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March 4, 2008

Earth Ethics: The Sacred Foods Project

The Humane Society of the United States

By Richard Clugston

The Sacred Foods Project, launched in the summer of 2005 by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, is an interfaith effort to incorporate religious and ethical principles in food production, distribution, and consumption. Founding partners joining ALEPH were Chicago based Faith in Place, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and the Food Alliance. The Islamic Society of North America, the National Council of Churches, and the Presbyterian (USA) Hunger Program joined the founding partners as members of the Advisory Council early in the project. The Project is made possible by the support of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Schocken Foundation.

Sacred Foods brings together religious leaders and institutions, civic organizations, and food service providers concerned with protecting environmental quality, providing healthier and more sustainable food, treating animals humanely and improving the lives of agricultural workers. The Project focuses on "the most central activity to our economy and environment, both domestic and international," since "more than 1.3 billion people work 28 percent of the earth's land to grow food. In the United States, nearly a quarter of all workers are engaged in the food industry."

According to ALEPH Executive Director Debra Kolodny, "Twenty five years ago, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi coined the concept of eco-kashrut. In doing so he informed a generation about evaluating food and food production from a spiritual perspective for its healthfulness, its environmental impact, and its treatment of animals and workers."

"The Sacred Foods Project takes this idea and expands it to all faith traditions. It says that as people of faith we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the earth. We must make sure that the way we grow and distribute food honors the land, the water, the air, our bodies and our souls. This Project will inform, inspire and enable leaders in faith-based communities to infuse our society with a better approach to food, focusing on the realms of sustainable and organic agriculture, sound treatment of animals and honorable treatment of workers in food production. We believe that faith-based recommendations rooted in morality and social justice and informed by scientific and political realities will influence policy makers, religious institutions and people of faith, thereby permanently changing our food system for the better," said Ms. Kolodny.

In its first year, the Sacred Foods project published a paper that integrated theology, scripture and religiously based analysis from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths to provide a faith-based foundation for fostering a healthful and sustainable agriculture system. Edited by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the paper was used as the foundation for discussion at the project's first conference in June 2006. Participants discussed how the principles identified as the core of Sacred Food could be used to educate and activate religious institutions (seminaries, colleges, denominational organizations, etc.) congregational leadership (clergy and other professionally trained educators and spiritual leaders as well as lay leaders) and congregants (those in the pews) about issues like secular food certification standards and purchasing policy options as well as choosing food more consciously for religious celebrations and holy days.

Quoting from the paper's introduction:

"The paper reviews the teachings of the three Abrahamic traditions in regard to the sacredness of food. It covers a wide spectrum of issues, organized by eight dimensions  through which sacredness can be defined. In each of the eight dimensions, we draw for now on four sets of sources from the classic texts of the three traditions:

One of these is the Hebrew Bible, which defined the life of Biblical Israel but then, beginning about two thousand years ago, came to have a broader religious significance than simply a text of the Jewish people or Jewish religious thought. It was radically  reinterpreted and kept as sacred canon by Rabbinic Judaism. It was radically reinterpreted and kept as sacred canon by Christianity. And it played an important role in the cultural and to some extent the religious background of the community in which the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, experienced the revelation of the Qur'an and lived the life described in the Sunnah (life example of prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). We draw on it, therefore, not as the text of any single tradition but as an important pointer toward the ideas about sacred food that appear in all three Abrahamic traditions.

The other three classic texts of the three traditions are the Talmud and other rabbinic writings, which began about two thousand years ago to define a new version of Jewish life—Rabbinic Judaism; the Christian Scriptures or New Testament, which have defined Christianity; the Qur'an and Sunnah, which have defined Islam. As this paper evolves, we may include also later teachings from the three Abrahamic traditions.

Preface: The Web of Life. We celebrate God's creation of a self-sustaining web of life in which plants, animals, land, water, air, and human beings are interwoven. There are many relationships in this web that can heal or damage the web itself. Among these, food production is one of the more significant forces. So we must choose ways of producing food that protect and heal the web of life.

