First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


A sermon by Polly Walker, MD* for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on July 20, 2008

Choosing Our Food; Choosing the Future

Two goals of our Unitarian Principles are to respect the interdependent web of all existence and to seek justice for all –
Principle 6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Principle 7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
What does living according to these principles mean for how we live and how we eat when we know that the resources of the earth and its capacity to restore are finite?

Will we have the wisdom to survive? And if so, will it be just a few of us? Or will it be all of the human family? In today’s reading by Wendell Berry we are given a hopeful vision of a world to come if we only will stand like slow growing trees – renewing and enriching the soil.(1) It’s a future of clear rivers, new majestic forests, and people rooted in a specific local place of abundance and health. This image of slow growing trees is important.

We humans are always looking for a quick fix. But it is hubris to think we can know for sure the consequences of our actions. The first hymn written eight centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi calls on “all with understanding heart take your part” and “to worship God in humbleness.” (2)

The idea of humility is extremely important in thinking about the current state of the Earth and the effect we humans are having on it. Principle 7 calls for “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” – that means more than awe and appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the natural world. It also underscores the fact that humans are part of nature.

In his book, Life is a Miracle, Wendell Berry gives us a warning ---
If humans are “... not only in the environment but also of, and the relationship between creature and environment is mutually formative, and if this relationship is a process that cannot be stopped short of the creature’s death, then how can we get outside the relationship in order to predict with certainty the effects of our participation?

Religion begins with such questions. But even reason can see that they define the issues of propriety and scale. If we can’t know with final certainty what we are doing, then reason cautions us to be humble and patient, to keep the scale small, to be careful, to go slowly.(3)”
In thinking about how to live and eat so that we respect the web of all existence, it also is important to focus on entire human family – all are part of the web. The 6th Principle is a “goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” I believe issues of justice, equity and fairness are inextricably linked with the 7th Principle -- respect for the web of life. And both principles should inform our choices for how we use the world, how we produce our food, where we build our houses and cities and how we dispose of our waste.

So, how are we doing?
The huge growth in the number of people on the planet AND the amount we are all consuming are changing the Earth in ways not seen before. These changes have consequences to the land and sea, the major bio-geochemical cycles and to people far removed from us both geographically and in time.(4)
Are we being good stewards of the earth that we have borrowed from our children? And are we leaving a good earth for them?
Some facts scream injustice – to people far away from us and to future generations.
  • Environmental injustice is obvious when one learns that by eating their native diet of fish members of the Inuit Tribe in the Canadian Arctic are at increased risk for cancer because certain chemicals that we produce and use (such as DDT, PCB’s and others leapfrog through the air to the arctic and concentrate in the fish there.(5)
  • Or, consider the oceans. Many major ocean fisheries have collapsed due to over fishing. And somewhere out in the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and California is a giant whirlpool of plastic trash about twice the size of Texas. The sun will digest this into tiny particles no longer visible by us, but still eaten by fish and eventually by us.
  • Then there are rivers such as the Yellow River in China and the Colorado that never reach the sea! Because so much water is withdrawn for industry, agriculture and human consumption.(6)
  • And finally, global climate change threatens to dwarf all other problems we now face.

Human activities have altered the earth for millennia, but now things are worse because of the sheer number of people, the amount of consumption, and the scale of activities made possible by industrialization. We are not going slowly or being careful.

There are now over 6.7 billion people on earth -- almost three times the number in 1950 (2.5 billion). And the UN estimates a population of at least 9.2 billion people in 2050.

Can the earth support all these people? The answer is yes, maybe, but it depends. This wonderful blue and green world of ours that Bekah Greenwald extolled last week -- is limited. We don’t like the idea of limits. Anything is possible, we like to say! But the Earth has limits: Limits in its capacity to restore itself. And limited resources. The only thing that is virtually unlimited is energy from the sun and we have been very slow to realize the potential of that source for our very survival.

So, what can we do about this? How does this affect us?

