You Are What You Eat

...Our spiritual connection to the food we eat has...been harmed by a modern culture in which over-processed foods are so ubiquitous that we have ceased to think about foods in their whole forms any more.

...Michael Pollan writes, “Try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” What he means to steer us away from are heavily-processed foods, foods that make health claims based on one or another nutrient they contain, foods with unpronounceable chemical ingredients, and, high-fructose corn syrup. Don’t even get me started on high-fructose corn syrup.

...Going through the supermarket, it’s not easy advice to follow. I believe this is because we no longer have a connection to the food we eat: Meat comes not from animals whose treatment might matter to us, but from little Styrofoam trays with plastic wrap. Carrots are not long, pointed things that come from the ground—they are uniformly carved two-inch-long nuggets that come in a bag. Coffee comes from a round red can, not from bushes growing on hillsides that need to be hand-picked.

Our modern society has many ways of removing us from our connection to food....

...To be honest, it doesn’t bother me if a company wants to splice a gene for beta carotene production into a rice crop, or if molecular biologists find ways to do things that used to be done with careful cross-pollination. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t even mind if scientists could figure out how to put pig genes into plants so that my collard greens don’t need fatback to taste yummy.

It bothers me, however, when the genes that are being put into plants that cause those plants to secrete pesticides— creating plants that could wind up killing monarch butterflies or ladybugs or honeybees.

It bothers me when the genetic modifications produce sterile plants just so that farmers can’t save seeds from one year to the next—forcing an ongoing dependence on newly-ordered seeds, and fattening the wallets of giant agribusiness companies.

It bothers me when companies are producing genetically- modified crops that make our farmers dependent upon chemical herbicides to grow their crops….

...The perils of agribusiness for our connection to the Earth through food hardly end with vegetables—I just figured I’d start there so that the vegetarians among us didn’t get smug when I brought up the horrible world of meat processing.

A search of the Times’ website for “beef recall” turns up 570 articles. Five hundred seventy. I learned this when I was looking for information on the latest beef recall—an order issued two weeks ago that recalled some 143 million pounds of processed beef that made its way through a plant in California.

The beef was recalled after an undercover investigation by the Humane Society documented workers using such techniques as picking up sick cows with forklifts in order to pretend they could walk…. (Andrew Martin, “Largest Recall of Ground Beef is Ordered,” New York Times, 2/18/08)

Why is our food supply riddled with meat from cows so sick they cannot even walk? Why have enormous corporate hog farms become reservoirs for antibiotic-resistant bacteria even as seventy percent of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to livestock?

Why are Australian honeybees, perhaps carrying foreign bee viruses (and no, I am not kidding) shipped to California every spring to pollinate almond orchards, and then shipped home once that job is done?

It is because our system of factory farming has become unsustainable, and we, far removed from any connection with our food, fail to notice….

What we eat and why are profoundly moral, ethical and spiritual questions. You are, after all, what you eat.

This is an excerpt of a sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester, Mount Kisco NY, on March 2, 2008.