Jenkins Lectures on the Ethics of Food, Alternative Food Movements

Willis Jenkins, professor of religion, ethics, and environment at the University of Virginia and co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics, gave a lecture on Thursday evening entitled “The Ethics of Food and the Health of the Planet” as part of the Park Street Corporation Speaker Series. Jenkins emphasized that he was not proposing a solution in his talk, rather, exploring the potential alternative food movements have of easing cultural and social tensions while alleviating historical grievances.

Jenkins began his talk by pointing out the deep link food has with a person’s identity, specifically citing movements such as Eco-Kosher, Eco-Halal, and the Christian Vegetarian Association, which all advocate for more environmentally conscious and friendly religious food rules.

Jenkins’s decision to use religion as the scope from which to examine what can be done stems from its major role in forming our identities as human beings. He noted that revising food rules—which movements such as Eco-Kosher and Eco-Halal aim to do—can lead to religio-cultural tensions, stemming from a fundamental change in identity.

“Insofar as religious food ways produce a particular identity, revising them can call into question the logic that connects the religious body to its symbolic worth,” Jenkins explained. “If rationale of eating halal is that some foods are permissible and others are forbidden, and not because halal is more hygienic or humane or healthier, then an Eco-Halal can seem even disobedient with its excess in dietary piety, adding new stipulations not found in the Qur’an … and it is regarded that way sometimes.”

Broadening his example, Jenkins observed that our identities are formed in large part by our actions, especially by perpetual, daily actions such as eating. Thus, while rethinking and reforming our identity may not be an ideal prospect, he believes it to be critical not only for the planet’s health, but also for personal health.

Current agricultural practices hurt the planet by draining it of nutrients and resources while disrupting the balance of chemicals in the atmosphere. Jenkins noted that agriculture accounts for twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, explaining that through it, a species that represents 0.5 percent of Earth’s biomass captures 25 percent of the planet’s primary production.

Despite the amount of Earth’s energy and potential for producing food, Jenkins noted that humanity still struggles to feed the entire human population, creating a food system that is inefficient and unsustainable for an ever-growing population. Jenkins further argued that the conventional daily food demand in developed countries is wasteful, contributing to this problem.

“Daily food demand in the wealthiest countries—mostly because of the demand for animal-based foods—requires producing around 8,000 calories of food to deliver 3,500 to each person, of which 25 percent is wasted,” Jenkins said. “But that seems to be the diet people want, for as incomes rise, humans everywhere are demanding more meat and more disposable products with empty calories.”

To combat this, Jenkins reiterated the potential of prominent alternative food movements such as veganism. He said that they are driving to manifest two important changes Jenkins deems would help our food system protect the planet.

First, Jenkins sees a capacity for major improvement by rethinking agriculture. He pointed out that environmental activists must focus not just on protecting the environment, but also producing food. Rather than cut down on agriculture, activists need to promote an agricultural model protective of ecosystems.

Second, humans must change their diets to ones that are friendlier to the environment. Jenkins suggested eating less red meat and turning instead to nuts, fish, beans, and poultry. In doing so, people can not only lessen the damage they do to the environment, but also eat healthier. Jenkins pointed to Mediterranean, pescatarian, and vegetarian diets as evidence for this.

“If these [three diets] were globally adopted, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third to one-half,” Jenkins said. “That direction … would cancel out the food demand caused by population growth, leading to net zero growth in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.”

Despite the potential of various alternative food movements, Jenkins admits that problems remain. Accessibility to this healthier food is limited due to government subsidies on unhealthy food and “cycles of systematic impoverishment,” raising questions as to whether alternative food movements such as veganism and fair trade are hence elitist by default. He further noted that many organic, alternative food models are being bought up by industrial companies—Amazon buying Whole Foods being one such example.

However, one thing remains clear for Jenkins: Encouraging a reassessment of our identity and our relationship with everything around us—food, agriculture, the environment—holds the most potential for bringing about the desired changes, whether it be through a movement or by individual action.

“Precisely because food is so basic and everyday, food ways offer an arena in which to enact agency,” Jenkins argued. “The ability to act meaningfully seems undermined by global structures—food choices remain a site of relative freedom. It’s hard—almost impossible—to escape the fossil energy, but ordinary persons may come to sense and choose an opportunity between … systems of sustenance, which is why I thought all those [food movements]—paleo, free trade, etc.—are … important: because they’re offering choices between industrial habit and some other alternative.”

Featured Image by Steven Everett / Heights Editor