On May 24, 2015, Pope Francis published the ambitious encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to You”), his call to save Earth from environmental calamity. It is especially significant in that it is the first such appeal issued by the leader of a major faith tradition.
SweetOnion.Net examines how whole plant foods contribute to individual and environmental health. That’s why I decided, in the essay “Why Pope Francis Wants You to Eat Veggies: A Look at the Encyclical Laudato Si’,” to pick through the encyclical, focusing on what it teaches us about the production, sale, and consumption of both food and drink. This post below summarizes the essay, explaining how to put the pope’s call into practice.
Pope Francis sends a message to the entire human family
Papal letters are typically addressed to the Catholic faith community. Laudato Si’, in contrast, is addressed to Christians and non-Christians alike. This reflects the pope’s recognition that the environment is a shared inheritance whose preservation requires the participation of the entire human family.
God mandates that we protect the environment
The encyclical revises Catholicism’s understanding of what part the environment plays in God’s grand scheme. In the past, the Church embraced two conflicting conceptions of the environment: One was instrumental, seeing nature as a resource to be exploited by humankind; the other was aesthetic, viewing nature as a magnificent book through which God communicates spiritual ideals to humanity. Pope Francis is moving the Church toward the aesthetic understanding. No longer may we exploit Earth’s treasures however we please. Reverence for God demands that we protect nature’s ability to regenerate itself (Laudato Si’ 140).
Stop buying factory-farmed animal products
In contrast to other Catholic writers His Holiness views animals as feeling creatures. Wanton cruelty towards them is therefore impermissible (Laudato Si’ 67, 92, and 221).
This has direct implications for our food system. It is well known that factory-farmed livestock suffer myriad forms of abuse, even torture. Respecting God’s creation (Laudato Si’ 115) therefore requires that we refrain from eating animal products that come from factory farms. For those wishing to consume animal products, an acceptable alternative is to purchase them from farms that pasture-raise their livestock and allow the animals to engage in their natural behaviors.
Reduce our dependence on meat, especially beef
Pope Francis agrees with the vast majority of climate scientists that human-made global warming is real (Laudato Si’ 23) and that it poses grave dangers to the integrity of ecosystems worldwide, as they can be thrown out of balance by only slight increases in temperature. The divinely ordained mandate that we care for, protect, and preserve creation (Laudato Si’ 67) thus compels us to stem global warming.
For our food system this means reducing the number of cattle we raise, either for dairy or beef production. Cattle produce large amounts of methane, a gas with 28 to 36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Reducing our demand for beef will have the added benefit of stemming the destruction of tropical rainforests. These forests are vital for two reasons: 1) Often called the “lungs of the world,” they play an important part in recycling the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide; 2) the tropical rainforests hold much of the biodiversity that makes up God’s creation.
Another way of combatting global warming is to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels, and His Holiness asks that we do so immediately. By lowering our consumption of meat we can advance this goal, as carbon dioxide makes up 27 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by the global livestock sector.
Pay particular attention to the needs of the poor
Pope Francis tells us that whenever society makes decisions about how to use and preserve its natural resources, it must pay special attention to the needs of the poor. Since God uses nature to reveal himself to humanity (Laudato Si’ 87), city planners must ensure that even society’s marginalized can enjoy an unadulterated environment. And when policymakers decide how to allocate fresh water, they must protect the rights of the poor to drinkable water (Laudato Si’ 29).
The pontiff tells us that what is in our hearts cannot be segmented. The way we treat animals and the way we relate to each other are therefore connected, so that as you become kinder to animals, you will heal your relationship to your neighbor, be that neighbor rich or poor (Laudato Si’ 92). This means that as society learns to be compassionate towards non-human creatures, including livestock, it will also become better at practicing social justice among its human members.
A dim view of corporations, including those selling processed food
Pope Francis has a negative view of corporate capitalism. He implies that corporations prioritize profits and stockholders over care for the environment (Laudato Si’ 54). That is especially true for publicly held enterprises, because the reward system for corporate CEOs is almost exclusively based on their companies’ stock prices. Stockholders expect these prices to increase quarter after quarter, which is why CEOs have to induce consumers to buy ever more things. What does this mean for food? The corporate drive for profit may be a reason why industrialized societies are becoming obese: The food industry persuades consumers to eat more and more processed food, and many of us comply.
Big Food uses technology to dominate consumers
According to the pope, technology has increased the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless (Laudato Si’ 104). How so? First, technology imparts to its user power over his or her surroundings. Second, it is expensive. Consequently actors with deep pockets are considerably more empowered than those with little money.
Big food corporations have very deep pockets indeed, and they have used technologies to increase their dominance over consumers: First, through utilizing food technologies to combine salt, fat, and sugar in optimally addictive ways, they have manipulated consumers’ evolutionary triggers, inducing them to overeat. Second, by using data analysis and marketing technologies, the food giants specifically target children in their advertisement campaigns. Since children are unable to evaluate claims they see in commercials and have little understanding of the connection between food and health, they become unwitting pawns in the corporate drive to increase profits.
To overcome this imbalance of power, says the pope, society needs to direct technology, thereby ensuring its service to the public at large, not solely the economic sub-sector (Laudato Si’ 110 and 112). That idea applies as much to food technology as it does to, say, information technology.
Meaningful high-level debate and solutions
After analyzing the woes that plague the planet, Pope Francis speaks about solutions. He points out that on many specific questions, the Catholic Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion. Instead, it seeks to encourage debate among experts who are driven by the desire to heal the suffering environment.
In addition, his Holiness asks for an international agreement on the system of governance over the resources humanity holds in common. The question is whether this is enough. The pope’s belief that corporate capitalism is at the root of many societal and environmental problems suggests that we should also change the way we incentivize and govern commercial enterprises, especially corporations.
We the grassroots have an important role to play
Healing the planet’s ecosystem requires a consensus at the intergovernmental level. In this the global grassroots have an important role to play. If individuals change their lifestyles and do so in large numbers, they can bring pressure to bear on society’s leaders.
For example, in the economic arena individuals wield significant influence by voting at the cash register. A substantial reallocation of spending away from processed foods to fresh fruits and vegetables or – better yet – organic fruits and vegetables will send signals to producers for healthier nutrition. Producers ignore such signals at their peril.
Reducing consumption of meat – and especially beef – for the purpose of curbing methane emissions and halting rain forest destruction sends an unmistakable message to governments that the public cares about the planet’s health.
Replace consumerism with serenity
Consumerism, believes Pope Francis, is counterproductive to spirituality. That is why instead of wanting more and more, we should learn to make do with fewer things – those we truly need. This applies to food, too. Instead of succumbing to fabricated treats that concentrate sugar at levels unknown only a hundred years ago, we can choose to eat natural foods to which our digestive systems adapted over thousands of years. Instead of eating meat, which in many countries is associated with wealth and social status, we should take a second look at the many edible plants that are available, because their production has a much lighter ecological footprint.
The pope’s new approach to consumption promises to advance spirituality and serenity. If enough human beings heed his call, we will go a long way towards healing our common home, Earth.