Food, Farming, and Religion

Emerging Ethical Perspectives

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Gretel Van Wieren
Routledge Environmental Humanities
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2018.
     142 pages.
     $42.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138557994.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Gretel Van Wieren begins her book Food, Farming and Religion: Emerging Ethical Perspectives, with the observation that “there is nothing new about the ethical consideration of food and eating” (1). Van Wieren quickly observes that longstanding attention to food does not indicate that all aspects of the topic were considered. In this slim volume, Van Wieren aspires to elucidate how religious communities in the United States, which she notes are part of a growing “food and faith movement,” are responding to the environmental issues of the industrial food system (2). Her attention to agriculture sets this book apart from others on religion and food. Van Wieren focuses on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim responses in particular and, in explaining her reasons for selecting the Abrahamic traditions, suggests that though there are books that cover the Abrahamic traditions, ethics, and the environment, those books did not dedicate sustained attention to agriculture and food and were not comparative projects in environmental ethics. 

Van Wieren describes her methodology as “grounded theory” and throughout the book she pairs analysis of formal religious responses to environmental issues with examples from the food and faith movement intended to reveal how these perspectives are being enacted on the ground (3). She divides her chapters thematically, beginning with a discussion on the history of the ecological crisis and the question of whether agriculture is itself an ethical project, then shifts into chapters on soil, plants, animals, water, and climate. She closes the book with a chapter titled “The New Sacred Farm” that illustrates how religious perspectives are being integrated into what she describes as “new forms of ecological spirituality” on religious farms (114). 

Van Wieren is remarkably thorough in offering concise histories of the difficulties produced by industrial agriculture in each of the thematic chapters. Each chapter begins with the historical context for a specific problem caused by the global food system, moves into an analysis of religious responses to the issue, then concludes with case studies from the food and faith movement demonstrating how those perspectives are enacted by religious people. In chapter 3, which is devoted to plants, she focuses her attention on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Van Wieren presents the background debate over GMOs citing the tension between concerns over human and ecological health, the need to feed a growing population, and seed patenting and intellectual property rights (49-52). In these sections, Van Wieren incorporates scholars from outside religious studies that specialize in each area covered. In chapter 3, she cites philosopher Peter Singer, environmental writer Jim Mason, policy analyst and scientist Vaclav Smil, and environmental writer and activist Vandana Shiva. She then offers religious perspectives from both sides, beginning with those that condone the use of GMOs and finishing with those that prohibit the use of GMOs. The sources in this chapter are varied and include religious studies scholars, rabbis, activists, and the pope. She closes the chapter with case studies: Dominican sisters in New Jersey and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Ontario saving heirloom seeds and advocating against GMOs, Jewish leaders ascribing meaning to planting seeds at Jewish programs in Detroit and San Diego, and a Christian farm in Michigan that offers seedlings and garden education. 

In the introduction, Van Wieren explains that she is working from “a Christian-Western philosophical and religious ethical base,” and that comes through despite her Abrahamic intentions (16). For example, she notes that Christianity receives more attention than either Judaism or Islam given there are more sources. This is correct, yet, as a scholar of the Jewish food movement—which she acknowledges is “arguably the most active in the United States,”—I noted there were certainly missed opportunities here to engage not only with sources of the movement, but also Jewish and general outside sources. Moreover, the aforementioned chapter on plants is the first instance Van Wieren significantly engages with Jewish and Muslim sources. Two fairly well-known Jewish food writers, Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, each appear only once in the text, yet this owes to the author’s use of their terminology, and their work is not directly engaged. Rabbi Arthur Waskow—who has been writing about Jewish environmental ethics and food for decades—is cited only through the work of another scholar, and his body of work, which inspired many in the Jewish food movement, is not discussed. Ellen Bernstein, who founded the first Jewish environmental organization in the United States, and edited Ecology & the Jewish Spirit, is not mentioned at all. Books by Jeremy Benstein, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, and Martin D. Yaffe all provide extended analysis of Jewish laws and traditions related to Jewish agriculture and environmental ethics but none of them were cited. Van Wieren also relies on Christian tradition for language throughout the book, as in chapter 3—which ends with Van Wieren explaining that the case studies she has employed are small in relation to “large-scale corporate seed producers”—where she compares these projects to “faith as mustard seeds” (61). By invoking the New Testament parable, Van Wieren closed a chapter filled with relatively diverse sources with a distinctly Christian metaphor. 

Van Wieren’s book is a welcome contribution to research at the intersection of religion, environmental ethics, food, and agriculture. Her grounded theoretical approach provides a holistic look at how religious people contemplate environmental issues and agriculture, and how they enact their ideologies in their work on farms across the United States and Canada. She provides a wealth of background on what the concerns are and how they can be traced back to the expansion of industrial food systems all over the world. There are gaps in her Abrahamic analysis, yet these provide an opportunity for scholars of Islam and Judaism to expand upon her work through the lens of those traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adrienne Krone is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Life at Allegheny College.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gretel Van Wieren is Associate Professor in Religious Studies at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

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