How does religion fare when it comes to organic or ethically grown food? Story by Brendan Gallagher

On Sunday, 7 May last year, 2.568 million people tuned in to watch the finale of Masterchef.  According to the most recent survey, that is more than had attended a religious service that weekend.

As pews empty, restaurants bulge. In white robes and tall hats, celebrity chefs instruct, pronounce and judge with the sanctity once reserved for bishops. And if the 13.7 billion dollars that Australians spend annually on eating out says anything, it is that gluttony has shifted from sin to virtue.

The question rises like a well-made soufflé: has food become our new religion?

The comparison may seem an arbitrary one until you consider that the two subjects have always been inextricably linked.

Simon Theobald, who is completing a PhD on the connection between food and religion at UTS, says, The two kind of classic examples of religion and food going together are obviously the food laws, kashrut in Judaism and then halal in Islam. But I think food’s much broader than just taboos.”

Food is also used extensively in religious rituals.

“The most obvious example that we’ve been exposed to in the west is the Eucharist, where food, in the form of the wine and the wafer, becomes the blood and body of Christ. But also there’s food used in Hindu ritual, in Buddhism and so on,” he explains.

And in times when the terms religion and community were interchangeable, food even served as a way for communities to define themselves.

“Communities understand themselves frequently through what they eat and what they don’t eat,” Simon Theobald says.

But food goes back further than the kitchen. And at a time where the kitchen has never been further from the farm and grace is rarely said before meals, how do Australians navigate the labyrinth of food production in the 21stcentury in a way that fits their morals?

On May 30 last year, Four Corners aired footage of exported Australian livestock being badly mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs. The public backlash was enough to suspend live exports to Indonesia for two months. Later that year, an Australian abattoir was temporarily closed after footage showed its workers mistreating animals.

Mr Theobald believes that Australians are quite attuned to ideas of animal welfare, without necessarily seeing it through a traditionally religious lens.

A new religious adherence to the farmers’ market. Here, Eveleigh Market is bustling with business on a weekend. Photo: mirvettium

“And usually once exposed to the evidence of the treatment of animals, they tend to furiously agree with efforts to clean up factory farms and things like that, it remains a relatively uncontroversial issue,” he says.

Even the most ardent carnivore would probably not openly endorse de-beaking live chickens or keeping sows in cages too small to turn around in or the many other cruel conditions documented by animal welfare groups that take place in Australia’s factory farms.

The problem occurs when that kind sentiment makes its way into the modern world of compromises and conflicting interests.

Melinda Demitriades sells organic produce to high-end retailers and the general public through her butchery and stalls at farmers’ markets. She’s always had an interest in food, working as a chef in some of Sydney’s top restaurants. But it was moving into a wholesale role, working with farmers and artisan producers, that formed her food ethics.

“I found out what the principles and the ethics were of high-end, very well cared for produce as well as animal husbandry and then from that, I figured out what was being done that was unethical,” she says.

Ms Demitriades is also completing a degree in political science. She believes that people have become disengaged from political processes and institutions that are meant to protect their well-being.

“I think that everybody is so disillusioned that they’re seeking out honesty in lots of different ways. And one way that they’re looking for that honesty is in farmers and the people who make our food.”

She believes people are looking to consumer sovereignty as a way to engage with food production. But she also believes this is made difficult by the lack of statutory bodies and industry regulation.

As consumers become more conscientious, a battle for the language emerges.

“There’s something like eight different bodies that are certifying bodies for organics,” she says.

Then, of course, there’s the bottom line. There’s no doubt that organic food is more expensive, although sellers argue that this reflects the actual cost of producing food properly.

“At the end of the day, if you’re talking to a family, with four kids, who’re on the minimum wage, they’re saying, ‘sorry animals, but I have to prioritise myself and my children’,” she says.

It is this moral landscape that religion has traditionally sought to chart. But it seems that most modern Australians have grabbed hold of the map and are adding their own contours. In doing so, are they creating a new, bottom-up religious lifestyle.

As Simon Theobald explains, there has been a recent shift in how religion is viewed. Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, describes religion as a ‘web that frames the practices that one does in one’s life’.

If people are not attending church each weekend, they certainly aren’t staying at home. Farmers markets are becoming a regular part of many Australian’s weekend schedule. A recent study estimated that farmers markets now make up 7 per cent of fresh food sales in Australia.

At Eveleigh markets on Saturday morning, in a retro-fitted museum of old industry in the urban heart of the city, Sydneysiders from all different backgrounds engage in an activity as old as civilisation. Young families push strollers with kids riding shotgun to bags crammed with locally grown organic vegetables. Growers tempt customers with samples of their work.

Melinda Demitriades is here selling. “Buying ethical, free-range, clean, organic food is a lifestyle,” she says.

But a religious one?

Simon Theobald believes that the organics movement, by creating a community of like-minded people who share similar ideas such as the morality of ethical animal welfare, eating locally grown, locally sourced produce with a limited carbon footprint, creates  a social ethos that in many ways is indistinguishable from how religion functions, in a historical way.

“Someone who buys meat from farmers’ markets, knowing that it’s been ethically raised, might identify as being atheist with no adherence to an organised, institutional church,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean that the moral choice that they’re making about only eating ethically raised meat can’t be construed as being a kind of religious act, in as much as morality and moral codes is certainly one of the defining features of a religious life.”