Occupy the food system: a sermon

I thought I had exhausted just about every angle on my “occupy” message in previous posts when I was invited to give a sermon at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, MA.  My students often accuse me of being a bit preachy, and here was an opportunity to “preach the good news about local food and farming from a church pulpit”.  I couldn’t pass it up!

So here it is (or at least an abbreviated version of the sermon)…


We live in a world that is profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable.  Food is grown, packaged, processed and distributed in a way that plays a role in global climate change, is dependent on non-renewable energy sources, and contributes to social inequality.   For me, buying local is a means of uncoupling my household from an inherently unjust global food economy.  A recent  Huffington Post article states:  

“…the rules and institutions governing our food system — Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA — all favor the global monopolies controlling the world’s seeds, food processing, distribution and retail.” 

Industrial agriculture exploits people, undermines democracy, erodes community, and degrades the land and water to maximize profit.  We can do better.  It is unlikely either government or corporate leaders will cry out against a system that maximizes short term profit but ignores long term ecological and social degradation.  Government officials run for election every 2, 4 or 6 years and corporate leaders must show increased profit every 3 months to be successful!

Government & corporate leaders can’t think in the long term

Only average citizens can make decisions that consider the 7th generation.  We must all be leaders.   We must “start a parade.”  When we are all marching in a more sustainable direction, government and corporate leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

A leading international voice for food justice, la Via Campesina, represents peasants, indigenous peoples and family farmers.  They have claimed that well-managed small farms can feed the world while reducing carbon emissions using principles of agricultural ecology.  Many new small, family farmers in the U.S. are working to partner with Mother Nature rather than trying to dominate her.

Corporate agriculture is in the business of maximizing short term profit by manipulating the environment with fertilizers, pesticides, land levelers, mechanization, and irrigation.  The result of these efforts to control Mother Nature is environmental degradation and an unsustainable dependency on non-renewable resources.

Domination of Mother Nature is not “natural”

About 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia something shifted in the human psyche, as people who had formally lived in partnership with Mother Nature as hunter/gatherers, learned to intervene into the management of complex ecosystems and began to manipulate the environment –  to serve our own short-term benefit.

We called it an agricultural revolution and we moved from a partnership relationship with the Earth Mother – to a domineering relationship.  We are the only species that fails to live “naturally” – that is in accordance with Mother Nature’s “rules” (or ecological principles).  Thomas Merton wrote that an oak tree gives glory to God simply by being an oak tree.  It can’t break Mother Nature’s rules.  Humans can and do on a regular basis.

We learn Mother Nature’s rules by observing what has worked for billions of years.   There are three “rules”:

  • Use current solar income
  • Cycle everything material
  • Support biological diversity

Humans can “act naturally” once again by learning to play by the rules!   And it matters little if you believe these rules were created by divine intervention or by an evolutionary process over the last 4.5 billion years.  These are the rules that work in the long-term!

Industrial agriculture produces lots of cheap food by violating these rules.  The global corporately controlled food system is not sustainable in the long run, but still presents significant short term economic competition to those small, local farms trying to do it right!  If we want to support a more sustainable agriculture, individually and collectively, we need to:

  • buy local food and grow our own,
  • create tax incentives for small farms committed to selling within their own community,
  • support changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution,”
  • make public investments in infrastructure to provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution, perhaps a local butcher, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press, and a flour mill, and
  • develop education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

All this is possible…. if we start the parade….

We all can eat better by eating local.  And in doing so we can support personal health, community health, and environmental health.  Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation. 

Rediscovering the sacred through growing or purchasing and preparing good food can be an act of healing.  Shopping in a supermarket with its artificial lighting and hurried atmosphere is not a sacred act.  We seek and receive bargains, hurry home to microwave a pre-prepared package  (or perhaps stop for ‘fast-food’ on the way) and thoughtlessly shovel too much food into our hungry bellies (maybe while watching television).

Perhaps we can experience a connection with the divine……..

  •             by collecting an egg from under a hen you have raised yourself…
  •             by pouring maple syrup on pancakes from a tree tapped by a neighbor…
  •             by knowing the baker of the bread (or better yet, baking it yourself)…
  •             by  shaking the hand of the farmer who dug the carrots you bought…
  •             by saying thank you for the gifts of creation; the fruit, the vegetables, the meat, the eggs, the bread and the wine…..

I believe there is value in rediscovering ways to connect with the sacred by growing our own food,  buying real food from people we know and trust, and sharing food with family and friends in a communion of the spirit

Barbara Kingsolver’s wrote in her lovely little book, Small Wonder, that people will join the sustainability movement (including supporting local farms) because;

 “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”



I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

6 thoughts on “Occupy the food system: a sermon”

  1. Most of the farms in the US are owned by farmers. Though in a way we might now say that the farmers are somewhat owned by the misguided rest of the food system. The base of the knowledge generated to teach farmers and develop food systems for the past 150 years has been generated by our public Land Grant colleges. They have been supported and entrusted to work for public good. Whether things were done with industries that were knowingly not in the public's best interests…well… who let that happen? I don't see the problem as being that the system has been taken over by a mass of evil farmers or evil people in the rest of the food system. Over my many years of traveling the country and meeting many farmers they for the most part had good intentions of feeding people. And their love for their farms was strong. And I would go as far as say that their love for Mother Nature was also strong.

    So how did we end up in the mess we're in. It started a very long time ago when we first put a tool into the land. We heard no cries we saw no death. When we put a tool into an animal for food the death was obvious. When we gathered plant life the balance of doing so was also obvious. We always understood that life and death above ground was a balancing act. We tried to be good stewards of life above ground. We became the feeders of this life in farming systems. It seemed quite natural as we see feeding going on above ground in nature everywhere. When we fed an animal it grew and when we fed a plant it also grew. No different than when we feed our children they grow. It all seemed rather simple yet also quite challenging being feeders. When it came to plants we had thoughts that roots were like open mouths just waiting to take in food. So we fed them. Over history we fed them both organically and inorganically. We did realize that life is fed by organics as well as inorganics so the feeding of both made some natural sense. But no matter how hard we tried to feed we've kept coming up short.

    So I go back to what happened when we put that tool in the ground now commonly known as a plow, shovel etc. We didn't understand that plants don't prefer us feeding them fast foods, organic or inorganic. We considered only life above ground, we've had little understanding of life below ground. It is really the life in the soil that we don't see or hear that is most important. Plants too prefer and are healthiest with real slow foods naturally produced in the soils. They even do best when soil organic matter or compost as we tend to call it is "local" produced naturally by root decay cycles and other natural processes.. This is where sustainability starts. Dig a teaspoon of healthy soil and leave it to die and you just killed as many as a billion tiny stewards of the earth and you are left with a teaspoon of dead dirt. Continue to do this and we end up with a dead earth no matter how much we continue our traditional feeding stewardship.
    praise soils! brothers and sisters
    Occupy your Land Grant, if you must
    I'm sure glad John occupies mine.

  2. Thank you from far away John!! Am reading, living, and carrying your inspirational message on a farm and permaculture center the mountains of Patagonia, Argentina!

  3. Amen John! I know I have certainly eaten better food (and danced more!) since I started living in sustainable communities. I also agree with you that it will be up to US – the global citizenry – to think 7 generations ahead as there are little incentives for government or corporations to do so. Thanks for sharing and sign me up for the parade!

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