When I was a teenager, I was inspired by Frances Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet. I read it as part of my research for the high school debate team; that year the nation-wide topic was how to globally manage scarce world resources. My debate partner and I chose food as the scarce resource on which we wanted to focus. During my research, I learned that people were dying of famine in other parts of the world not because there was insufficient food to feed everybody, but because it was not distributed equitably. I learned that some people consume vastly more of the world’s resources than others do. Lappe showed that eating certain foods high on the food chain–including beef–uses many times more resources than eating foods lower on the food chain, such as poultry, fish, grains, vegetables, seeds, or fruits. Her book argued that a vegetarian can get all the protein they need. She advocated a meat-free diet in order to make more food available to hungry people around the world. It would also be better for our health, she maintained. When I became aware of how our food choices are also moral and spiritual issues, I decided to become a vegetarian as soon as I left home for college. As a student, I often had to defend my choice in the Swarthmore College dining hall; not eating meat was considered strange and extreme behavior by most of my fellow students.
Many decades later, my diet is still mostly vegetarian—in fact, mostly vegan–but not entirely., and I continue to be concerned about the inequitable use of resources around the planet. Today, like most of us who take science seriously, I am also deeply concerned that our unwise use of the world’s resources has led our small planet into an extreme climate crisis. Unless we change our ways, climate change will continue to accelerate catastrophically. For decades I’ve been hearing how the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change. I’ve thought of this mostly in terms of fuel for cars, homes, and businesses. Only recently, however, have a number of books and films clarified for me that the ways we eat and do agriculture are also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
I’d like to tell you about a charming and informative book by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007). In her novels, Kingsolver integrates strong characters and good storytelling with a lot of scientific knowledge. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, subtitled A Year of Food Life, is not a novel, however, but a true account of her family’s efforts to live off only locally-grown food for a full calendar year. This didn’t seem possible in Tucson, Arizona, where they were living, so she, her husband, and two daughters moved to a family farm in Virginia. There they grew a huge garden and raised chickens and turkeys. To supplement their home-grown food sources, they bought locally-grown meats, flour, produce, and more.
For years before making the decision, Kingsolver was increasingly aware of how unsustainable the American way of eating has become. In the first chapter, in a section labeled “Oily Food,” she writes that 17% of our nation’s energy is used for agriculture, including the fuel needed to operate farm machinery plus the petroleum products used to make the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Once the food is grown and processed, enormous amounts of fuel are then used to transport it long distances. She explains: “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The amount of energy used to grow and then transport the food we eat is significantly greater than the energy we get from eating the food.” The book advocates strongly for small farmers and shows how they are disadvantaged by global industrial agriculture systems, which undercut prices, use insane amounts of fuel, and provide inferior and unsustainable food products.
Hard facts and ideas such as these are sprinkled throughout the book. These facts would make for difficult reading, except that the larger part of the book is full of family stories and rapturous descriptions of the food they prepared and the meals they created and ate together, as well as recipes for every month of the year, based on what foods are in season each month. I kept turning the pages because of the often-humorous accounts of the challenges, failures, and successes of growing and eating locally-grown food and raising poultry. Her third grade daughter, Lily, starts her own (eventually successful) business raising chickens for eggs and meat. Kingsolver takes on the more difficult task of raising turkeys. In our industrial food system, domestic turkeys don’t breed or brood–these tasks are done for them, mechanically–so their natural instincts have been diminished, and they imprint on humans rather than on a mother turkey. Accounts of Kingsolver trying to help her turkeys breed with each other are laugh-out-loud funny (especially when the first hen tries to seduce her husband). Once she gets the male and female turkeys to mate with each other, then she has to get the hens to brood on their fertilized eggs.
Kingsolver doesn’t insist that every family try the same experiment her family chooses; instead, she proposes that if “every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.”
