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Food fundamentalism: is food the new religion?

Science becomes a less effective way to defend agricultural practices as food beliefs begin 
to border on ideology

It’s Thanksgiving, the time of year when Canadian farmers gather with family to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and then argue with urban relatives who believe that modern agriculture, with its genetically modified food and factory farms, is the embodiment of evil.

The debates over food production can go on for hours as rural and city members of the family defend their positions on pesticides or greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Producers will typically use science to explain the practices on their farm, but do facts around the benefits and sustainability of modern farming actually have an impact on their relatives?

Is cousin Rachel, a pescatarian from Vancouver Island, swayed by data showing that the beef industry emits only 3.6 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions?

Gillian McCann, associate professor of religious studies at Nipissing University in Ontario, said such scientific nuggets probably have little impact on people like cousin Rachel.

That’s because personal food preferences aren’t really a rational choice. They’re more like an ideology that’s bordering on a religion.

McCann and her co-author, Gitte Bechsgaard, founder of the Vidya Institute in Toronto, have written a book called The Sacred in Exile, What it Really Means to Lose Our Religion. It was released this fall.

In one part of the book, the two write about how food has become more important than church or religion for part of the population.

“With the decline in religious belief throughout much of the western world … the body and food are left to carry a tremendous amount of meaning,” McCann and Bechsgaard wrote.

“The tone of conversations around (things like) veganism … shows a marked similarity to other forms of ideological commitment rather than simply a food choice.”

McCann, in a news release promoting a 2015 humanities and social sciences conference, said food beliefs are similar to beliefs and practices that are commonplace in religion.

“Food is a way of creating community and boundaries and a way of saying, ‘we’re pure.’ Because you are virtuous, you can (describe) people who don’t participate in your movement as unclean.”

Put another way, people who eat organic or avoid genetically modified food are part of a group with common ethics. And the members of that group likely believe that their values are superior to people not in the group.

“There’s kind of hierarchy of ethical purity in the way that they understand food,” said McCann, who learned this first hand when she had a vegan roommate.

McCann was a vegetarian but that wasn’t nearly good enough for her roommate.

“He was judging me…. I had milk in the fridge and I could tell he didn’t want it in there.”

In the book, McCann and Bechsgaard write that this idea of ethical purity can lead to a “sort of food fundamentalism,” or fanatical values and beliefs around food.

The authors also refer to the idea that there are different “dietary faiths,” which could mean that organic food is one type of religion and veganism is a different sect.

If beliefs around food are like a religion for at least a portion of Canadians, it might explain why science isn’t a great way to defend agricultural practices.

For instance, beef producers routinely use growth promotants to increase the rate of gain for cattle, which adds a few nanograms of hormones to a hamburger or steak.

However, Canada’s beef industry doesn’t move the needle on public perception when it shares that information with consumers. The percentage of Canadians concerned about growth hormones in meat hasn’t changed since 2001.

“Telling (people) how many nanograms of hormones (are) in 100 grams of beef apparently isn’t working,” said Crystal Mackay, chief executive officer of Farm & Food Care Canada, which talks to the public about farm practices.

“Our ‘educating’ them with the facts is absolutely not working.”

If science cannot sway consumers because food beliefs are basically a religion, Canada’s agri-food industry may have to accept that the food market is now segmented into groups, similar to how Christianity is divided into Catholics, Baptists and evangelicals.

This means there will be people who avoid GM foods and others who will eat only organic because that specific group aligns with their personal food religion.

Deeply held beliefs around food may be here to stay.

“I can only see it expanding,” McCann said. “I’m with young people all the time. They’re very concerned with the ethics of how food is grown.… That’s just becoming more and more the (norm).”

If McCann is right, farmers may want to re-direct the Thanksgiving conversation to politics. That subject will probably be less controversial and much more enjoyable than food.

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