Religious studies professor discusses how faith influences thoughts about food

A religion professor might not be the first thought when scheduling a slate of speakers for a livestock meeting, but Alan Levinovitz, shared his thoughts on religion and science as it relates to food during his segment at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit May 7 and 8.

Levinovitz is an author and associate professor of religion at James Madison University, and he examined the intersection of philosophy, religion and science, focusing specifically on how narratives and metaphors shape beliefs. Most recently he’s been speaking to farmers at agricultural conventions, among other groups.

“All of those speeches end up coming back to this concept that I have found fascinating to pursue in my own professional life, which is the idea of nature and naturalness,” Levinovitz said.

He sees a problem with faith being part of the description of nature’s goodness. Many Americans have the idea that food is natural and something that’s important to them. Same goes with organic. For example, Levinovitz found an April 2020 article that said the organic meats segment, both fresh and processed, has 1.4% share of the market, but its dollar growth is increasing very quickly. Some within the industry are interested in figuring out what is motivating these types of shoppers.

“What is it that they care about when it comes to the meat that they’re eating?” Levinovitz said. “It’s animal welfare, personal health and sustainability.”

These types of people tend to get wrapped up in a single idea.

“Somehow organic means that it’s better for animals, that it’s also better for your health,” he said. “And it’s also better for the planet.”

Levinovitz has studied some of these overarching claims in a variety of contexts, and his alarm bells immediately go off. Something that can cure everything is good for everything—is something he’s a little inherently suspicious of. In an article he evaluated, he said consumers view items, particularly those labeled as organic, natural or the like, as better for them.

“Purity is one of these words as a religious studies scholar, that tells me something less than obvious is going on. Purity here is not just about chemical purity,” Levinovitz said. “It’s about an idea of purity is actually religious even though it is hidden behind secular non-religious words like nature, natural and organic.”

For example, on the Garden of Eatin’ potato chips website, Levinovitz said it uses words like purity and goodness.

“What they are trying to sell you is the idea of goodness itself in every possible way,” he said. “Remember that previous quote. Good for you, good for the environment. Good, in every way. So how do these chips accomplish that?”

The website specifically highlights ingredients as being non-GMO and organic.

“These are two different signifiers that both tell the people that are consuming these chips that the product is quote, unquote natural,” he said. “It’s not just the chip makers.”

Simply Smart offers organic breaded chicken strips, advertised as “100% all natural and non GMO ingredients.” They too are trying to appeal to those consumers who want certain products in their food.

“They’re appealing to people who want things that don’t have genetically modified products, they also want them to be all natural, organic,” Levinovitz said.

What exactly do these describing words mean? To a religious studies professor, it’s significant. In an advertisement for the Garden of Eatin’ an image depicts Eve handing Adam a bag of Natural Cheetos. In the image he shared, there are animals that would not exist without active breeding from humans.

“It does not represent the reality of humans in a state of nature, and yet this is the picture of nature that many people have in their minds before humans interfered,” he said. “Everything was harmonious and perfect and healthy.”

After humans interfered, Levinovitz said, and if you remember the story of the Garden of Eden, that’s when you ended up having things like agriculture and pain during childbirth. So what are people wanting when they’re seeking “natural” products?

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“I love natural Cheetos is the perfect emblem of the way in which people are simultaneously wanting something natural, but also wanting the product of food science, of technology, and of a food system,” Levinovitz said. “That is, of course, as far from a state of nature, as you can imagine, which is what allows it to produce the kinds of foods that we eat on a regular basis to the prices that we pay for them.”

So if they’re higher priced, why do people buy into the vision of products like the Garden of Eatin’ chips? What makes them so appealing?

“There’s obviously a whole group of things that people are rejecting in favor of naturals,” Levinovitz said. “Why is it that they want that? For one, people believe that nature is always better.”

Even now during the midst of a pandemic, people are trying to figure out what or if the pandemic is some kind of punishment for the violation of nature.

“What is it that we are doing wrong that is causing nature to punish us,” he said.

That line was in an article in the New Yorker magazine, Levinovitz said. It features “unsurprisingly, industrial farming. There’s been a lot of anti-industrial farming rhetoric around the coronavirus.”

“People are saying, hey look, this is not natural. It’s unnatural and what is it caused by, it’s caused by our unnatural activities, among which for many people are the production of food,” he said. “So naturalness represents an escape from all of the things that people fear from suffering from disease, from death, and you see that manifested in headlines like this.”

Levinovitz said in some examples—like in the poultry industry—what humans are doing to animals isn’t natural inevitably leads to suffering, or so the average consumer thinks.

“It’s an enormous narrative that they’re telling. They’re saying, look before agriculture, everything was natural, he said. “You didn’t have pandemics, you didn’t have diseases—no, of course, none of this is true.”

But in the story people are telling, what happened in early agriculture disregarded most of the natural world to cultivate only the most productive plants and animals, Levinovitz said. By doing this, populations exploded unnaturally and cities in unnatural places flourished.

“And what happened, we ended up with diseases like the coronavirus that we’re trying to stop,” he said. “So again the narrative is one of a journey from naturalness where we did not have bad things to unnaturalness, where we do have bad things.”

People tend to get away from a puritanical understanding of nature as pure, clean, real and simple.

“Instead, we want to focus on what good food is, what is good food production,” Levinovitz said.

He thinks consumers should focus on things that have nothing to do with naturalness or some divine order.

“Instead food production needs to be transparent,” he said. “People need to be able to understand the origin of their food if they want to. That’s extremely important.”

That doesn’t mean food needs to be natural or non-industrial, it just means production needs to be visible.

“Be humble about food production,” Levinovitz said. “No one has the right answer for how to proceed with food production and dialogue can only happen if we aren’t engaged in these binary debates of natural versus unnatural.”

Conversation leads to cooperation, a complicated yet diverse food system, and most importantly it leads to a food system in which producers can be authentic and honest, according to Levinovitz.

“They don’t have to hide the parts of their operation that look less natural because they’re afraid that people are going to think that means that their operation is bad,” he said. “Instead, we can have a food system that is transparent and authentic that consumers understand.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].