Tumbling in the Sand
It’s been almost a month ago now since I went off to a conference sponsored by ELCA World Hunger about the “Ethics of Eating.” At the conference, we talked about a whole lot of things surrounding food systems, the ethics of those systems, and how our faith influences our response to how we feed the world (or, rather, don’t feed the world).
While we were there, we visited a CSA, Living Hope Farm, and thought about where food comes from and how our food comes from further and further away from ourselves. We also discussed the industrialization of agriculture: the way that food is produced in larger and larger scale in a way that is less and less considerate of the local ecology and economy. We sort of danced around the topic of the difficulty of small, local farmers making an honest go at it (especially in places where the cost of land continues to rise). And we spent a little bit of time talking about alternative food systems (a CSA being a model of such a thing): though, perhaps this was something that we did not explore near as much as we could have.
Another place we went to visit was the Rodale Institute (which I was particularly excited to visit) and talked about organic food production. It seemed evident from our conversations (and our presenter) that compared with conventional agricultural systems, organic was the more sustainable food production model; however, conventional methods of production were still going to be the most popular because of the amount of labor required to maintain an organic farm. This led us into some discussions of the labor laws in the United States, which, of course, led us to conversations of immigration issues. We also found ourselves talking about GMOs, pesticide usage, and genetic drift among other things. The conversation often turned to a vague distaste for giant agribusiness (Monsanto, ConAgra, etc. … or maybe not so much…) and the insane control these businesses have over farmers. I wonder if those who weren’t aware of the conversation prior to the conference understood what that distaste was about…
We also had the privilege of a visit from a local dairy farmer, who clearly disagreed with most everything that we had talked about up until that point. He was extremely helpful in reminding the participants of the conference that farming really is a business and understanding stock markets and surviving the cut-throat world of financial maneuvering is really important for farmers. I think sometimes it’s easy to discredit the complicated position that farmers are in … and the extreme amount of knowledge they have to have in order to survive. Another thing that I thought was really important to be reminded of is that there are people who currently benefit from the way things are and changing how things are is a threat to their well being—even if, in the long run they might be better off than the currently are. Change is frightening because we don’t finally control it and the future seems more unsure than if we just held the status quo.
The final piece of this conference was advocacy and action: both personal and public. We got information about the Farm Bill, coming up for re-appropriation soon. We talked about the need to reconnect communities with their food and made plans for community gardens, adult forums, nutrition education, advocacy training and more. We also talked about ways in which our own personal food choices made a difference. One of the suggestions, often passed around in circles of people thinking about this kind of thing, is that we should eat less, lower, and local. This, is, I’m afraid, far harder than one might think (at least for me … read my About if you’re curious about what I’m talking about)—but I do think it is worth the effort. And one thing I was reminded of at the conference was a great quote from Niebuhr (a paraphrase): “We should be less concerned with the purity of our actions and more concerned with the integrity of our compromises.” Meaning: doing a little bit, working on this a little bit more often, giving up just a bit more means more than trying to it perfectly and upon failing, not doing anything at all.
We covered so much at the Ethics of Eating conference! It was an intense four days, but it was a really good four days. I was glad that I had so much background in this already and found myself thinking things that I hadn’t for a long time, which was really good. I’m planning on continuing to blog about these ideas and thoughts as I wrestle with them a bit (under the category of Food Ethic). I’ve thought for quite a long time (actually since I took Economic Botany and Latin American History in college) that agricultural systems are the basis of all our economic systems and until we shift how we grow and distribute food, our economic systems will continue to lean toward exploitive, unsustainable, and unjust means of functioning. At the same time, I’ve learned since getting involved in all of this, that things are totally interconnected and tangled with each other and that there are no simple solutions to any of this. If there were, I suppose, we’d have fixed things by now so that all the world would be fed. But, then again, perhaps that’s a little naïve and I should keep quoting Niebuhr …