Perhaps the most sobering lines in the book, for me, are these, about the true cost of our current food system, including perishable food delicacies shipped from around the globe: [W]e get it at a price. Most of that is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unraveling, and global climate change. … Human manners are wildly inconsistent…but this one takes the cake: the manner in which we’re allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us…. The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.” (66-67)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle made me think harder about my own food consumption and purchasing practices. For years my husband and I have been doing a little gardening in our backyard and next to our driveway, slowly becoming better acquainted with the earth and its bountiful gifts. (See my blog post about the summer we let the butternut squash take over the yard.) But we only grow a few vegetables, and I depend upon store-bought purchases, including weekly containers of organic greens. Feeling uneasy about the plastic boxes they come in and wanting to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, this summer we’ve been growing more greens in our yard.
We also joined a local CSA (community-supported agriculture). Each week we’ve been picking up our designated selection of locally-grown organic fruits and vegetables, then eating what’s in season. Usually the cost is a bit higher than buying the same items at the grocery store, and sometimes we get items we wouldn’t choose, such as fennel and nectarines. (Both turned out to be tasty.) But we know that most of our money goes to the farmers, whereas when we buy the same items at the store, most of the money goes to the middlemen and to transportation costs, and only a small percent to the people who actually grow the food. Buying at a weekly farmer’s market is an alternative way to get locally grown produce and support farmers directly.
Like most people, I find it hard to face the facts of climate change and to take in the magnitude of the problem. Part of this paralysis is due to a feeling of overwhelm. The problems seem so large and systematic; how can we possibly learn–collectively–how to live in a very different way? We are like the turkeys bred in such a way that they barely remember essential survival skills. But our bodies evolved to live in harmony with nature. Kingsolver’s book helps me see that returning to older, healthier, and more equitable ways of living can be joyful and connect us with gifts we had forgotten are available in life. Although individual action is not enough to change the ways of the world, nothing will change if individuals and families don’t find the courage to begin doing things differently.
Eating for the Planet: has concern about the health of your body or the planet caused you to change your diet or habits to a way of eating that’s better for the planet?
© 2021 Marcelle Martin
Consider joining me for a Fall 2021 online course starting Tuesday Sept. 7th,
In this ten week online course led by Marcelle Martin, we’ll experiment with numerous approaches to meditation, prayer, and presence. Through these experiments, we’ll seek to know more fully the nature of consciousness, our true self, and our connection to God. We’ll explore how mindfulness, awareness, and communion with the Divine affects not only our inner and outer lives, but radiates beyond us into the world. We will learn which spiritual practices are most suited to each of us at this time. We will also explore how to make spiritual practices a more integrated part of our daily lives. Our online class time will include brief presentations by Marcelle, experiencing different spiritual practices, sharing in pairs and groups, and class discussion. Most of all, it will involve experimenting with various forms of meditation, prayer, and presence. No particular beliefs in God or prayer are required, only a willingness to earnestly try different kinds of practices, notice what we experience, and listen respectfully to the experiences and beliefs shared by others.
Our basic text is Patricia Loring, Listening Spirituality, Volume I: Personal Spiritual Practices Among Friends (available from QuakerBooks). We will also discuss the Pendle Hill pamphlet Holding One Another in the Light, by Marcelle Martin.
The Exploring Spiritual Practices course fulfills a requirement to apply for the 2022-2023 Nurturing Faithfulness course, which will be offered at Woolman Hill Retreat Center and online starting in September 2022. There are other ways to fulfill that same requirement, including a weekend retreat, or other classes, programs of study, or equivalent experience of a variety of spiritual practices. For more information about the Nurturing Faithfulness program, go to: http://woolmanhill.org/upcomingprograms/nurturingfaithfulness/
Intrigued? Go HERE to read details and register for Exploring Spiritual Practices.
If we have enough interest, we may offer a Tuesday morning session, in addition to the 7-9 pm (Eastern time) class.
This course is co-sponsored by New England Quakers in partnership with the Beacon Hill Friends House. It is open to people of diverse faiths.