By Shireen Pishdadi
Operations Coordinator, Taqwa Eco-Foods
August 3, 2006
The Food Crisis in the World
and the Current Sell-Out of Halal Selling and Labeling
IMAGINE SITTING AT an abundant tablespread of delicious food, the host describing the way it was acquired. Some of it was stolen from the neighbors. Some bought with money fraudulently taken from a poor single mother, her whole lifesavings, in fact. Other foods were procured violently, so that people were killed. Some of it is even laced with toxins. But today, you can eat of it freely, as much as you like. The price will be your children's inheritance.
Would you eat that food? Or would you depart and find other provisions, even if it meant discomfort in the meantime?
I believe most people would choose to leave that table. I also believe that Islam dictates to us beyond any doubt that we must.
I have both bad news for you and good. The abundant and cheap food available to most of us today is not much unlike the scenario above. Yet the time is ripe for a rejuvenation of Islam's divine laws regarding food and its production and consumption, and the reintroduction of its strongly humane and conservationist ethics. It is as simple as joining forces with your nearby farmers and the "sustainable food" movement to develop local food infrastructures. If it sounds archaic, you'll see just how profound its beneficial effects can be, if you read on.
I. A Quick Primer on Agriculture in History
AGRICULTURE IS THE most basic of all human productive activities. Food is vital to life. So agriculture in its widest sense is vital to societies. Food is earth's largest commodity. Everyone eats every day. Globally, 1.3 billion people work directly in agriculture and another 2.5 billion depend upon the food sector for their livelihood.
If you compare society to a house, the foundation you build on is agriculture. If it is to be strong and healthy, it must be founded upon a local economy that is built around a robust and wholesome food infrastructure. In this way, a society can be self-sustaining and independent. But if the local farming network is decimated, there can be no homegrown economy, and there is bound to be dependence and oppression.
"Today, rural North America is being 'colonized'," says John Ikerd, professor emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia. "Multinational corporations are extending their economic sovereignty over the affairs of people in rural places everywhere, including rural America."
The root of the world's growing nutrition problem is that we live with so many unexamined myths relating to agriculture and food. The unspoken assumption is that we are either on the boat with modernism to progress, or sailing back to the Stone Age. Sure, what I propose as a solution means paradigm and lifestyle changes, but it does not mean regression.
On the contrary, it means going back to the Laws and ethics of the Quran and the way of its Messenger, salla Allah 'alayhee wa sallam, not theoretically but in tried and true ways demonstrated by the best of those who went before us in this faith.
"The rapid spread of Islam into three continents in the seventh and eighth centuries was followed by the diffusion of an equally remarkable but less well documented agricultural revolution," says historian Andrew Watson, whose important article on this very topic appeared in the Journal of Economic History in 1974. "By the eleventh century [the new agriculture] had been transmitted across the length and breadth of the Islamic world and had altered, often radically, the economies of many regions."
Animal and plant husbandry within the ethical agricultural framework that Islam built was nothing short of magnificent—earthly manifestations of the Quran's descriptions of the Heavenly gardens and egalitarian capital practices. Reports historian Lucie Bolens:
The great Islamic cities of the Near East, North Africa and Spain…were supported by an elaborate agricultural system that included extensive [conservationist] irrigation and an expert knowledge of the most advanced agricultural methods in the world. The Muslims reared the finest horses and sheep and cultivated the best orchards and vegetable gardens. They knew how to fight insect pests, how to use fertilizers, and they were experts at grafting trees and crossing plants to produce new varieties….Fields that had been yielding one crop yearly at most prior to the Muslims were now capable of yielding three or more crops, in rotation….Agricultural production responded to the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban population by providing the [nearby] towns with a variety of products unknown in Northern Europe…The agricultural system of the Spanish Muslims, in particular, was "the most complex, the most scientific, the most perfect, ever devised by the ingenuity of man"….With a deep love for nature, and a relaxed way of life, classical Islamic society achieved ecological balance, a successful average economy of operation, based not on theory but on the acquired knowledge of many civilized traditions.
In other words, despite all that we are currently hearing of the inevitability of global warming and environmental holocaust, it does not have to be this way. Yet humanity must grasp that the solutions cannot proceed from capitalism's pyramid profit schemes better known as multinational corporations. Rather, they can only come from belief in One God, the internalization of the spirit of His revelation, and a look at the successful pre-modern ecological practices of agrarian peoples.
II. What Is Wrong With Our Present Farming Industry?
IN A WORD, everything. Once, upright Muslims looked far deeper into food consumption than the simplistic no-pork, no-alcohol, letter-of-the-law attitude prevalent among us today. The great Imam Nawawi, for instance, refused even the food of the Muslim government of his day (calling it the "food of the tyrant") out of fear for its ethical impurity.
