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How Much Should I Care About Ethical Food?

How Much Should I Care About Ethical Food?

[Editor’s note: To participate in our weekly advice column, submit your questions here and watch this space each Wednesday.]

I’ve been reading a lot lately about eating ethically, and I’ve been trying to be more conscious about it, but sometimes it just feels like a losing battle. I feel like I often just don’t have the time, energy or budget to make sure I know where my food is coming from. I feel kind of guilty when I don’t put forth the effort, but in some ways, I’m tempted to just give up on the whole idea and go back to not worrying so much about it. So my question is: how should I handle this? Is eating ethically really that big of a deal? 

– Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

Twenty years ago, preference and cost guided my grocery shopping. Provided an item was in my price range and I liked it, I bought it. I had little concern or awareness about the hidden cost of cheap or the American food industry’s unscrupulous practices.

That all changed when I became a mother. Suddenly, I found myself scanning ingredient lists for potentially harmful additives such as aspartame, BHA and red dye #3; learning how organic farming (or alternatively, IPM) benefits the earth as well as my health; and forging a relationship with a local farmer by joining a CSA.

Then I read Temple Grandin’s work about the deeply disturbing commercial meat industry, and we started buying grass-fed beef whenever possible. More recently, the growing evidence regarding child labor in the chocolate industry has me searching the aisles for fair trade candy.

Conviction is not cheap, which raises the question—is ethical eating worth the extra time, energy and money?

For the past 50 years, the large corporations that produce much of America’s food—such as Tyson and ConAgra Foods—have seemingly valued profit above everything else. As Michael Pollan wrote in an article for The Nation, “Continuing to eat in a way that undermines health, soil, energy resources and social justice cannot be sustained without eventually leading to a breakdown.”

If we want to help prevent that breakdown and ensure that all people across the globe have access to healthy food, we will need to make sacrificial choices.

Here’s the path I followed to answer that question.

Search Scripture to Discern What God Has to Say

Some of what you read might feel contradictory. For example, I have a few friends who became vegetarians based on Genesis 1:29. They feel convinced this clearly states God’s preference for a plant-based diet. Others believe Romans 14:14 gives us permission to consume any type of food.

Regardless of your eating preferences, it’s impossible to overlook our God-given assignment to govern and reign over the earth (Genesis 1:28). Unfortunately, mankind has often misinterpreted that to mean subjugate and take advantage of rather than protect and nurture. You might not find any simple answers, but you will discover that God weighs in on the issues of stewardship, caring for the poor and eating—all of which are connected. As you read, ask the Lord to direct you.

Educate Yourself

Choose one topic connected to ethical eating and read a book, watch a documentary or talk with someone who knows more than you. Knowledge brings conviction. Ignorance breeds complacency. Whether it’s animal welfare, child slave labor in the food industry or the long-term impact of pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture, there’s a wealth of information out there.

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet are excellent starting points.

Avoid Extremes

By this, I mean either ignoring the issue or becoming so militant that you will never be able to eat dinner with friends unless you bring your own locally grown, non-GMO kale salad.

While I am deeply grieved that capitalistic excesses have wormed their way into the food chain, I am also grieved when our convictions become barriers to relationship.

Scripture reveals the importance of joining together around the table. We show respect for one another when we willingly break bread with those who might not agree with our choice to consume or abstain from certain foods. I think that’s what Paul was trying to communicate when he wrote, “But if someone believes [eating certain foods] is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it” (Romans 14:14-15).

Try to Discern Whether You Are Being Nudged By God or Bullied By Guilt

Guilt breeds more guilt, shame and often resentment. God’s conviction brings freedom, purposefulness and a deeper connection to Him. That’s true even if what He’s calling you to do is difficult and counter-cultural.

Allow Your Convictions to Evolve

If you sense that God is leading you into new territory, take sustainable steps and see where that leads.

My deepest convictions have developed gradually after unremarkable beginnings. My family joined our first CSA simply because I wanted fresh produce without having to drive across the city. I had no idea that by making this choice, I would become emotionally and spiritually invested in their farm’s success. (I regularly pray for rain and late frosts.) We’ve now been CSA members for more than 20 years. Not only am I lowering my carbon footprint, I’m contributing to the local economy and supporting an actual family.

Find the Grace-Conviction Sweet Spot

We’re limited people. Despite the reality that I’m passionately opposed to the mistreatment of animals that is so prevalent in the food industry, there’s only so much I can accomplish with my finite energy and resources. That does not mean I shrug my shoulders and apathetically submit to a broken system. It means I choose those specific areas that matter most to me, do what I am able and I give myself—and others—much grace.

I’m grateful that you’re asking this question. In my experience, changing how we eat is no small thing. If God is calling you to do this, He will resource you. Blessings on your journey.

Have a question? Good! Send an email to [email protected]. All identifying information will be kept anonymous.

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