Many are concerned with slowing world population growth and that is important. But, it is not just a matter of the number of people living on earth, but also how much we consume and how many resources we use -- our footprint on the earth. We simply buy, use, keep, waste and throw away, too much stuff and energy and food. But not everyone consumes as much as we do. One baby born in the USA today will consume over its lifetime as much as 32 babies born in the subcontinent of India.(7)

And there is something wrong in a world where 1 billion people are hungry or malnourished while another 1 billion are obese or overweight --- especially since adequate food is in fact available. How can this be? The problem is that food is not equitably distributed. Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist and Nobel Prize winner, has calculated that there was more than enough food to feed the world’s people in 1990 and 1998.(8) Projections to 2025 show that there could be enough food to feed the 10 billion people who will be on earth then with two assumptions – that the agricultural production keeps pace with the population increase and that our diets are predominantly plant based.

Another way to think about these disparities is to consider the amount of grain needed to sustain a particular diet. A typical person in the US consumes 4 times as much grain as someone in India. This is because the US diet is very high in meat and it is very inefficient to grow grain first for animal feed and for humans to eat the meat. Even in Italy, grain consumption per person is only half that of the US.(9) As the elite worldwide achieve higher incomes, demand for meat increases and global meat production is expected to double between 2000 and 2050.(10) This is unsustainable.

Demand for animal feed crops also means less agricultural land for human food. For example, more than half the corn and 90% of soybeans grown in the US are used for animal feed, not human food. (And now to complicate things further, land is being used to produce corn for ethanol as well).

Wendell Berry, farmer and philosopher, states, "How we eat determines to a great degree how the world is used." (11) Our diets and the entire food system from seeds to our forks have changed drastically in the last 60 years. And those changes are having major effects on the environment.

Why should we care? We might argue that this does not have anything to do with us. Agriculture is done by farmers and regulated by government. But, I agree with Wendell Berry who says, “If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.”(12) And because of the social justice issues, the choices we make as eaters are ethical choices as well.

First – food is a human right. The right to adequate food is codified in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights(13) and another UN document states that this right is.” inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels...”(14)

But, we have created a food system that uses vast amounts of energy and water, transports food across thousands of miles, and has divorced the average person from the sources of that food. And this is a global food system that still leaves 1 billion without enough food in some countries despite the hugely successful harvests in others

How food is produced and whether the land is nurtured and cared for in the process is very important. The current industrial agriculture system developed over the last 50 years is not sustainable. It relies on large inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, water, and energy. And it is based on economies of scale, efficiency and profit at the expense of what are termed externalities –such soil degradation; pollution of air, soil and water; and loss of biodiversity, loss of small-scale farmers and farming communities- problems future generations will inherit from us.

One example is the loss of topsoil in the Midwest. It was almost 18 inches deep just 100 years ago – it is now 10 inches deep.(15) And it takes 100 years to build up one inch of topsoil. The current rate of soil loss is unsustainable.(16)

Who produces our food is equally important. It’s worth remembering that the average farmer gets only 20 cents out of every dollar we spend on food (eaten at home or out) and the other 80 cents goes for off-farm costs such as advertising, processing, and distribution.(17) Farm laborers usually immigrants may suffer from exposure to pesticides and exploitation. The symbol of the DelMarVa Poultry Justice Alliance in Maryland is a human hand with fingers outstretched to represent a chicken and the thumb is its head. This was chosen as a reminder of all the hands that work to produce our food – in the fields, in the slaughter houses and on the production lines.

And now with oil prices increasing, there is an even more dire need for better agricultural practices in addition to food aid for the immediate crisis. The challenge is to meet the food needs of current AND future generations. For this we need to protect the environment, preserve biodiversity and conserve finite resources. I have a friend who is walking from LA to Boston to highlight the importance of solar energy – he’s made it to Philadelphia and is heading north!

We can start by getting reconnected with our own sources of food and learn how, where and by whom it is produced. There is great hope in the tremendous new interest in all sorts of food and farming issues today– from organic food, to the Slow Food movement, to buying locally grown food and fair Trade Coffee. Individual actions can make a difference when added up over many consumers. I have a friend who is walking from Los Angeles to Boston to underscore our need to turn to solar energy.(18)

There are more gardens in cities, more young people becoming farmers, and more city people wanting to buy food from a farmer they know. These are great beginnings. We can know that our small individual steps DO add up as we join what Paul Hawken in his wonderful hopeful book calls the “Blessed Unrest” with the way things are.(19)

As Unitarians, we can add our voices to be sure that this is not just about the environment, as important as that is, but also about justice – for all those now living and for future generations. For not only is “eating an agricultural act”;(20) “Eating is (also) a moral act.”(21)