Our thick ignorance of our own tradition with regard to food has placed us at the mercy of an increasingly elusive and consolidated industry, which has no ethical values beyond slogan-morals. The widespread assumption that all is well on the farm is deeply false. We see an abundance of affordable food before our eyes and blindly trust that some hidden federal agency is ensuring a safe food supply. We take it on faith that science and technology have finally delivered Adam's offspring to an agricultural Eden.
The reason the dreadful food industry has escaped our notice is because our connection to food production is truncated at the grocery store, and our adherence to Islamic dietary Law has been severed at the most superficial standard. To us, food has become a mere commodity, instead of a basic spiritual right of all people. Our role in it has been reduced to complacent consumers instead of champions of the Middle Way bearing the message of the prophets.
I originally wrote a 7,000-word "summary" to explain the catastrophe of the contemporary global food industry. It would take a hefty volume to give you the gory details. But keep this in mind as I apprise you of just the grim outline. The world is not separated into comparmentalized countries that live in vacuums. "A successful and durable [multinational corporation]," says commentator Ruth Rama, "operates with resolute constancy as if the entire world or major regions of it were a single entity, selling the same things in the same way everywhere."
Divisive nationalistic, patriotic, or tribalistic thought is irrelevant. Events everywhere are related and consequences eventually affect everyone. Poverty in the vast poor countries facilitates lavish consumption in select rich ones. The fact is a great amount of our food is grown in modern-day plantation countries and war is a primary trade tool.
When Muslims implemented the agricultural ethics of the Quran and Sunnah, their systems were far more sophisticated than the fairly primitive food structures of today. But they worked in and with nature not against it. Moreover, they understood that the key to such complexity was to disseminate their earth knowledge freely and widely.
The basic problem of the food industry is that such knowledge cannot be taken from the learned farmer and made generic so food can be mass-produced. That capital goal required companies and governments to usurp control of agriculture in order to create factory systems needing no knowledge so that people from anywhere—such as slaves, or migrant workers—could be mindlessly slotted in to plant and pick, raise and butcher.
Behold the dark magic of monocropping, just the kind of assembly line solution globalization needed.
The death of diversity
The myopic concern of agribusiness with efficient control of production and, hence, profit, has reduced dynamic farming to linear and quantifiable systems that require farmers to drop seeds for days and spray chemicals for miles in a technique called monocropping. One crop is harvested season after season.
In the 1960s, Northern "donor" agencies sold us this bill of goods as the "green revolution," a benevolent plan to eliminate hunger in poor countries. With it, they wiped out community after community's farming diversity, introducing a few uniform crop varieties that could not yield the promised bounty without torrential chemical and water inputs.
"It is a prime example of how an effort to 'modernize' can put the very basis of sustainable development at risk, simply by bypassing and undermining local resources, knowledge and experience generated over millennia" (read more at
www.grain.org, which I am quoting here). "Rather than eliminating hunger, the 'green revolution' moved control over agriculture and rural livelihoods from local communities to international development agencies and private corporations."
Loss of agricultural knowledge means the loss of farming communities, which leads to a society without a rural sector and the loss of culture.
Monocropping reaps large amounts of crops, but at many costs, like completely depleting topsoil, turning fertile land into barren desert. Topsoil is precious. Without it, crops can't grow. Plains become infertile. No machine can readily create it. It takes from 200 to 1,000 years for 2.5 cm of topsoil to build up. Quite literally, we are eating off lands that the peoples of antiquity were wise and selfless enough to conserve.
Since 1945, an estimated 108 million acres of productive land has been lost to agriculture each year. That's 4.85 billion acres, or around 35 percent, of the earth's fertile land, according to the United Nations' Environmental Programme. Put another way, of the world's estimated 5,200 million hectares of agriculturally used dryland, 69 percent is degraded or subjected to desertification. In Africa, that ratio is 73 percent. In Asia, 70 percent (see Lawrence Geoffrey's Capitalism and Countryside: The Rural Crisis in Australia).
The problem of monocropping gets worse. Modern agriculture is depleting the world's available fresh water—less than one-half of 1 percent of all the water on earth. At the current rate of doubling every 20 years, water usage will seriously deplete all fresh water in the world in 25 years. In the midst of this unmitigated catastrophe, the spooky World Bank is busy trying to privatize water for industry while at the same time reducing subsidies to poor people for obtaining fresh water (look up the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment).
What is the impact on energy? "The U.S. food system uses over 10 quadrillion BTU (10,551 quadrillion Joules) of energy each year, as much as France's total annual energy consumption," says Danielle Murray of the Earth Policy Institute. "Growing food accounts for only one-fifth of this. The other four-fifths is used to move, process, package, sell, and store food after it leaves the farm."
