By: Lindsey Howald Patton
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
I approach most books like this with caution. Why? Because they have a mission. They’re out to change me—change the way I live and the way I see the world. And that sometimes results in a brand new and rather annoying discomfort with the way I already see the world and the way I already live. Usually I don’t want to hear there’s anything wrong with it. Who does? Who really wants to forsake convenience for a cause?
But The Omnivore’s Dilemma is refreshing. It’s not pushy, but it is frank. The first line says, “Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature. And yet what is this place if not a landscape (manmade, it’s true) teeming with plants and animals?”
It’s this question that propels Michael Pollan, a New York Times columnist and author, forward. Where is all of our food—fresh avocados in the middle of winter or perfectly uniform chicken breasts—coming from? How is it grown and raised, exactly? And more importantly, is it grown and raised in a way that we humans, with our unique role in creation, can feel proud of?
The book is broken down into three parts.
Pollan starts with corn, just one kernel of it in a field in Iowa, and tries to track its journey to our dinner plates. It turns out an unexpected amount of corn appears in processed foods, non-food products and diets of animals who were never meant to eat it. For instance, Pollan shows that a chicken nugget is actually more corn than it is chicken. He also covers industrial farming, the influence of tech-heavy corporations, genetically modified crops, land use and more.
The “grass” section in the middle of the book is easily my favorite. That’s when Pollan meets Joel Salatin, a colorful character who goes determinedly against the pressure to produce more at a greater cost to the earth. The way Salatin puts it, he’s in the “redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” Salatin, a Christian, practices uniquely humane farming techniques that work with the earth instead of against it. Salatin’s character is refreshing, especially in comparison to the depressing feedlots Pollan explores where cows are crammed into tiny lots, stand in so much of their own manure it’s poisonous and are force-fed hundreds of pounds of corn daily instead of being allowed to graze on grass.
In the third section Pollan learns about hunting and gathering; he actually prepares a meal from ingredients he grew or hunted himself. The entire experience is very personal and it’s easy to relate; he’s as modern and used to the comforts of city living as the rest of us. He translates his experiences, struggles, questions and doubts right onto the page.
The good thing about Pollan’s perspective is that he loves food. So the book isn’t filled with angry criticism and finger-pointing (an unfortunate resort of some people are passionate about change). Because he loves food so much he questions our relationship to it. He calls our nation one with an eating disorder, and wants to see it restored.
So how should we set about that restoration?
The Lord tells us that this is the earth he has created and will restore. The whole creation is groaning (Romans 8:22). We should do everything in our limited power, in the face of that, to care for creation. After all, it’s a gift. God has given us this beautiful, complex, amazing place to enjoy. He created plants to grow and nourish us. He gave us animals to care for (and certainly eat…at least in my opinion).
It’s confusing to approach this at a time when many of us wouldn’t know how to grow our own food even if someone asked us to. The food appears like magic on supermarket shelves. We don’t necessarily need to all go back to the land and restart an agrarian society—that’s not the point. However, as stewards of this earth it’s our responsibility to question our accepted and very convenient lifestyles and find out: Was that chicken you ate treated ruthlessly, or was it humanely raised with respect to its place in God’s creation? Is the salad mix I buy packaged by a company that’s stripping the land to extract more and more and more from it, without rotating crops or giving the land time to rest? These questions are difficult but powerful, and should change us daily.