Food morality shouldn't be all consuming

I was in a rural petrol station the other day, deep in once-pretty black-coal country, when a bloke in a fluoro vest treated all present humans to a brief, unprovoked and surprisingly learned tirade against sugar.Clumping round in his steel-cap boots, fluoro man pointed out the hidden-sugar products in the glass-front fridge and described how the appetite-suppressing effect of sucrose is not replicated in fructose, enabling us to overconsume. Romping through physiology, psychology, ecology, morality and public health he said his wife had researched it, quit sugar and lost five kilos in a week.Then, clearly satisfied that his job as a citizen was done for the day, he went outside, mounted a massive mining-company B-double and roared off to wreck the universe.Standing in his dust I thought: "So this is what it's come to. Food is both the new morality and the new narcissism." Or perhaps, more accurately, "new food" is narcissism in the guise of morality.Food is so personal, so controllable. So me. Now we allow being moral (or even healthy) about food to excuse us from being moral (or even healthy) about the world. Fluoro man's anti-sugar crusade was his version of looking after the home paddock while the world nukes itself stupid. Indeed, while helping the world nuke itself. Profiting from it. Personal virtue cloaking and enabling corporate greed.OK. Definitions. "Food narcissism" is the conviction that what you put into your own personal cakehole is of such earth-shattering import as to justify the intense social palaver in which we currently wreathe it; the TV glam and celebrity chefery; the obesity and anorexia and every bulimia between; the books and diets and Instagrams without number, where photogenics far outweigh food value; and our bloated, house-swallowing kitchens."Food morality" is the presumption that this hyperfluff has true moral weight: that eating or not eating certain things – carbs, sugars, grains, grapefruit, bananas, apple cider vinegar, microbes, ruminants, sentients – actually makes you better or worse than other people.Of course, moral traditions have long included health-based nutrition rules, viz. bans on pork or shellfish. And since nature is the ground of life and food our most intimate entanglement with it, it's arguable that what-goes-into-your-cakehole encapsulates your entire relationship with nature. Diet as world view.So a food morality might seem proper and progressive. But is this really what we're looking at?Tomorrow is Christmas, when eating and ethics more than usually coincide; when our feasting is at least meant to have spiritual significance. And when a food morality, if it existed, could be expected to shed light on, for example, whether to dump your Christmas ham for a splendid rack of tofu, or your suety pudding for a high-protein sugarless pav. But no.I've spent my life with food fads. Mostly they've seemed harmless eccentricities, their practitioners just slightly sicker, more neurotic and less amusing than the norm. Now, though, such fads carry astonishing levels of unearned holier-than-thouness.It's as though your decision to forgo meat or milk or sugar or caffeine or alcohol not only means I should too, but that, until then, you have the moral edge. As though ordering a pastrami sandwich means I choose to burn in hell – and that's your judgment to make.Never mind that the rest of your life may be dedicated to corporate piracy, global injustice, environmental degradation, general overconsumption or all of the above. If you eat ethical, or even healthy, it's all G.In the murky mash-up of health, environmentalism, equity and welfare that lets personal health obsession pass as moral superiority, light is the last thing shed.The Byron Beach Cafe serves a drink called LSD. It's an acronym, naturally – latte soy dandelion. The milk coffee you have when you're not having milk or coffee.And I mean yes, I get the rationale. Abjuring caffeine is meant to make you live longer (some would say it just feels that way). And milk is meant to be cruel (since it separates lactating cows from their calves) as well as environmentally unsound (hard hooves, methane farts, water use).But there are at least four separate levels of scrutiny required before we accept such a position as behavioural diktat. The first is factual. Are cattle, or ruminants in general, actually worse for the environment?(Answer: it's complicated. Really complicated. There's evidence that cow farts are sequestered straight back into grass, hard hooves can build soil and the water thing is vastly exaggerated.)The second is ethical. Are milk-drinking, meat-eating or fish-catching inherently cruel? Or does the cruelty inhere in particular, expedient, profit-driven practices? (Answer: mostly the latter).The third is both ethical and practical. If meat is inherently unsustainable and cruel, must it automatically end (given that we tolerate waterboarding, child imprisonment and solitary confinement)? And if the downsides are not inherent, how can we do it better?But the fourth, core question is spiritual. How is all this shaped by belief? Not just "ethics", but the entire ontological-existential-theological package. How do we, bare forked animals, picture ourselves in the cosmos? What gods do we worship?If you think theology doesn't impact food production, check out the Gamo people of highland Ethiopia. For millennia, they've practised intensive, land-nurturing farming that puts most of Africa – and the entire West – to shame. Conceiving their gods within nature, not above it, they habitually put back, give thanks, revere, praying not for maximisation, but for continuity.That their world is now threatened by an unholy duo of nature-transcending Christian evangelism and chemically dependent, debt-inducing agro-science is nuts, since it's we who must learn from them.Christianity – tomorrow's birth – is often blamed for our arrogance regarding nature. But you needn't be a pantheist to conceive God and nature as indivisible. Put back. Give thanks. Revere. Pray for continuity, not profit. The rest follows; eat happy meat, pay more for less. Don't be a vegan hedge-fund trader. Redirect your diet energies to something that matters.Help fluoro man take his wife's wisdom and scholarship with him on the B-double, out into the big needy world.Twitter: @emfarrelly
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