It is true that food has significantly cheapened so that once luxury items like meat and sugar are now available to every one. But the price we pay at the store does not reflect the cost of water, land, labor, health, and pollution.
Illegal seed and killer genes
The business corollary to monocropping and its decimation of farming communities is biopiracy: The patenting of indigenous plants, seed varieties, and genetically selected livestock. You are forgiven if this takes you a moment to sink in. Companies now own seeds, plants, and livestock breeds—not the stuff themselves but their very existence as genetic life forms!
About six multinational corporations like Monsanto and DuPont have "been investing into biotechnology in such a way that patents have been taken out on indigenous plants which have been used for generations by the local people, without their knowledge or consent," says Ronaldo Seroa da Motta, author of "The Economics Of Biodiversity In Brazil: The Case of Forest Conversion." "The people then find that the only way to use their age-old knowledge is to buy [the plants] back from the big corporations." The farmers of bio-rich Brazil have already lost half their plant species to business interests.
Typically, the food multinationals go around testing farmers' crops to ensure they are not keeping any seed from last year's crops, which is now illegal. If they want to plant again, they must, by law, buy again from corporations. But the Cargill/Monsanto cluster has found a solution to the troublesome testing. They are devising a way to insert a "terminator gene" into plants to render their seeds sterile.
"Seed, the source of life, has become a source of death in the hands of global seed and biotechnology corporations," says A. Navdanya of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. "Thousands of farmers have committed suicide in India and other countries since MNCs entered the seed sector through globalization. Farmers who have had to sell their kidneys or whose family members committed suicide gave testimonies of how seed/chemical monopolies are squeezing profits by extracting the very life of poor peasants."
And you thought war was the Iraqi people's biggest problem. Note the folks at grain.org:
Most recently, new legislation in Iraq has been carefully put in place by the United States that effectively hands over the seed market to transnational corporations. This is a disastrous turn of events for Iraqi farmers, biodiversity and the country's food security. While political sovereignty remains an illusion, food sovereignty for the Iraqi people has been made near impossible by these new regulations. When the new law—on plant variety protection (PVP)—is put into effect, seed saving will be illegal and the market will only offer proprietary "PVP-protected" planting material "invented" by transnational agribusiness corpor–ations. The new law totally ignores all the contributions Iraqi farmers have [for millennia] made to development of important crops like wheat, barley, date and pulses. Its consequences are the loss of farmers' freedoms and a grave threat to food sovereignty in Iraq, as it has been in India and other countries."
In addition to desertification, expunging plant diversity, and cultural obliteration intensive monocropping made the industrial factory model possible for animal husbandry. The swath of ecological and health destruction cut by the meat and poultry industries alone is absolutely staggering, the merciless abuse of animals in the process beyond comprehension.
In their publication Blood, Sweat, and Fear Human Rights Watch correctly discerns the profit formula of the United States' meat and poultry industry as dependent upon "achieving expanded operations with economies of scale, low costs, and accelerated production speeds."
That profit "scale", investment "cost," and cash-in "speed" needed three ingredients: A pervasive monocrop, cheap oil, and slave-like labor. With miles of Midwestern corn and soy, war in the Middle East, and the virtual agri-colonizing of an ill-defined but aptly named Third World, all the pieces were in place to take the animals off the land and create low-budget meat houses in concentrated feeding operations better known as factory farms. There's your low cost meat.
Right now, hundreds of thousands of cows live crammed in the most efficient space with no room to move. Wallowing in their own filth, they are branded, dehorned, and castrated, all without anesthetics. Naturalists once classified these animals as ruminants because they eat grass then chew the cud regurgitated from their specially designed multiple-chambered stomachs. Only, these bovines have no grass to eat, just monocropped corn. It's called grain-feeding and dooms them to slow, agonizing death by poisoning.
Grain feeding cows is practiced to make them obese, because industry sells them mostly by the pound not according to health quality. The meat of the obese cow is also unhealthy for humans. Indeed, red meat got its bad-health reputation from grain-fed cows because the grain makes it high in cholesterol and fat.
Cows that eat the grass Allah made them to eat, while getting exercise on the pasture, are leaner and their meat is lower in cholesterol, higher in protein, and their fat is full of healthful Omega 3 essential fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and more.
Grain for ruminants is like candy, a good treat in small amounts. But a cow that goes from grass to only grain will die. And so it is that every university agricultural extension has instructions on how to introduce cows slowly to a grain diet without immediately killing them. Yet they will be sick cows, and so with the grains must go medication to keep them alive!