These are very serious issues that must be addressed if we are to care for those already on the earth and leave a planet that is livable for those who will come after us. But change is never easy. I’ll end with a quote from a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

Calvin and Hobbes are riding along in their red wagon, careening through the woods:
Calvin: "It's true, Hobbes, ignorance is bliss!
Once you know things, you start seeing problems everywhere ...
... and once you see problems, you feel like you ought to try to fix them...
... and fixing problems always seems to require personal change ...
... and change means doing things that aren't fun!
I say phooey to that!"
Moving downhill, they begin to pick up speed.
Calvin (looking back at Hobbes): "But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like!
The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self- interest!"
Hobbes (looking concerned): "We're heading for that cliff!"
Calvin (hands over his eyes): "I don't want to know about it."
They fly off the cliff:
After crash landing,
Hobbes: "I'm not sure I can stand so much bliss."
Calvin: "Careful! We don't want to learn anything from this."

(1) Berry, Wendell. 1977. A Vision: The Wisdom to Survive. Clearing Available: [accessed 17 July, 2008] and also, Also, Responsive Reading 465.

(2) Hymn 203: All Creatures of the Earth and Sky. Words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, 12th Century.

(3) Berry, Wendell. 2000. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Counterpoint, Washington, D.C. P. 151.

(4) Text adapted from: Lubchenco, Jane. 1998. Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science 279 (5350):491-497. Available: [Accessed 18 July 2008]

(5) Dewailly, Eric. 2006. Case Study: Canadian Inuit and the Arctic Dilemma. Oceanography 19 (2):88-89. Available: [Accessed 17 July 2008]

(6 Oakes, . 2008. Pacific Trash Vortex Could Signify Future of Our Oceans. Treehugger. Viewed on: Available: [Accessed: July 17, 2008]

(7) Diamond, Jared. 2008. Population versus Consumption: A conversation on Living on Earth. Available: [Accessed July 18, 2008]

(8) Borlaug, Norman. 2000. The Green Revolution Revisited and The Road Ahead, a Special 30th Anniversary Lecture (1970 Nobel Peace Prize), The Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo. P.9. Available: [accessed: July 17, 2008]

(9) Brown, Lester. 1995. Who Will Feed China. Norton/Worldwatch Books, New York, NY. Pp. 45 – 47.

(10) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2007. Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and option. Rome. P. xx.

Available: [accessed: March 4, 2007]

(11) Berry, Wendell. The Pleasures of Eating. What Are People For? Available: [accessed: July 16, 2008]

(12) Ibid

(13) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25. 10 December 1948. Availalble: [Accessed: July 16, 2008] “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, ...”

(14) UN Economic and Social Council, General Comment 12. May 12, 1999. Available: [accessed: July 16, 2008] “The Committee affirms that… the right to adequate food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfillment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. ... and is inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels, oriented …to the eradication of poverty and the fulfillment of all human rights for all.”

(15) Pate, Dennis and Johnson, Jason. 2008. May Rains Cause Severe Erosion in Iowa. USDA: Natural Resources Conservation Service. Available: [accessed: July 30, 2008]

(16) Committee on Conservation Needs and Opportunities, Board on Agriculture, National Research Council. 1986. Soil Conservation: Assessing the National Resources Inventory, Volume 1. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. p. 8. Available: [accessed: July 30, 2008]

(17) Nestle, Marion. 2002. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. p. 18 (from USDA) Also available: [Accessed: July 18, 2008]

(18) See: [Accessed: July 8. 2008]

(19) Hawken, Paul. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, London.

(20) Berry, op. cit. The Pleasures of Eating.

(21) Andrews, Brother Dave, Eating is a Moral Act: A Presentation at Iowa Food Policy Conference: "Creating Opportunities in Iowa's Food System," April 5, 2002, Des Moines, Iowa. Available: (National Catholic Rural Life Conference) [Accessed: July 16, 2008]

(22) This text was used by Jane Lubchenco with the following reference “B. Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 17 May 1992, distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.” From: Lubchenco, Jane. 1998. Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science 279 (5350): p. 497. Available: [Accessed 18 July 2008]

* Polly Walker, MD, MPH, is a Research Associate in Environmental Health Sciences and Associate Director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has been an environmental activist in Baltimore for many years.