Friday, December 3, 2010

You Are What You Eat

You are what you eat. It is a phrase I have heard for as long as I can remember, but what does it really mean? Does food have anything to do with faith? How do we re-evaluate our eating habits in light of food recalls, genetic alterations, exploitation of farm land and the livelihood of those connected to it, and our biblical mandate to rule over creation.

There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of things to consider when shopping for food. Is it: organic, local, genetically altered, added hormones, animal treatment, grass-fed, corn fed, free range? The list seems to go on and on. But, as I explore all these different things I would like to add one more to the mix: biblically mandated.

First things first, what is the current state of our national food system and secondly, how is it influencing our economy, our environment, our health, and our faith?

In her article entitled “Most Americans Worry About Safety of Food Supply,” April Fulton states “government officials have said for years that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world.” In the same article, Fulton cites a survey conducted by NPR, which seems to put forth the idea that people don’t necessarily agree with that statement. 61% of Americans are actually concerned about contamination of the food supply. This is not shocking considering the amount of food recalls experienced in the last six months. Recalls are so common has even “created an app for that,” alerting consumers to the ever-changing FDA recalls. If you were one of the unlucky ones to get sick due to food later recalled, you would nonetheless be in good company with 78 million other Americans who, Fulton reports, also get sick each year. According to Fulton in another article entitled “FDA Faulted for Gaps in Food Safety,” the American populous spends $150 billion a year to cover the cost of unsafe food.

Why is so much of our food making us sick? There are many explanations to this, and way too many to put in this blog. So, let’s talk about meat. According to NPR, 51% of Americans are concerned about meat contamination, and rightly so. According to Ellen Davis in her book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, meat-processing plants are more of a jungle now than in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book. Disease epidemics such as BSE (mad cow disease) and foot-and-mouth disease are directly related to the new system of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) that almost entirely dominate the industry. Davis describes CAFO as a system that raises pigs “from birth to bacon” which means that these animals “never feel soil or sunshine, and rarely the touch of a human hand.” And if that isn’t enough to make you rethink your bacon, Davis describes the life of a sow: “a 500-pound sow spends an adult lifetime – measured in terms of litters and terminated after the eighth, if she survives that long – in a metal crate seven feet long and twenty-two inches wide, covered with sores, her swollen legs planted in urine and excrement.”

Let me bring all these facts together. Our food is costing us $150 billion extra a year because it is making us sick. It is making us sick because of the way we process the meat. The meat is becoming infected because of the way we treat the animals before they are slaughtered, among other reasons. Not only is this process making us sick, it negatively impacts the environment. According to Davis, “the meat industry is responsible for dangerous inputs, including massive direct pollution of soil, water, and air from intensive ‘livestock units.’”

So what? Why should we as a faith community care about this? Lets look at a few images beginning with the creation stories. In the second creation story God creates man and animal from the same ground, the same material. Genesis 2:7 states, “then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…” Later in Genesis 2:19, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.” In the first creation story, Genesis 1:28 gives a biblical mandate for the treatment of creation. God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and conquer it and exercise mastery among the fish of the sea and among the birds of the sky and among every animal that creeps on the earth.” This mandate means that we, God’s creation, are to “exercise mastery” over the rest of God’s creation. Throughout the Old Testament, we are given examples of what this mastery entails. In the retelling of the 10 Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the command to rest on the seventh day reminds us that not only are humans to rest, but animals are to rest as well. The ancient idea of shechita, which states is the “humane method of animal slaughter for food”, is also derived from the food laws found in Deuteronomy. This calls for the swift and compassionate killing of animals. Finally, the importance of a meal is seen during the last supper, where Jesus offers wine and bread as the ultimate symbol of his love for us.

Everything about our food is connected to creation and to God. Humans and animals are made from the same divine elements. While humans are to be masters over the rest of creation, we are to treat it with compassion. When raising animals, we too are to give them rest, just as we are granted rest. And, when we slaughter animals for food we are to do so swiftly and compassionately. Finally, when our food is ready to be eaten, we are to be reminded of the meal in which Jesus broke himself for us so that we might have life.

You are what you eat. It is good to remember this statement as we begin to adjust the way we view our food. Will we continue to act as we do now, costing us our money, health, and our relationship with creation and with God? Or, will we begin to see the interconnectedness of creation, readjust our practices of mastering creation as biblically mandated, and finally begin to heal the brokenness that has crept into our food? Remember: You are what you eat.

What you can do:

Educate Yourself! Check out Ellen Davis’ book entitled Scripture, Culture and Agriculture and Michael Pollan’s book entitled The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Read the label on your food (in some cases, food labeling offers information on the treatment of animals in the creation of the product).

Visit your local farmers’ market.

Check out local farms in your area. If you are from Georgia, Nature’s Harmony Farms is great for supplying meat and cheese from free-range, organically raised animals.

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