Enter the number one consumer of drugs in the world: The livestock industry—and if you're getting the logic of the factory farm, you should have guessed by now that it is the leading incubation center for drug-resistant bugs in the world. "Specifically there is a growing cognizance of the relationship between increased antibiotic use and the development of 'super-germs'," says biotechnologist Kevin Jones in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that American agriculture uses a minimum of 25 million pounds of antibiotics every year, making antibiotics the cornerstone of the industry.
The reason for this is simple. These farms are not much unlike the unsanitary disease-infested cities of the Dark Ages where plagues wiped out people. Factory farm cities have no sewage system for the 1.5 billion tons of manure annually collecting in underground water lagoons, some bigger than football fields, wreaking havoc on local ecologies and surrounding communities that have to live with the stench in the best scenario, leaking and spilling in the worst.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that manure has already polluted 35,000 miles of United States rivers. For example, in June of 1995, 25 million gallons of manure spilled from an 8-acre lagoon in North Carolina, killing 10 million fish in the New River and closing 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shell fishing—and this is just one of many cases.
Dairy and egg are the cruelest industries. Cows supposed to live 15 years, now go down in three (and hence are called "downers"), at which time they are literally dragged off to slaughter for further profit. Before that their udder-diseased milk becomes filled with somatic cells—otherwise known as pus.
If it's a calf fated at birth for gourmet use, it's hauled off, chained down, crated, and fed a milk substitute that includes cow blood. Anemic and often suffering from diarrhea, pneumonia, and lameness, it is killed young and fed to you as delightful veal.
Maximizing profit, of course, means animals that get fat fast or produce quick and often. Laying hens are jammed tight into crate-like cages with no room to stretch to even open a wing. Their beaks and toes are cut off to stop cannibalistic and aggressive behavior between stressed out chickens. Unhappy chickens (surprise!) are not productive, so they are subjected to forced-molting by two weeks of complete starvation, a practice that shocks their systems into laying eggs. This breed of chicken is not used for meat, so the male chicks are culled and mostly thrown live into dumpsters by the thousands. (It is the cheapest way to kill them).
If you're really thinking ahead you will have already guessed that increasing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, incurable diseases like mad cow, and contagious epidemics like avian flu all are now seriously thought by researchers to have had their origins in the factory farm. But where others sense adversity the food corporations have smelled opportunity and the chance to blame and, so, nearly wipe out the back yard and small farm producer the world over, leaving us even more completely in the thralldom of the multinationals.
Few of us can imagine this land of milk and honey running dry, but the harsh reality is there is a reason why three-fourths of the world is destitute. We are consuming not only more than our share of the planet's wealth, but irresponsibly using up our own children's inheritance and almost guaranteeing their poverty.
These unimaginably cruel practices do not need a scholar of Islam to state the obvious. The place and treatment of animals in Islam is copiously addressed throughout this religion's teachings. If the Prophet, salla Allahu 'alayhee wa sallam, informed us of Hellfire for the woman who imprisoned and starved a cat to death, and Paradise for one who climbed down a well to water from a shoe a thirsting dog, what then is our responsibility before Allah for the treatment of the animals He gave us to eat, to say nothing of our own health?
In addition, one need not be an economist to understand that if it takes, along with a whole trough of antibiotics, an estimated 4.8 pounds of grain, 390 gallons of water, and .25 gallons of gasoline to produce a pound of beef, according to the Millennium Project, small sustainable farmers, who use their families, land, rain and sun to farm, will become extinct because they will be undersold by the rich industrial food giants—until, that is, the latter become our only choice. Then prices will continue to rise until the masses of people will not be able to afford even bread.
III. Pass the Carcinogens, Please
EVER-INCREASINGLY WE are bombarded with a growing list of health ailments, all food related—correction, all industrial-food related. It is no longer farfetched to say that we are consuming more toxic substances in our food than nutrients. Our food is grown swimming in chemicals, then processed with chemicals, then preserved with still more chemicals, and finally packaged in chemical plastics and transported. No wonder the hallmark of modern-day food is (worthless) artificial enrichment.
Hormones and Pathogens
Muslim leadership in the halal food industry currently deems as acceptable (by way of loopholes) the practice of administering artificial hormones to cows, whether to increase growth or milk production. Yet there is a growing body of evidence showing the deleterious effects of hormones in milk (and in the water supply by way of manure)!
The EU has banned the use of such hormones, whose effects include altering of the human hormone balance, developmental abnormality, infertility, cancer, and early onset of puberty in girls, which puts them at greater risk of developing breast cancer and other female-prevalent cancers.
Moreover, the sheer problem of automated, high-speed slaughterhouses makes it impossible for workers to clean off the manure caked all over the animals. Meat is inevitably contaminated, which has led to the new practice of irradiating it before it leaves the slaughterhouse. This kills all bacteria, good and bad, and destroys cells that research shows further degrades the nutritional value of the meat.
