Food should nourish, not define, us (commentary)

Published on: July 30, 2013

WHAT'S the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the term activist? It denotes someone who embraces activism, of course. The label seems to have become increasingly common in our society, though, and now has a number of connotations.

That leaves us with lots of ambiguity. After all, what does it really mean in terms of application?

Given that unanswered question and the modern era of search engines, let's turn to the web for some answers.

Wikipedia provides the following description:

"Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic or environmental change or stasis. Activism can take a wide range of forms, from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, political campaigning, economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins and hunger strikes."

Assuming that's a relatively accurate description, let's turn our attention to the food industry.

For whatever reason, food activists never seem to champion the "stasis" aspect described above. Rather, it's always about changing the food system due to a whole host of issues.

Food activists can typically be characterized as pushing back against conventional, mainstream agricultural production practices.

Sometimes, that's appropriate. Other times, though, activism represents nothing more than pushing for change simply for change's sake (without really understanding the inherent complexities of the food system).

When that occurs, we'll typically hear about how food has become "too industrialized" and/or exceedingly controlled by "corporate interests." Those labels don't really convey anything very substantive.

I was reminded of that general activist mindset after writing a recent column. Some reader feedback suggested that perhaps I had overreached in a discussion regarding vegans and vegetarians. Therefore, to obtain a broader perspective, it was recommended that I research Vegan Outreach.

There, you'll find the call for change front and center.

After all, the group's self-description reads: "Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the suffering of farmed animals by promoting informed, ethical eating."

That's not surprising, but what does that actually mean?

The implication is straightforward: A vegan lifestyle is the only means by which one can advance his/her concerns about animal welfare. However, that mindset is too narrow and overlooks the wide-ranging, deliberate efforts that emphasize animal care within the current system.

For example, consider industry-driven quality assurance programs, humanely raised and handled source verification, the Global Animal Partnership and the Certified Humane program.

More importantly, there's an even bigger principle at work here, and the key is the use of the word "ethical." That's a highly presumptuous foundation.

With that in mind, I've decided to establish my own activist organization called FoodReason.

FoodReason is an inclusive 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to promoting common sense with respect to food, including production, manufacturing and merchandising.

The group has high regard for a balanced approach with respect to people, animals and natural resources. Priorities include eliminating unnecessary suffering of hungry people while emphasizing food production methods that are harmonious with both animal welfare and environmental health.

FoodReason promotes sound, safe, efficient and economical food production systems while encouraging active lifestyles and healthy eating choices.

We are what we eat. However, we're probably all guilty of taking that too far at times, letting food become intertwined with our identity (at both ends of the spectrum).

When it comes to addressing the food system, the best approach is one that emphasizes balance, reason and objectivity. I admit, that's not very exhilarating or cutting edge and sure won't support most activist-minded agendas, but then again, food is meant to nourish us, not define us.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:31

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  1. Luca (Italian for Luke) says:

    I think I agree, but I also think that trying to change people's behaviour about food is a sort of lobbyism because any change can affect the commodity market. Ethics is often an abused word: it is linked to the man; for this reason it can change a little in accordance with the particular human group everyone takes part. Frequently the law of a certain nation contains the most important ethic rules of the leading group of people ruling that state. If I go to India I think a lot of people could prefer Vegan ethic rules and, as a host, I will try not to offend their religious sensitivity. The same I would do in Arab countries about pork meat, or about horse beef in England, Australia and other countries not eating horses. Anyway there is no reason to push other Country's habits, although it is inevitable that some lobby could make it in the name of the market, the environment, the religion and so on. I could be an activist engaging myself in battles to improve everyone's life, but I'm not going to defend the interests of a lobby, if they don't match the people's interests.

    • Luca (Italian for Luke) says:

      I'm sorry, where I wrote lobbysm, I meant 'lobbying' ;)