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6 Reasons Why Michael Pollan Buddhists and Their Vegetarian/Vegan Adversaries Fail at Food Ethics

My recent post here on race and Buddhism has been quite the hot potato. Now standing at 100 comments, the conversation is at turns rich, depressing, inspiring, and infuriating. Over the past week, the topic of food came up, specifically issues around access, food deserts, and intersections of class and race. For some reason, the first thing that came to my mind was the rural community in Western Pennsylvania where my father is from. The region has been decimated by over a century of coal mining projects, which also provided most of the meager livelihood for folks living there. The town itself has a single grocery store packed with processed crap and below average fruits and veggies shipped in from god knows where. Chronic illness is fairly commonplace, and odds are that most of the land is poisoned in some form or another. Places people used to go to hunt for wild berries or greens are now mounds of coal soot and chemicals. Desperate for cash, a lot of folks have opted to sell off the mineral rights to the little bit of land they own. It is, in many ways, the rural cousin to the urban food deserts that were brought up during the discussion mentioned above.

However, while it’s tempting to suggest that the food issues my father’s mostly white, rural community face are equivalent to those faced by predominantly black and/or brown communities, it just doesn’t hold up. For one thing, many of those rural food deserts are in Native American communities. Beyond that, the numbers of folks impacted in urban food deserts, with their majority people of color populations, are just so much greater than those in rural areas.

As such, I tend to find mainstream (read mostly white and middle/upper class) Buddhist discussions around food sorely lacking. Take up the first precept of not killing, for example, and you’re bound to hear debates between ardent vegetarians and Michael Pollan fanatics. The fifth precept of not taking intoxicants might lead to a discussion of eating disorders and/or issues like obesity, all of which tend to get framed in a highly individualized manner. Bring up something like food deserts, and folks will do things like applaud corporate beast Whole Foods for moving into poor African-American neighborhoods in cities like Chicago.

So much gets left off the table. I’d like to offer some of those forgotten/ignored pieces, and invite you all to add to the list and discuss these issues more.

1. I’m of the school that recognizes different body types, different cycles within one’s own body, and bodies situated within a specific geographical and social context – and thus doesn’t believe it’s possible to argue for a single diet for all people. In my opinion, it makes sense from a planetary standpoint to lean towards much less meat consumption, but it also is important to lean towards far less chemical usage on the veggies we eat, as well as a shift away from mono-cropping, giant single species ranches, and other abusive forms of food production. It’s also worth questioning the way obesity is framed primarily in terms of body fat.

2. When considering food deserts and/or lack of healthy food, it might be time reconsider things we often think of as norms. Things like grocery stores. Not eating “weeds” and wild berries. And even private ownership of rich, bountiful land. Projects like the Beacon Food Forest could be replicated and spread, and food foraging practices renormalized as ways not only to support folks in food deserts, but help change the entire culture around food regardless of where people live.

3. I’m all for “locally grown food,” but let’s get real about issues like corporate land and water poisoning, and how that severely limits healthy food access for millions of folks. The arsenic triangle in Minneapolis is just one example of a predominately lower income, urban community of color where things like backyard gardening are damned difficult because some company dumped their toxic waste and disappeared decades ago.

4. Privileged folks who feel bad about those living in food deserts and/or struggling with healthy food access might want to consider that the same folks probably have some excellent solutions in mind. Some of which might already be in place on a smaller scale. I sort of cringe when reading comments like this one, not because of the ideas, but the manner in which they’re being expressed. As if folks don’t know anything and need some lessons on shit they’re probably already doing. I’ve noticed that middle/upper class “charity” organizations have a tendency to take ideas learned from communities like their target ones, and repackage them as “teachings” to offer folks in a similar boat. Definitely good for keeping the savior complex alive, as well as the money coming into the “do good” organization.

5. The animal rights commentary of privileged vegetarian/vegan folks tends to include some mention of corporate food policies and practices, but is often divorced from things like life cycles, natural balances and rhythms, ecosystem patterns, and the like. A liberated society for all beings can’t be made from narratives that isolate one element of a much larger, more complex and interconnected web.

6. Along those lines, food is intensely tied to culture, family and community history.Many Native folks, for example, are having challenging discussions these days about the pros and cons of frybread. Any conversation about food and ethics worth its weight has to take those factors in mind.

Comments (10)

  • Belinda G

    For me the food conversation is a rich place of engagement with “not-knowing.” I say this as an upper-middle class white lady Buddhist radical who used to freak out about people eating meat at all (ah to be a 23 year old who knew everything…), who grew up hunting and fishing, who now subsists on small quantities of really pricey grass-fed beef from my fancy local grocery, who has no f’ing idea what a food desert really feels like, even though I lived in one for many years.

    The food conversation is the slightly hilarious, often more than slightly bitter and sad enterprise in which so many are of us are seeking right answers, seeking salvation, seeking righteousness, seeking solidity, seeking safety, and, if we’re honest, never finding it.

    “Not knowing is most intimate” is the old koan.