The excessive antibiotic use in factory animals has made one out of every six cases of campylobacter, a common food poisoning bacteria, resistant to the fluoroquinolones normally used to treat it. Nearly all staph infections are now resistant to penicillin and newer drugs. Salmonella, enterococcus, and shigella (dysentery) are all showing widespread antibiotic resistance for the same reason.
As more and more classes of antibiotics become useless, more and more sicknesses are becoming prevalent. In 2000, the USDA estimated the cost from just these five bacterial foodborne pathogens as $6.9 billion, causing 76 million human illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,200 deaths. In the same year, however, clinics reported cases of 250 foodborne pathogens.
Pesticides in our bodies
Pesticides are one of the most common toxic substances found in food. They impair the immune system and cause a whole slew of diseases. Time was, the primary public health concern for pesticides was acute severe poisoning by accidental exposure or ingestion, and the long-term potential for cancer.
Today, we know that pesticides in our food affect the nervous, endocrine (glands and hormones), immune, and reproductive systems. They also pose increased threats to infants, young children, the unborn, and other individuals especially susceptible to health problems caused by toxic pollutants. Pesticides have been linked to Parkinson's disease, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, emotional disorders, weakened immune systems, birth defects, and low sperm counts.
The vast majority of crops grown in the United States feed farm animals, not humans and contain far higher levels of pesticides than those meant for human consumption.
But pesticide residues accumulate in the fat and tissue of animals. More than 90 percent of the pesticides Americans consume are found in the fat and tissue of meat and dairy products, which in turn accumulate in our fat over our lifetime.
Furthermore, long after their use, pesticides remain in the soil and water. Despite being banned in 1972, DDT has been found in the breast milk of over 99 percent of all mothers in America. As the food supply becomes more consolidated and global, so does the risk of exposure to toxic pesticides that were banned in the United States, but which chemical companies still sell legally abroad to mostly poor countries which send it right back to us in the foods agribusiness grows on their lands.
According to the EPA, over 1 billion tons of pesticides are used every year in America. Centers for Disease Control studies show that more than 90 percent of the thousands of people tested carried a mixture of pesticides, many linked to serious health problems.
IV. The Deception of Halal Certification
A MUSLIM MOTHER walks into a store grateful to find the shelves filled with products stamped with a little 'H' inside a triangle. This symbol of halal assures her the food she is buying is good for both the bodies and souls of her Muslim family.
Little does she know these 'halal' foods are potentially harmful to the health of her children, that her money is going to support an industry that is oppressing her relatives back home in South Asia, the Middle East, North and West Africa, or South America; and that by eating what is lawfully questionable and certainly non-tayyib she is possibly not following the dictates of the Quran and Sunnah and positively not their spirit.
Certifying foods as halal and tayyib could be a great service to Muslims. The organizational leaders of a number of halal certification programs (HCP's) have rightfully expressed much anxiety about fraudulent halal business activity in the Muslim community and tout certification as an essential protection for the Muslim consumer.
But these programs, as they stand, are a disservice to the Muslim community because they will mislead it, contribute to the degeneration of its health, and perpetuate the egregious injustices of the multinational food system on people in the name of Islam.
These are objections I have repeatedly raised in detail to the relevant halal food committees with no qualitative change beyond rhetoric and stonewalling. Such halal labeling programs have three major faults in their current forms that will render them stillborn and non-viable as far as a genuine Islamic response to the corporate corruption of the food industry: (1) There are non-tayyib and questionably halal foods that will be unavoidably certified; (2) Muslim buying power will be used in a way that is not in our best interests, rather in ways that damage Muslims and others; and (3) the issue of halal is far more comprehensive than no pork or alcohol and cutting the correct veins!
Modern food industry practices (the very little that is known of it in the Muslim community) may be acceptable to Muslim leadership partly due to a misapprehension that, practically speaking, there are no other choices for us and that any other way of getting food would be an excessive hardship for Muslims. This fallacy exists because there is a virtual vacuum in the community about food knowledge. In fact, not only are there solutions, but there are ways to implement them. Numerous studies have been and continue to be done on the ramifications of the food industry and the solutions to the health and welfare devastation it is wreaking. Many are the alternative groups at work on feasible food strategies.
There is no doubt that the challenge of seeking to educate the Muslim community about the grave problem of food today—and to do this in order to inspire them to participate in, and innovate, a local, sustainable food movement in conjunction with other urban Americans and local farmers—is palpably daunting.
Yet there is another reality about setting the direction of Muslims and food in America that is easily as influential over Muslim organizational leadership positions as the intimidating task of leading Muslims to activate local food system alternatives to the current food pharaohs; namely, the incredible attractiveness of being in a position to "get a piece of the pie," as one speaker put it in an apt metaphor at a recent Halal Food Conference.
