More than a decade ago, Samer Saleh started reading about the origin of his food — and the vast majority of food in the United States. He was horrified by what he found. From overcrowded slaughterhouses to pesticides leaching into the ground, industrialized farming practices that millions of Americans take for granted have disgusted the 46-year-old securities trader, from the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
Saleh and his wife, Diane, decided to find another way to feed themselves. As devout Muslims, they already limited their family to ‘halal’ food – permitted under Islamic dietary laws – but now they’ve expanded their understanding of ‘tayyib’, a broadly defined quality. defined as wholesome which is also recommended in the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
This meant finding meat not only slaughtered in accordance with Islamic principles, but also raised humanely, and vegetables produced in a way that did not victimize others.
Finding few businesses that answered that call, the couple founded Halal Pastures in 2013 and two years later bought a 14-acre farm about an hour north of New York, where they grow organic vegetables and raise free range chickens. Today, they work with other farmers in New York and Pennsylvania to ship certified organic halal chicken, beef, turkey and lamb to customers nationwide.
Saleh sees this work as an expression of his faith. “In our religion, food really nourishes your body,” Saleh told Religion News Service in a recent phone interview from the farm. “What we put into our food, or even into our body, is what we get out of it. And if the food we put into our body is healthy, halal, pure, you believe it turns into good deeds. “
Increasingly, producers and consumers of religious foods are looking for foods that meet the dietary restrictions of their religion – “halal” for Muslims, kashrut or kosher for Jews – but go beyond them. bans on eating pork or slaughtered meat to minimize animal suffering. . These foods have been called “eco-halal” and “eco-kosher”.
Rather than focusing on “allowed foods,” said Sarah Robinson-Bertoni, a professor of religion and the environment at Pacific Lutheran University, the focus is on allowed foods that also support worker wellbeing. farmers, consumers and the earth itself.
These ideas are gaining traction as more faith communities consider the concept of food justice – the right to eat fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate and locally grown food – as part of their faith mission. In addition to halal pastures, companies such as Grow & Behold and KOL Foods provide grass-fed, pasture-raised kosher meat on small farms.
“Stewardship of land and water is crucial not only for human health, but also for the health of all living things in a particular landscape,” Robinson-Bertoni said. “So all of these priorities, (these movements) are within the religious tradition.”
Eco-kashrut has been around since at least the 1970s and gained traction in the 1990s, with the writings of Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who grounded the movement’s ideals in Jewish values such as tza’ar ba’alei chai ‘im – literally, “the distress of those who possess life”, and generally interpreted as respect for animals – and bal tashchit, a prohibition against “ruining” the land.
Eco-halal, on the other hand, was popularized with the publication of books such as “Green Deen” in 2010 by Muslim activist and organizer Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, which connects fundamental Islamic ethical principles such as the belief in the oneness of God and stewardship of the land with the relationship that American Muslims have with food and agriculture.
Both of these movements are currently experiencing an “explosion of interest,” said Samira Mehta, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Mehta attributes the increase to awareness of climate change, which is “creating an urgency” to move away from industrial agriculture, which contributes about 11% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Even as activists seek to incorporate ecological principles into religious food certification traditions, some religious authorities are doing so as well. After an investigation uncovered cruelty to animals at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in 2006, members of the Jewish conservative movement created Magen Tzedek (“Shield of Justice”), an add-on certification that ensures food meet standards for workers, consumers and the environment as well as for animals.
Meanwhile, eco-halal and eco-kosher certification never really took off in a formal way, Robinson-Bertoni said. Even Magen Tzedek has not certified any product since its inception. Part of the reason, Robinson-Bertoni said, is “sticker shock”: Certification requirements make the resulting products more expensive.
But another reason is that followers of eco-halal and eco-kosher are less concerned with strict religious endorsement than with faith-based food justice, which might be a stronger expression of l Jewish identity for some than keeping it kosher, according to Mehta. Rather than just looking for kosher symbols at the grocery store, environmentally sound eating encourages people to think deeply about the food they eat.
“People can find (kosher or halal rules) extremely personally meaningful,” Mehta said. “But the eco-kashrut movement works on a different logic. And it’s a logic around very clear values related to environmentalism.”
“You don’t want to dirty the land that was given to you,” Saleh said. “You really have to take care of this soil…because it’s the soil that will feed generations – and generations after you.”