Food for Thought: UU Values and Sustainable Food

Vicky Talbert

I remember back to the 50’s and 60’s when, once a week, my mother would don her shirtwaist, climb into the family car, and make her way to the A&P. How did she choose her groceries then? In our family, in New England and a long way from the fertile, productive valleys of California, proximity was a huge factor and choices were limited. I don’t believe I had an avocado until I was 20, and certainly not a mango. Cost counted when our parents made out the grocery list, as did cultural and family habits and, perhaps religious practices. Some parents were ahead of their time, so nutrition may have been in the equation, too.

How things have changed! Today, it’s not just that food is abundant. We can get almost any food, from almost anywhere, in any season. We have a cornucopia of choices. It truly seems a grocery shopper’s paradise, the land of plenty.

But at what cost? People are beginning to recognize that the true cost of food is far greater than what we pay at check out. For many of us, what and how we eat is part of our spiritual practice, a moral or religious act.

Throughout developed countries, people want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. Is the food grown with pesticides or herbicides? What about the polluting runoff from fertilizer and manure? What is the contribution of corporate agriculture to the degradation of our planet and what are the best food choices to protect our environment? Are the farm workers paid a fair wage? What are their living conditions? How are the animals involved treated? In what conditions are they raised and do they suffer? How does a meat-based diet compare with one that is plant- based?

Is water being diverted from local usage to irrigate crops to feed food animals? If the food was grown in another country, were local people displaced from their land? How have their lives and culture been disrupted so that food could be raised to feed us? If we have an ethical obligation to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, is locally produced food better, is organic? What about fair trade and workers’ rights? What are the justice issues related to corporate agriculture’s use of the land of indigenous peoples? And the biggest question – how will we feed the world if we continue our unsustainable eating patterns?

Choosing our food may not be so easy—if we want to live in right relationship with Earth and all its inhabitants. The grocery store may not be that glorious paradise after all.

So how do we choose? Our Principles will guide us.

Much attention has been given to our 7th Principle. We know that industrialized agriculture as it now exists flies in the face of this Principle and threatens the interdependent web. It causes massive pollution, reduces biodiversity, and destroys land integrity at an alarming rate.

But our other Principles fit into the equation of ethical compassionate and sustainable food choices. When we consider the inherent worth and dignity of every person, how can we ignore the family in a poor village in Asia whose culture has been degraded with their land when it was taken over by a multinational corporation to produce wheat for snacks for us? What about the migrant workers here in our own country who are exposed regularly to dangerous pesticides and then can’t get decent medical care? Don’t these people have worth and dignity equal to ours? Recent research confirms what many people know instinctively—that animals think, feel, and have complex social relationships—and suggests that the worth and dignity of those beings is as inherent as they are for human beings. Should we not extend this principle to them?

This is an excerpt of a sermon delivered at Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist, Kenosha, WI, on June 22, 2007.