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, change 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 within it. 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 writer, 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, as 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 it into our food (a weird and shocking amount of corn appears in our processed foods, non-food products, and diets of animals who were never meant to eat it. At one point you learn a chicken nugget is more corn than it is chicken). You learn about 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 by far 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 Joel puts it on his Web site, he’s in the “redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” A Christian, Joel’s farm practices are amazingly humane and work with the earth instead of against it. Salatin is so 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 getting to graze on grass.
In the third section Pollan learns about hunting and gathering, and actually prepares a meal from ingredients he grew or hunted himself. The entire experience is very personal. The guy is someone like us; he’s as modern and addicted to city living as the rest of us, if not more, and translates his experiences and struggles and questions and doubts right onto the page.
The good thing about Pollan is that he loves food. So the book isn’t filled with angry criticism and pointing the finger (an unfortunate result 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.
Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, “Think Little,” “In this state of total consumerism…all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what if offers us or what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.”
How should we view our relationship to the earth and its creatures? Modern Christians, looking forward to heaven, all but destroyed it because they thought it didn’t matter. But the Lord tells us that this is the earth He has created and will restore. And we’re hurting it. The Bible says the whole creation is groaning (Romans 8:22). We should do everything in our limited power, in the face of that, to care for it. After all, it’s a gift. God has given 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 we wouldn’t know how to grow our own food if someone asked us to. The food appears like magic. We don’t need to all go back to the land and restart an agrarian society — that’s not the point. But 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 part 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 it time to rest? These questions are difficult but powerful, and should change us daily.