That is, the little halal stamp gives Muslim organizational agencies a whopping opportunity to share in the multinational food corporations' billions of dollars of profits. Accepted or authorized halal food certifying entities will undoubtedly reap millions for affixing their seals of approval on food products.
This is not to mention the staggering profits awaiting halal food producers and resellers—all of which hinges on enacting halal standards that state and, perhaps, federal government agencies will enact into law and enforce thereafter, becoming, in the process, the unlikely secular arbiter of Muslim Sacred Law.
The Halal Standard Debates
The halal certification program argument goes something like this: It is understood that there are egregious health, economic, and animal treatment injustices in the current multinational food oligopoly throughout the world, and that this may even impinge on the halal nature of some food items. But Muslims must start somewhere, and the best way is to lead Muslim Americans to make concerted efforts to educate the industry and encourage it to cater to their requirements. We can then build up our halal standards little by little.
This 12-step type of 1990s response would be a logical one if we lived in another century or on another planet. But, the fact is this position is either incredibly disingenuous or amazingly naïve. There is no way to build up the halal standards little by little until we reach "full" halal and tayyib, that is lawful and wholesome, food compliance, food which is produced under just and ethical principles—not within a system that is virtually tyrannized by MNC's powerful enough to bring down nations! Rather, the proposed "little" path requires baby steps that will go on and on supporting and perpetuating the mess of an industry so that we may one day have absolutely no remaining choices.
First, "our" requirements should consist of more than just partaking of the American consumer lifestyle minus the alcohol and pork! "Our" needs should include concepts of health and justice: Healthy choices for us and our families, and justice so that other people can choose healthy lifestyles for their families.
Second, the food industry is ultra complex to understand partly because it has undergone drastic changes in the last half century, and partly because of the unprecedented use of propaganda to mystify the masses with whatever image they portray of themselves and their products. Muslims need to x-ray the industry and understand it so as not to ignorantly fall under its control.
Third, "our" choice to give our spending power to the food giants is suicide. Muslims are a lucrative market, and so is certification. Either we will be paid off with a share of the certification business while directing our money, and therefore support, to the food giants by choosing them to provide us with food. Or, we can choose to control our own food by working with small scale and local food producers and consequently build up our own local communities' economies, Muslims and others, in a far more beneficial and long lasting way than a handful of organizations just lapping up a few proceeds.
It is telltale that at one recent conference the main speakers were mostly businessmen, some of whom are key players in the formulation of the standards, a disturbing conflict of interest. Many tried point-blank to get the audience riled up about the million dollar businesses that will come about, the tidbits Muslims will be scraping up from the food industry. Inconceivably, no one spoke about the halal standards themselves. Indeed, I was sternly told not to speak about the food industry or the standards while on one of the panels.
Rather, "we," the community, in whose behalf all of this is taking place, were promised that our increasing single mother families will have halal baby food, and the two-parent working homes will have halal fast food, and that the quality will surely be superior to what we are now exposed. The fact that the quality is now literally shameful, that the trend of the industry shows that not only is food becoming less nutritious, and more pathogenic, but also that we will have less and less choices, was never even touched on.
They promised us not only that we will get a "piece of the pie," but that the pie is going to get bigger with us! All this in a world that is increasingly engaged in wars, with an agricultural industry that is destroying the planet we live on! So, was that a promise or a threat?
Muslims want to jump onto the unsustainable bandwagon for a "piece of the pie" as if we can magically create larger water tables, or arable topsoil, or oil! We think we can become competitive with the MNC's, businesses so large they challenge the GDP of nations, corporations that have long ago left the sphere of competitiveness behind in their dust. (Over half of the world's top 100 richest entities are corporations. The rest are countries).
It is bad enough that hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, even the sweetener that kills rats called aspartame, among many other artificially lab-created food ingredients that are proven health hazards and none of which have nutritional benefits, are currently considered 'halal'!
Basically, anything that clears the no-alcohol or pork threshold is halal, even genetically modified foods that most of the rest of the world is fighting against. In an age where foods are created in labs and genetically modified and patented, we are encountering a new scale of issues that demands re-examination of our beliefs in light of the Shari'ah and not FDA regulations (one strong belief now apparently being that if the FDA (which many now call the Faster Death Administration, instead of "Food and Drug") allows things to be put in our foods it must be good for us).
Eight Halal Standard That Aren't
Recently, I was able to see a current halal standards for meat proposal, which focuses mainly on two aspects, slaughter and feed, neither of which is addressed properly. On the surface, the standards look impressive: Humane slaughter, kindness and mercy to disease-free animals, vegetarian feed, no antibiotics and hormones. But reality is a lot more difficult to address than words. Look beyond the word makeup of the following eight proposed halal standards.