    How do with live with that intimacy while acting boldly and always persevering on behalf of true nurturance for all? How do we act boldly and in solidarity with the wildly divergent and visionary work of so many communities acting on their own behalf? How do we stop wasting our energy criticizing our sister and brother radicals’ wild divergence, but instead, support each other across the great food divides?

    The answer is, yes. And now I’m going elk hunting, because it’s getting to be that time of year in the Rocky Mountains. So shoot me!

  • Judith Lipton

    I want to support your nuanced positions. Although I am a white, educated North American, and tend to eat many vegetables and fruits, I live part time in Central America, where I have learned the normal diet in the village: beans and rice, three times a day. And fruit that falls off the trees. And a fish if somebody catches an extra. Meat if a car hits a cow and my friend gets to the carcass in a hurry. Chicken when a hen is too old to lay eggs. In other words, for about a dollar a day, we do just fine on beans and rice, but if a protein rich source falls in our lap, we eat it! I don’t feel at all conflicted about this. It does not interfere with the precept not to kill in that the deaths of these creatures are part of their own life cycle. I wish that North Americans and Europeans had the default richness of the beans and rice staple, that allows nearly everybody to eat well, cheaply, and for health. The people in my neighborhood are from Chorotega descent, and some of them are the oldest people in the world. How lucky we are, in Costa Rica, to be able to grab a coconut or fresh mango, or a fish from the sea, and eat very well.

  • J. Tyson Casey

    I think that these brief points resonate with a lot of eco/food justice conversations I have had in recent months, and align with the feelings/experiences/positions of individuals connected to this work.

    And, I found that the whole framing was coming from a deficit/negative place, which I find limits who I could share it with in order to engage in some authentic dialogue of differences. I even struggled with finding a quote in this piece that I could use as a tag-line that would be constructive and inviting to those individuals that might not have the same insights into such issues. There are a couple, but not every point has one. As such, I feel that the only people I can share this with as a tool for conversation are those individuals who likely already know these things and it is more like an affirmation than anything.

    Otherwise, it reads like a rebuttal to a conversation that I feel I missed (and quite possibly did, in which case you can ignore this).

  • nathan

    J. Tyson – a few responses on the framing issue. First off, if I offered an article with more “positive” framing, chances are, it would get about 1/3 the readers. The title is deliberately provocative to get folks who might be in either mainstream camp to take notice. To be honest, after several years of public writing online, I find that you really can’t get people to talk and hash out these difficult issues without a little added friction. Irritation under the skin if you will. It’s always a fine line between that and provoking unnecessary anger/divisions, but I’ll stand behind the effort in this post.

    Secondly, there were elements of this post that were responses to a discussion on another recent BPF post I wrote. I linked to that post and even to one of the comments in the middle of the discussion.

    Third, I don’t know what your paticular concerns are around feeling highly cautious about sharing this piece. But I do wonder if a lot of boils down to wanting sonething with “softer” or “more palatable” language. Which I can understand, but also think is counterproductive. In fact, I could have written this whole post in language like the title. But I didn’t.

    On the whole, the writing is similar in tone to much else I have written here in recent months.

  • nathan

    And you know, the issues in #4 – which has a much more rough tone than the other sections of the post – have been on my mind a lot lately. In a pissing me off kind of way. I tend to write without sharing too much of that energy, but sometimes you gotta go there. If it limits my piece, so be it.

  • bob

    “Privileged folks who feel bad about those living in food deserts” …you know, you really make a lot of prejudiced assumptions about people. “Officially” a food desert refers to a geographic area where stores do not participate in the wic program. The “this” post that made you cringe, I offered as an actual solution that many people could in fact do. “the manner in which they’re being expressed” is a projection of your own mind. I didn’t imply that “folks don’t know anything and need some lessons on shit they’re probably already doing.” but it is obvious that if there is a problem that is worth bringing up, it exists because it is not being dealt with, that the information is not being shared enough. So, evidently, there are a lot of folks who are NOT empowering themselves collectively. What makes me cringe is when people spend more energy whining about a problem than solving it, and the “manner” in which this whining is presented is as though it is an intellectually challenging, meaningful discussion. That’s the white liberal curse. It’s staring you right in the face.

  • bob

    …and I am in fact what most people would call a white liberal. So don’t peg me as a tea party nut simply because I look as logistical answers to what you may regard as political questions. Social change is hard work. Hell, gardening is hard work. But people get together and do it and they empower themselves, which is liberation. And, sometimes you get rich people to help. that doesn’t hurt. Feeling guilty about that is just an ego thing.

  • J. Tyson Casey

    Nathan, it’s not that I am cautious about sharing the piece in general – as I’ve already done so. It’s more about who I share it with, which in this case was with individuals that are already engaging these topics at the intersections (so to speak). I do not feel that this piece was intended for a (politically) wider audience, or written to foster dialogue amongst differences of belief, nor do I oppose such choice – as that is yours to make. I understand the “catchiness” of the title, however misleading it may be, and if the rest of the piece was done in such a sensationalist way, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading it.