Dimension 1. Growing Food in Ways that Protect and Heal the Web of Life. Food production, as one of the most significant forces in the natural world, affects the delicate balance of plants, animals, human beings, land, water and air—interdependent in seeking sustenance and survival. Farming and grazing together occupy one quarter of the world's lands are the leading cause of deforestation and loss of natural lands. In order to maintain this balance for future generations, we human beings must choose to produce our food in ways that protect the web of life, preserve the living spaces that other life-forms need, and learn to use methods that return vibrant health to our soil and water.

Dimension 2. Humane Treatment of Animals. All our traditions agree that animals must be treated humanely and their suffering minimized.

Dimension 3. Protecting the Integrity and Diversity of Life. The ways in which we produce food must respect the integrity and diversity of the world's plants and animals, as well as taking active steps to prevent the extinction of animal species and plant varieties which produce seeds which can be saved.

Dimension 4. No One Should Go Hungry. All our traditions share a strong commitment that no one should go hungry at the end of the day. This applies especially to the poor and times of famine. Everyone should have access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally customary food. Each local community and the worldwide human community acting in concert share the responsibility for ending hunger and famine.

Dimension 5. Fairness Toward and Empowerment of Workers. All our traditions agree that workers must be treated fairly, justly and humanely. One out of every six people works to provide the food we eat—in the fields and in food transport, in restaurants and food preparation, and in food stores. We affirm their right to decent incomes, working conditions, and to organize themselves.

Dimension 6. Responsible and Ethical Forms of Business. All our traditions require that we act honestly, fairly, to the benefit of others, and in accordance with the ethical teachings of our faith traditions when dealing with customers, employees, partners, and the communities in which we conduct business. These relationships must be accessible to public scrutiny and accountability.

Dimension 7. Food as an Aspect of Spirituality. All our traditions affirm that food is an element in spiritual celebration and experience. Whenever we eat, we consciously affirm that eating is a sacred spiritual practice which celebrates the delicate interplay of plants, animals and people, land, air, and water that makes this possible and we commit ourselves again to maintaining this creation.

Dimension 8. Reflection on our Actions and Impact. The rhythm of Action and Reflection, renewed Action and renewed Reflection, is encouraged in our traditions in such forms as Sabbaths, Ramadan, and Lent, as well as other holidays when we refrain from our daily work and reflect on our roles in the web of life. Meaningful observance of these occasions can be expanded to include reflection on and assessment of the impact of human activity on the integrity of the web of life. It seems desirable to apply this rhythm in making decisions about food. For example, there could be requirements that new departures in providing food be reviewed in the way "environmental impact assessments" operate—with "social impact assessments" also required. Some version of what is called the "precautionary principle" (analogous to the medical code, "First do not harm") could be taken into account, so long as this does not prevent all development of new technology or new social arrangements.

Coda: A New Era of Religious Life?  This Sacred Foods enterprise itself—because it is both interfaith, and inter-secular/faith—signals something of a new era in religious life. At that level and in many other arenas, Modernity is having a major impact on the self-understanding of the religious traditions. Indeed, Modernity is affecting both technology and social structures in ways that may require us to rethink some of the teachings of the past. Major changes in previous religious wisdoms have often accompanied major social and technological upheavals (as in the impact of Roman/Hellenistic civilization in opening hearts and minds to the new revelations of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity about two thousand years ago, and the new revelations of Islam 1400 years ago). So we will need to keep that factor in mind as we draw on the religious and spiritual teachings of the past, seeking to distinguish eternal wisdom from temporally conditioned history."

Two areas of ongoing activity for the Sacred Foods Project are (1) Congregational Engagement, and (2) standards and certification.

The Congregational Engagement committee will work to improve the food literacy of congregations of all faith traditions. It will develop and help disseminate a set of educational materials that help inform congregations. These materials will build upon the work of several faith traditions and will cover (a) the current state of food and agriculture, (b) teachings of various faith traditions on food and agriculture, (c) good practices that congregations can adopt with respect to food and agriculture, and (d) the future of food and agriculture.

The Sacred Foods Project standards and certification committee is charged with working to help faith communities understand how contemporary certification standards address concerns about social justice, sustainability, and animal welfare.

From Earth Ethics: Evolving Values for an Earth Community, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2006.

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