Humaneness is simply not defined. Using words like "humane" or "natural" unspecified by law can mean anything. Is shackling, hanging a live, conscious one-ton cow by a back leg humane or not? Is restraining the cow by clamping metal tongs in its nostrils and pulling its head forward? It is according to these halal standards because these are common practices. In fact, aside from the few and far between humane slaughterhouses in the country, these are the only ways to slaughter that I have encountered, along with stunning, a practice which is made bizarrely permissible on chickens for the halal stamp.
"Disease-free" is an oxy-moron in factory-farmed animals. All the animals coming out of industrial farming are unhealthy. But diseased? That depends on how you define it. So either none of the animals qualify or we are not agreeing on what disease means. Indeed, USDA law allows animals with tumors to be sold for food, though the liver cannot be sold because it is damaged by acidosis from the grain-feeding; and the spinal cord and head cannot be sold for fear of mad cow. Moreover, all the animals are drugged up on antibiotics. The point is disease is considered a normal part of modern agriculture. Thus farms and slaughterhouses have rules to deal with it.
The references to hormones and antibiotics still allow their use because they address slaughterhouses and not the consequences of their usage on farms. In addition (a) hormone usage is by law subject to a quarantine period before slaughter. So animals may be technically free at the time of slaughter, but the damage is done. Moreover, the hormones have already been released into the soil and water via manure eventually getting to humans; (b) chickens are not given hormones by law so adding that to the halal disclosure form means nothing; and (c) if you look carefully at the standards it refers only to subtherapeutic antibiotics, which means that animals can and do still get massive antibiotics regularly in their water for medication purposes.
Reference to vegetarian feed does not stipulate this must be the practice for the duration of the animal's life. The standards allow a loophole to become the norm by quarantining animals for 60 days on vegetarian feed to make them halal. Does this protect us from mad cow disease and other cause-and-effect consequences of feeding ruminants meat, which is exactly what most gain-feed contains? No, it merely perpetuates the problem.
Moreover, vegetarian feed is not specific enough. It means not cow-healthy grass but cow-sickening grain-feed—all that genetically modified corn and soy that are replacing the Amazon and making the cows ill.
That animals can be purchased from auctions, which many are, means that there is no way to verify how the animals were raised or fed.
The issues not addressed in the halal standards are as significant as those inadequately dealt with—including pesticides, genetic modification, labor exploitation, ecological destruction, and animal cruelty.
There are inconsistencies between the halal standards and the disclosure form that the halal act requires to be filled out and posted by anyone in the halal business. For example, there are no questions on the disclosure form addressing humane slaughter issues—issues that are, in any case, moot, unenforceable, and unrealistic in the current industry.
Finally, the disclosure form allows for fraudulent misrepresentation of products, one of the major reasons for enacting the halal act. It lists numerous questions that allow for multiple standards, some higher than others. But halal businesses only have to truthfully answer questions that pertain to the standards of "their" certifying agency. Any questions beyond the scope of these narrow critieria can be falsely answered without any liability. In addition, how many businesses are going to seek out the higher standards when the economic environment we are choosing to operate in would make it difficult and unprofitable?
The Questionable Knowledge of the Knowledgeable
This brings me to the next point. The Islamic scholars, business people, nutritionists, and others who approved the standards know, on the whole, little about the whole food industry. Some know how the animals are raised, some about the thousands of food ingredients, and some the USDA policies on slaughter. Then there are our religious scholars with their invaluable Islamic knowledge, but most of whom know little about the food industry, which, frankly, makes their religious rulings suspect.
Totally missing are the food industry experts, the farmers, the local food specialists, the policy professional, the economic and ecology scholars. When I raised this blatant oversight to some halal standards representatives, their response was that such research and awareness can come at a later date. The current and only goal is enactment of these standards into law in states like Illinois and New Jersey as models.
This is like asking for approval for car safety standards from people who know nothing about car safety issues! I find it odd that someone like myself has to remind Islamic institutions that ultimately we are not talking about our own opinions, but the commandments of Allah, Most High.
The pervasive scope of the food dilemma granted, still we cannot derive rules of Islam applicable to our society without first thoroughly understanding our present day issues. Had the mad cow scare never been made public the Muslim community might well still be unaware that animals are fed animals, therefore making them haram (according to some schools) to eat. Isn't it likely that there are other practices that would call the halalness of other foods into question?