    You are correct that I was hoping for something more palatable, although I would call it “more constructive.” I had hoped it would be something I could send to on-the-fence people of privilege (that you speak of in #4), as a means of engaging in authentic dialogue, knowing that my own past attempts at this have come from a critical perspective and been utterly ineffective (and usually just make the gap wider). In other words, I was looking for something inspiring to build upon, while at the same time highlighting the intersectional injustice of it all. This whole late-stage capitalist kyriarchy is falling, and there is certainly a benefit to expediting that fall, AND there is a need to simultaneously build something that is not based on domination and exploitation. It’s a both/and kinda thing I was looking for here (is “both/and” a buddhist concept?).

    I realize now that my hopes/expectations were not appropriate to this reality, which is totally fine, and that I know very little about online forums. :-)

  • nathan

    “I offered as an actual solution that many people could in fact do. “the manner in which they’re being expressed” is a projection of your own mind. I didn’t imply that “folks don’t know anything and need some lessons on shit they’re probably already doing.” but it is obvious that if there is a problem that is worth bringing up, it exists because it is not being dealt with, that the information is not being shared enough. So, evidently, there are a lot of folks who are NOT empowering themselves collectively. What makes me cringe is when people spend more energy whining about a problem than solving it, and the “manner” in which this whining is presented is as though it is an intellectually challenging, meaningful discussion.”

    Ok, Bob. I’m willing to admit I get stuck in assumptions sometimes. I’m working off of partial information like anyone else. And it’s not always easy to write perfectly clear about charged topics in a fairly small number of paragraphs without reducing complex things into soundbyte words like “privileged.” I felt the conversation on the other post unfolded issues of privilege, class, and race in a pretty dynamic, if also messy manner. That’s one of the values of having reader participation – even more nuances can be brought out than I or any one writer can bring out, even in a long article.

    The particular comment you made that I linked to could have been separated better from the following commentary. I apologize for that. In fact, I thought to do so precisely because I didn’t want to imply that you in particular were representing the entire list of problems I brought up later, but then started researching another point and forgot to go back.

    Here’s the thing though. You just now assumed that I “pegged” you as a tea party follower. You also assumed that I’m writing from a place of guilt here. You further suggest that I’m offering no solutions, when I link to two possible solutions in point number two. And you basically boiled my post down to “whining.”

    I would readily agree that this post was more critique than solution focused. That’s what I offered today. If you look at the list of posts I have done for BPF, there are plenty of attempts to offer something in the way of solutions. I see my work as a body, not a single post.

  • nathan

    J. Tyson

    “I had hoped it would be something I could send to on-the-fence people of privilege (that you speak of in #4), as a means of engaging in authentic dialogue, knowing that my own past attempts at this have come from a critical perspective and been utterly ineffective (and usually just make the gap wider). In other words, I was looking for something inspiring to build upon, while at the same time highlighting the intersectional injustice of it all. This whole late-stage capitalist kyriarchy is falling, and there is certainly a benefit to expediting that fall, AND there is a need to simultaneously build something that is not based on domination and exploitation. It’s a both/and kinda thing I was looking for here (is “both/and” a buddhist concept?).” I totally hear you on this. I’ve actually had a fair amount of failure in discussing these nuances with folks as well. It’s difficult to know what’s going to work. One of the things I have experienced is something that I’d label the gloss over effect. Basically, I or someone else would share some of these food ethics points that get missed in the form of a personal story, or through statistics, or in some other non-threatening manner, and those listening would nod, say something positive, even make some sort of comment that seemed like they’d “gotten it,” but then would go on to do or say things that made it clear they didn’t at all get it. I witnessed a lot of this during the food justice project I was involved with last year. http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/whealthy-human-villages/

    I have learned a few things that might be helpful, though, during that experience and others. In person, sometimes dialogue processes like NVC can be useful. I also think that any time you can offer stories about something where a person might be able to find a place for themselves within them, that goes a long way. But sometimes, that isn’t possible, or isn’t really what’s called for. Anyway, maybe I could pull together a post of ideas. It would be great if other folks shared ways they’ve dealt with bridging the divide on this post, in addition to other areas they feel are ignored by mainstream food ethics discussions.

    On the issue of audience – I tend to think about BPF readers, or potential readers, first when writing posts here. And in this case, I was also referencing a previous post, as well as the general tone/tenor of some of the conversations here in recent weeks. All of which makes this post less accessible to a wider audience, as you rightly point out. Unlike some of my other posts, this one was also a bit more “blog-like” in form. Not spending as much time unfolding each point in detail like an article or essay, and relying to some extent on previous writings, commenters, and the like.

    What’s interesting is that sometimes, this form choice isn’t terribly conscious. Sometimes, it just happens and then readers respond in certain ways and then I sit back and wonder if form was an issue. Occasionally, a reader like yourself gifts me with a clear sense about the form and how it’s working, but often I’m left to guess. I find all of that pretty interesting, but also I hope that this pose doesn’t get bogged down by questions about form and tone.

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