We are what we eat and the relationship with establish with it and through it with places, peoples and beings.
Unfortunately that relationship has been broken; one of our responsibilities as permaculturists and/or social justice and environmental workers is to rebuild that relationship and help others to do the same.
Starhawk, a well known permaculture teacher and activist makes a case for us to transition to locally grown, seasonal and organic food. She also explains why she eats meat (and dairy). While her arguments for this last case are credible, they are not fully convincing to me. In order to continue eating meat and dairy products in an ethical and acceptable way, we should all have access to ethically raised and grown food or the skills, means and permits to grow, hunt or fish, which is not the case. The case is that for most of us, even those living in privileged countries such as Canada and US or some countries of the EU, we have no idea and no control over where our food comes from. In other countries, most people have no means to access meat, dairy or vegetables; let aside healthy and or ethical food!
However, her case about trying our best wherever we are and with what we have is credible. When speaking about how our relationship with food has changed she says:
“To eat, then, was not just to take in a set of chemical nutrients. It was to be in profound relationship with a place – with the energies, elements, climate, and life community of that spot on the earth – to ingest the place and become it.”
“Everything you ate would also be something you had a relationship with, that you have yourself grown and tended, gathered or hunted. All those activities would be sacred – that is, highly valued and marked by ritual and prayer and ceremony, by offering gratitude and respect for the life-forms you were culling. All food would be harvested, hunted and prepared by people who were consciously putting themselves into a thankful and loving energetic state, and the food itself would carry that energy.”
“Today, few of us have that kind of relationship with place. The food we eat has often been transported halfway across the world. It may have been grown and picked and processed by people who were exploited and suffering. It may have been doused with poisons, grown in dead and devitalized soil, irradiated. If it is factory-farmed meat, we are eating confinement and torture with every mouthful.”
We have the chance to make an statement (and, if done by enough people, making a difference) by the choices we make when we eat. Some of us may be able to do more than others, but doing our best we may even be helping those who have few choices now: because one of the reasons other peoples in the world don’t have access to food is because our insatiable habits have supported systems, wars, corporations and land grabs that have depleted and/or polluted their lands, soils and watersheds, stolen their crops, small farms and livelihoods and exchanged them for cheap labour in the slums of mega cities.
- In my case, I have other reasons for choosing to transition to veganism and they are all related to the three Permaculture Ethics (Care for the Earth, Care for the People and Care for the Future/ Return of surplus to Earth and people (also called “Fair Share”):
- I do not want to support systems that treat animals as a commodity and make them live miserable lives. However, most of these animals evolved with us and in a way, thanks to us, so if we suddenly stop raising and eating them, they would eventually become extinct as they can’t survive in nature. What is the solution? Going small and reclaiming this relationship with the animals…in the meantime and while this happens (or not), I rather not participate in factory-farmed meat and dairy.
- The raising of animals in big farms and facilities is detrimental to the environment: animals consume water and land not only directly but indirectly through the grains and grasses grown to feed them. Some of the consequences include deforestation, soil and water depletion and contamination. Animals raised under managed systems (such as holistic management) are said to repair the land but are controversial and not based in enough transferable evidence. Animals raised in small family farms who understand the concept of closing the cycle and maintaining the balance are different, but unfortunately not the norm.
- Many food is advertised as “organic” and “natural” when this has nothing to do with real organically grown food. This is true also with raising animals as “free range”, “grass fed” and similar “feel-like” names: these animals may still be confined, grossly fed and mistreated. They still consume water, land, grains and they still pollute. Unless we personally know the farms and the farmers, we really don’t know what we are eating.
- I have issues with both my health and weight. While becoming vegan may not solve these problems (and in some areas such as my ongoing severe anaemia may even present a challenge), I have read enough evidence to convince me that it may be worth a try. After all, the consumption of meat and dairy products have a direct relation with certain chronic and “life-style” diseases such as diabetes, angina and heart attack among others.
- Eating more as a vegan or vegetarian is also presented as one of the solutions to the problem of hunger in the world: eating meat and dairy products has been correlated to increase in GDP: the more wealthy people are, the more meat and dairy they want to eat. While poverty is more a social problem (that involves how and where food is produced and distributed, as food is treated as a commodity and not a right of all peoples), it is also well known that lands currently used to grow grains for cattle could be producing grains and other crops for humans.
I know being vegan won’t solve the many issues we have, not even if all of us suddenly give up meat and dairy. But it is an option I can afford and try and one that I find ethical and close to my heart.
I have less than 10 days as vegan right now and it has been a challenge for many reasons:
- It is a learning curve to understand, find and prepare all the substitutions: it was easier to make a cheese sandwich!
- I realize how little I used to think about food before: even for someone like me, who runs food sovereignty workshops, it brings new questions and challenges about even the most little choices I make. Example: I teach how to make cheese and I love the process, how do I solve the contradiction? I am learning to make vegan cheeses!
- Travelling and commuting for work are a challenge: if you go camping or even to a cabin, hostel or apartment, you need to bring more stuff as vegetables and fruits usually occupy more space. Grains and legumes need to be cooked (unless you eat canned ones, which I try to avoid) and they take longer. Nuts and some vegetables and fruits are really expensive too. While part of the solution may be learning foraging, it is not enough to feed us…
- I’m always starving…
- Introducing more fibre is a challenge: you need to drink more water and increase quantities slowly in order to not to clog the system (the opposite we are looking forward to).
- I need to explain things to friends and colleagues that offer me food or invite me for meals and I feel I’m inconveniencing them.
- Nobody else in my family is vegan, vegetarian or interested in trying. This is an ongoing struggle that goes beyond the food we eat and a source of constant soul searching for me.
In the next posts, I will be sharing some tips you can adopt no matter where you are or what your circumstances to increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and legumes as well as some recipes to try new things…
Resources and references:
The Earth Path by Starhawk: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/84243.The_Earth_Path
Veganism and Permaculture by Maddy Harland: https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/veganism-and-permaculture