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should “be excellent to each other”.

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