Food, Inc and Omnivore’s Dilemma

Those of you who have taken our Discovery Class, and particularly week 5, should not be surprised to discover that I strongly believe the gospel informs us and empowers us with a Creation and Cultural Mandate to be redemptive in how we see and do our vocations, how we enjoy and participate in the arts, how we use and treat the environment, how we raise and use our livestock and grow our produce; in short—how we image God in creation and culture as image bearers of the image of God in Christ. What does it mean to be human beings created in the image of God and entrusted with the call to image God for his glory and our reflection and enjoyment of his glory? The fact that I’m highly interested in exploring this question specifically as it relates to farming practices should not be new to you if you attended that class.

So along these lines, I’ve enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s (not a Christian) book called “Omnivore’s Dilemma”—a book about how the growing industrialization of our food supply has increasingly brought destruction to the environment, a blatant mistreatment of animals, and an escalating harm to our health as consumers. And I believe this is an injustice that the gospel confronts.

I saw the film “Food, Inc.” at the Ragtag Monday night. And now I understand why it was voted by our staff team as the number-one favorite of this year’s True/False Film Festival. I had not seen it until this last Monday. But I discovered that it was a kind of film version of the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” In fact, it’s author Michael Pollan is seen and heard quite a bit in the film, and I also saw in the credits that he served as a consultant to the film as well. While keeping in mind that this film (and book) is clearly just one side of the argument (and there are always two sides), I do recommend that you try to see it while it’s still playing at the Ragtag. You can have a meal first at Uprise Bakery (connected to Ragtag), which strives to serve mostly locally grown, organic meats, cheese, eggs, and produce. Personally, I found the Cuban Pulled Pork sandwich delicious Monday night. And you can take your glass of wine into the theater with you to watch the film. (All part of fulfilling the cultural mandate, of course.)

According to Ragtag’s website, theses are the remaining showtimes and dates:
* Wednesday, July 29: 4:45PM, 7:15PM
* Thursday, July 30: 4:45PM, 7:15PM
* Friday, July 31: 4:15PM, 6:30PM
* Saturday, August 1: 2:00PM, 4:15PM, 6:30PM
* Sunday, August 2: 1:00PM, 3:15PM, 5:30PM
* Monday, August 3: 4:15PM, 6:30PM
* Tuesday, August 4: 6:30PM, 8:45PM
* Wednesday, August 5: 5:00PM, 7:15PM
* Thursday, August 6: 6:45PM, 9:00PM

I particularly liked watching and listening to the interview with a Virginia farmer named Joel Salatin. Joel’s Polyface Farm is called a “sustainable” farm, and he is also heavily featured in Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Here’s a description of what “sustainable” looks like in Omnivore’s Dilemma in regard to Joel’s Polyface Farm:

Polyface Farm raises chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, and pigs, plus tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries on one hundred acres of pasture patchworked into another 450 acres of forest, but if you ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living (Is he foremost a cattle rancher? A chicken farmer?) he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms, “I’m a grass farmer.” The first time I heard this designation I didn’t get it at all—hay seemed the least (and least edible) of his many crops, and he brought none of it to market. But undergirding the “farm of many faces,” as he calls it, is a single plant—or rather that whole community of plants for which the word “grass” is shorthand. “Grass,” so understood, is the foundation of the intricate food chain Salatin has assembled at Polyface, where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis. Salatin is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage; the dance has made Polyface one of the most productive and influential alternative farms in America. Though it was only the third week of June, the pasture beneath me had already seen several rotational turns. Before being cut earlier in the week for the hay that would feed the farm’s animals through the winter, it had been grazed twice by beef cattle, which after each day-long stay had been succeeded by several hundred laying hens. They’d arrived by Eggmobile, a ramshackle portable henhouse designed and built by Salatin. Why chickens? “Because that’s how it works in nature,” Salatin explained. “Birds follow and clean up after herbivores.” And so during their turn in the pasture, the hens had performed several ecological services for the cattle as well as the grass: They’d picked the tasty grubs and fly larvae out of the cowpats, in the process spreading the manure and eliminating parasites. (This is what Joel has in mind when he says the animals do the work around here; the hens are his “sanitation crew,” the reason his cattle have no need of chemical parasiticides.) And while they were at it, nibbling on the short cattle-clipped grasses they like best, the chickens applied a few thousand pounds of nitrogen to the pasture—and produced several thousand uncommonly rich and tasty eggs. After a few weeks’ rest, the pasture will be grazed again, each steer turning these lush grasses into beef at the rate of two or three pounds a day. By the end of the season Salatin’s grasses will have been transformed by his animals into some 25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits, and 30,000 dozen eggs. This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process—in fact, it will be the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot (this thanks to the increased earthworm traffic).

Here’s a video about the Chipotle Founder visiting Joel and Polyface Farms (On Nightline). Well-worth watching.

And while we don’t get this info in the film “Food, Inc,” in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” we are told right away that Joel is a Christian who is farming according to his worldview. I’m not surprised at all by that. He strives to be redemptive and reflective of God’s glory in all of his farming practices: the way he uses and treats his animals, the way he uses and treats the environment, the way he treats his family and workers, and the way he seeks to provide healthy and nutritious food for his costumers. His costumers are those who either buy from him directly at the farm, or at a farmers market, or the restaurants he’s built a reputation with as a high quality supplier.

As an aside, I particularly liked this quote from Joel in Omnivore’s Dilemma;

“You know what the best kind of organic certification would be? Make an unannounced visit to a farm and take a good long look at the farmer’s bookshelf. Because what you’re feeding your emotions and thoughts is what this is really all about. The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview. You can learn more about that by seeing what’s sitting on my bookshelf than having me fill out a whole bunch of forms.”

I think that quote applies to so many things. Not just farmers, but to all of us. What we’re reading really IS who we are. Again, just an aside, but an important and challenging one.

I also enjoyed what Michael Pollan (who, I wrote in my previous blog entry, is probably an agnostic who leans toward atheist) writes in Omnivore’s Dilemma as his impression of Joel’s Christian faith when he had his first meal with him and his family at their farmhouse: “Joel began the meal by closing his eyes and saying a rambling and strikingly non-generic version of grace, offering a fairly detailed summary of the day’s doings to a Lord who, to judge by Joel’s tone of easy familiarity, was present and keenly interested.”

Anyway, from reading both Omnivore’s Dilemma as well as from Michael Pollans subsequent book, “In Defense of Food,” Jeannette and I are much more motivated now to support sustainable farming (to “vote with our fork”) and to eat organic, locally-grown meats (that were grass-fed on a pasture), cheeses, eggs, and produce when we can, and to eat primarily whole foods (i.e., not processed foods), and to eat more fruits and vegetables when in season.

So we’ve been enjoying buying some of our foods from the Columbia Farmers Market. It’s actually kind of fun and there really is nothing that tastes better than truly fresh produce. But in all candor, to us, the grass-fed steaks take a little getting used to after we’ve been raised eating over-fattened, corn-fed beef. But it is much healthier for us and much better treatment of the cattle and better for the environment. (Tip: I’ve learned that you have to cook grass-fed beef on lower heat in a slower manner, and not to overcook it.) The grass-fed hamburger, however, is actually much better tasting than “normal” hamburger, in our opinion. The cage-free/free-range pasture-fed chickens and the eggs there are awesome! You can definitely taste a better difference.

And this Saturday night there’s a special Farmers Market food, drinks, and music event that we’re attending. Here’s the info about that. Hope to see you there.

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