A final word is in order about the notion of tayyib, or wholesomeness of food, which I have mentioned. Allah's injunction to His prophets—O messengers! Eat of all that is wholesome, and do righteous deeds. Indeed, I am all knowing of all that you do (Sûrat Al-Mu'minûn, 23:51)—strongly indicates an ethical dimension to halal. In a widely distributed letter on this topic, one writer commented on this verse:
With these words, God enjoins His prophets with an essential permission that is also a comprehensive instruction: They may eat all that is wholly beneficial—from its substance, to its production, to its acquisition, to its consumption. If it was grown in purity, gotten lawfully, and eaten appropriately it was made permissible to them. In other words, the food of the men of God was necessarily to be naturally, morally, and spiritually good, with no adulteration in any dimension of this closed sequence of goodness. This is implicit in the Quran's injunction and the operative Arabic word 'al-tayyibât' at its heart. In addition, many are the statements of the Prophet, God's blessings and peace be ever upon him, in which he disclosed to the community his conscientious practice of not eating food the origin or transactional intent of which was not explicitly known to him.
Not upholding the critical aspects of our religion, which mandates that food be tayyib, not only halal, means that we have ridiculed our divine tradition in the name of ease, acquiescing in the mortal standards of others. Surely, Islam calls on us to show more concern about the issues affecting our food, especially that which would be receiving the official label halal.
V. A Homemade Solution
THERE IS MUCH to be said about how seemingly helpless individuals like us and as fragile a community as are Muslims in America can begin to make a difference in the food life of the nation and the world. As in all things, it begins with our own immediate and daily actions, the proverbial first pebble that starts the avalanche.
The odd fact is that both the Muslim and Jewish communities could be key players in any breakthrough solution because of the separation of state and religion ethos and because we both have such defined dietary laws. For now, religious food standards are untouchable by the government.
For this reason, it is essential that Muslims, first and foremost, vigorously take up the challenge of closely defining the Shari'ah of tayyib and halal food pertinent to the time and place we live in. This point cannot be overstated. For this charge alone will inevitably shift Muslims into badly needed new food paradigms. I say new, but, truly, they are old. They are Islam's food paradigms.
With Quran and Sunnah definitions of what is halal and tayyib, any standards we form could very realistically and quickly become the backbone of the sustainable food movement, which needs a community like ours—with the policy-setting latitude we have, whether we know it or not—to blaze the new American food trail. Ours would form the umbrella under which policies could blossom in favor of local farmers and local food infrastructures because such regulations could not be touched by the state and therefore the MNC's.
This is truly an arena where the Muslim community—by insisting to free itself of the complete hardship that each of us as individuals experience in finding wholesome and undoubtedly halal food—can be among the leaders in an issue that is threatening the well being of so much life on our planet.
In terms of economics, such a move would be far more profitable than what is currently proposed. It will put money not only in the businesses carrying out certification, but with Muslim food sellers and the many workers in our community who would find a tremendous number of new jobs created.
In addition, solidarity will be formed with other Americans—farmers and urbanites—because grassroots relationships will develop, based on mutual justice and righteousness.
We are very fortunate, indeed, that there are many experts in food policy, sustainability, local economies, and related areas. Truth be told, without them we are currently in no position to take on such a mission. It is also fortuitous that these people, the "local food" community, as I have come to call them, will welcome us with open and sincere arms, unlike many of the powerful of America, who we always seem so eager to pursue, but who continue to plague us with hurtful accusations and propaganda.
Here are two short lists to help you help yourself and your community:
What should the community do?
Prepare comprehensive portfolios of the food industry and issues for Islamic scholars and work with them to establish proper definitions of halal and tayyib within the context of the real food industry
Scholars, imams, speakers, and teachers should preach these standards in the masajid and schools, propagate the meaning of "true" halal and tayyib food, and encourage people to get involved in implementing the standards
Conversation should begin between communities and local farmers and food activists (you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how and with whom to make those connections)
Local businesses should connect with local farmers and local food processors and work out specific agreements according to our standards
Local distribution networks should be developed—which means jobs—work that ought to go to the people and neighborhoods that need them so coalitions can be formed between our own communities and networks
What should you be doing?
Familiarize yourself with the food and agriculture-oriented verses of the Quran and the statements of the Prophet, salla Allahu 'alayhee wa sallam.
Re-budget, so that you can pay more for organic and local food (food costs are a difficult and complicated topic, but basically, as both supply and demand increase, as long as there are efficient distribution networks, the prices should decrease again)
Start slowly changing eating habits: Cut out the fast food and junk food. None of these things should have the halal label on them because they are not really 'food' and because they are completely unethically produced
Demand that community leadership make this issue a priority
The prophets of the Quran all focused on the unifying message of One God, while at the same time enjoining right ethical behavior as a demonstration of this belief. This too is our challenge as Muslims in America, and nowhere is it more needed than in our own and the world's food reform.