I think the very first thing to recognize about food is that it is the very basis of life, and this is something that ecologists often forget. They treat food as one thing and Nature as wilderness somewhere else: the assumption is if you produce food you cannot have Nature, if you have Nature you cannot meet human needs. And so we build up these amazing dualisms that force us constantly into more destructive routes towards meeting our vital needs, fooling us into believing that the more resources you consume and destroy through intensive agriculture, the more you ‘save’ Nature. But food isn’t merely a vital need; it is the basis of being.
An entire Upanishad is dedicated to the giving of food; if someone was to ask me to name the one text in the world that is about the ecology of food as a sacred trust, I would say, ‘Just read the Taittiriya Upanishad’
From food (anna), verily, creatures are produced,
Whatsoever (creatures) dwell on the earth…
For truly, food is the chief of beings.
(Ref: Taittiriya Upanishad 2.2, trans. Robert Ernest Hume,
The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (2nd English ed: Oxford University Press 1931, pg 284)
Not only is food sacred, not only is it living, but it is the Creator Itself - and that is why even in the poorest of Indian huts you find the little earthen chulha, or stove, being worshipped; the first piece of chappati is set out for the cow, the next piece for the dog, then you find out who else is hungry around. In the words of the Maha Ashwamedhika:
“The giver of food is the giver of life, and indeed everything else. Therefore, one who desires well-being in this world and beyond should specially endeavour to give food…Food is indeed the preserver of life and food is the source of procreation.”
The very possibility of our being here, of our living, is based on the lives of all kinds of beings that have gone before us- our parents, our mothers, the soil, the earthworm, and that is why the giving of food in Indian thought has been treated as everyday yagna or ‘sacrifice’ that one has to perform. You do not give something as extra: you give because of your interdependence both with the human beings who make your life possible in your community, and with the non-human kith and family that we have. ‘Because there is this amazing ‘owing’ of the conditions of our life to all other beings and all other creatures, giving - to humans and non-human species - has been a part of this amazing gift of food.’
One of my favourite images in India is the kolam that women make in front of their homes. During Pongal, which is the rice harvest festival in South India, I have seen women wake up as early as three in the morning to make the most beautiful art work outside their huts, and it is always made of rice. The real reason they do that is to feed ants, but it ends up being such a beautiful art form that everyone tries to put in their best effort for the offering- which in this case was actually an offering to ants.
Because there is this amazing ‘owing’ of the conditions of our life to all other beings and all other creatures, giving - to humans and non-human species - has been a part of this amazing gift of food.
A better word for it would be ‘annadana’, the giving and the gift of food. All other ethical arrangements in society get looked after if everyone engages in annadana on a daily basis. According to an ancient Indian saying, ‘There is no daana greater than annadana and tirthadana, the giving of food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.’
The sacred trust about food is related to the idea that every one of us is born, as we say, in ma. We are born in ma or debt to other beings: our very condition of being born depends on this debt. So we come with a debt and we pay it: to the bees, to the butterflies that pollinate our crops, to the earthworms, to the fungi and the microbes and the bacteria in the soil that are constantly working to create this fertility that our chemical fertilizers can never, never replenish.
The violation of that ethic is in my view, the beginning of all non-sustainability and all injustice. Our current situation of more and more people being denied their basic needs, denied the possibility of engaging in creative productive activity and of getting enough food, is linked to our strange search for a very false sense of growth by alienating the sacred basis of food, and turning it into a mere commodity.
I come from the Himalayas - people have for centuries traded the wool they produce, or the amaranth seeds they grow, for the salt and oil which the plains people can bring them. In high-altitude villages those are still the only things they depend on from outside, everything else they produce themselves. Trade today is no longer about the exchange of things which we need and cannot produce ourselves. These days trade is an obligation to stop producing what you need, to stop looking after each other, and to buy from somewhere else. It is this system which we have been coercively and violently locked into by the WTO, by the World Bank and the IMF, rather than mutually independent companies and people making ethical choices and engaging in ecologically responsible actions of buying and selling. It is this very nature of buying, selling and globalised trade that concentrates power in the hands of three or four players. So instead of daana we have profits and greed as the highest organizing principle. ‘We have more and more food stocked in supermarket aisles, while 820 million people go hungry.’
If you look at what is happening in the world, we have so-called surpluses that are growing simultaneously with hunger. We have more and more food stocked in supermarket aisles, while 820 million people go hungry. As an ecologist, I see these surpluses as pseudo-surpluses. They are pseudo-surpluses because the overflowing stocks and packed shelves are the result of production and distribution systems which take food away from the weak and marginalized, and from other beings. Each time I see supermarkets, I see how every community’s and every ecosystem’s capacity to meet its food needs is being undermined, so that a few people in the world can have an appearance and experience of surpluses. These are pseudo-surpluses because they are not bringing you more nourishment, and that is why we have one quarter of humanity going hungry, and the rest eating these foods that are produced by this rush for growth, and getting ill anyway. So you literally have a whole world suffering from diseases of the denial of nourishment: those who do not have it and those who have too much of it.
Everything we have learned about respecting food, venerating it, producing it safely and sustainably, ensuring that everyone has a right to food, is being erased by a new commoditization of culture. This commoditization is feeding an economy in which species are being wiped out, small farmers are being wiped out and our health is being wiped out, in every way violating the sacred trust which recognizes food as the basis of life.
Extract from a series of lectures on “A Sacred Trust: Ecology and Spiritual Vision” organized by Prince’s Foundation and the Temenos Academy, U.K., 2003