The role of faith in transforming diets: In Conversation with Rev. Harper

Published 06/11/2020

As the world faces a challenging time in the history of humanity, faith and faith-based institutions have a vital role to play in the transition to a sustainable and just future. 

In this interview, the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith discusses topics ranging from the role of faith in the modern world to religious communities’ role in helping lead the movement towards a truly sustainable and equitable world.

50by40: Tell us about GreenFaith and its work with diet change and food systems?

Fletcher: We are an interfaith, international organisation and we work with a very diverse range of religious partners around the world on issues of climate justice and truly sustainable environmental change. With partners worldwide, we undertake campaigning, education and training as well as organise people into local GreenFaith circles where they work on these issues and key priorities in their communities. 

Deep in the heart of all of the world’s religions, there is a profound commitment to protecting the earth, to treating people, to treating animals and all of God’s creation, as the Abrahamic faiths would say, or the interconnected web of reality as our Dharmic friends might say,  with nonviolence and respect. We believe that the world should be governed by values of compassion, love and justice. Industrial agriculture falls short of these measures on every count.  

Industrial agriculture is an absolute train-wreck for the climate while being appallingly cruel to animals. Agribusinesses decimate the Amazon and other vital tropical rainforests around the world, and murder and displace indigenous communities, who are these forests’ guardians.  Industrial agriculture is responsible for a business culture that tosses toxic herbicides and pesticides around like they were Christmas candy – while instead they are poisoning farmers and workers and degrading precious soil and water.  Meat-based diets are clearly less healthy for people around the world.   All in all, industrial agriculture is an ethical debacle.

Let’s be clear- we value the importance of small farmers, who can sustainably steward the land and farm animals.  We understand that eating meat at times of familial or cultural significance is something that has been part of the human family since the beginning of time. We know that any transition away from corporate farming has to provide generous transitional support for affected workers and communities.  But the system that we have got now is immoral beyond words and a grave threat to the future of people and the planet. This is why we are involved.

50by40: What does GreenFaith propose in terms of meat reduction?

Fletcher: We follow three interconnected pathways to power which are central to our theory of change. First,  you need systems to change. That is, you need laws and regulations that reduce or eliminate large scale cruelty to animals; that reduce or eliminate deforestation of the world’s tropical forests, and that protect the rights of indigenous communities – who are the best protectors these forests will ever have. Secondly, we need institutional change.  Lastly, individual behavioural change is necessary.  These three pathways are interconnected; more progress in one area makes faster progress possible in other areas.

We are increasingly active at that systemic level. We get religious leaders to raise their voices in support of strong policies for a truly sustainable plant-based diet and the end of tropical deforestation. We are involved, for instance, in the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, where we are working with partners from other interfaith groups and the UN to educate, train, and organise faith leaders in five countries that are home to over 70% of the world’s remaining tropical forests, Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

We also know that to get systemic change, you need cultural change and we think religious institutions have a lot to contribute there. Religious institutions can start to adopt plant-based dietary practices to help their members learn about why that is healthy and important; give them activities like shared meals to participate in where they learn more. 

At the individual level, through our Living the Change initiative,  we encourage people of faith to move towards a plant-based diet. We have resources framed within religious teachings about why this is important. Most activists think we have to have the systems change right away, but creating change at the institutional and individual level is a huge part of how we will build a culture of influence to get that kind of system change. 

50by40: What is GreenFaith’s vision for the future of food systems?

Fletcher: Our vision is for a food system that provides healthy food for every person on the planet in a culturally and environmentally respectful and sustainable way.  A system that doesn’t treat animals with cruelty but rather respects them as sentient creatures. In cases where their lives are taken for human use, it is done with respect, gratitude and appreciation – and the least suffering possible. 

I think it is very important in terms of food systems and climate work, to be clear about the positive future that we want. We want people to have healthy good food to eat that tastes delicious. We want farmers to have sustainable and good livelihood not to be trapped in a debt-ridden, predatorial, industrial agriculture system that takes control of their own lives away from them and enslaves them to a corporate regime that treats them as cogs in a profit-producing machine. We think there is a tremendous role for small farmers to play in terms of helping feed their communities and helping to sustain a culture of care for the earth and animals, and we want them to thrive

50by40: What is the impact your organisation has had over these years?

Fletcher: We have been very active in the fossil fuel divestment movement where we’ve played an important role in organising religious institutions to divest from fossil fuel holdings, and articulating why that is the right thing to do. We are excited to be exploring how we might help lead a similar movement within the agribusiness and deforestation sector because it is similarly not right for values-driven investors to profit from those sectors of the economy. 

We are also proud that we have had an impact by mobilising large numbers of people of faith to be part of global climate change mobilisations that have happened in so many places – we’ve mobilised thousands and thousands of people to take to the streets peacefully to show that climate change is a deeply moral and spiritual issue We have educated and trained thousands of religious leaders about why our faiths teach us to cherish and protect the earth. 

50by40: What is the topmost priority to be addressed in food systems and environmental crises and how do you think it should be addressed?

Fletcher: Our churches, mosques and temples need to offer real leadership on these issues. Religious communities need to be adopting policies committing themselves to plant-based diets.  Their members need to be supported in adopting that at the household level. And we need to be using our moral power to press for policies to move us in the direction that we need to go.  Policies like an immediate end to tropical deforestation and factory farming, to government subsidies that enable these, and to related bank financing.  Governmental commitment to strengthening and enforcing existing laws in order to protect tropical forests and the well-being of animals.  We’ll be releasing a major interfaith statement soon that will address these issues and organising faith groups around these issues in the coming years.

This interview has been edited for clarity.