The Conscientious Omnivore

Posted on Jun 19 , 2009 in Articles

I recently took my 7-year-old daughter to see the movie “Earth.” It’s breathtaking, with vivid scenes of fungi growing, birds tumbling from their nest in their first flight attempts and luminous snowy shots of polar bears struggling to survive in the arctic. But it’s also heartbreaking. In one aching scene, a wolf chases a baby elk, isolating him from his herd as his frantic mother searches for him. The wolf gains on the elk, inch-by-inch, until the helpless creature finally collapses in surrender.

In the screen’s glow, I saw tears pooling in Anna’s eyes. Later, on the way home, her eyes were dry, but salty tear trails remained.

“I know it was sad,” I told her, “But that’s just life in our world for now. It won’t always be like that. The Bible says that one day the wolf will lay down with the lamb.1 Do you know what this means? All animals will one day live in harmony as they once did, back in the Garden of Eden. They won’t always have to eat each other to survive.”

Anna was quiet from the back seat, staring sullenly out the window, so I decided to try a “circle of life” angle. “And you know what else? In our world, animals need predators to thin their populations, otherwise they starve because there isn’t enough food. You know how it is here in Hawaii, with no predators to keep the mongooses in check? They’re everywhere and they’re eating all the bird eggs!”

Anna caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. “Are you telling me that the wolf was doing the baby elk a favor?” she said.

Choosing the Salad Bar

I understand Anna’s angst, over the baby elk, over the entire idea of one creature consuming another. I struggled with this as well, especially when I was a child.

I didn’t like meat’s texture, the color, but most especially I didn’t like the idea. By the time I was in fourth grade, I lost my appetite completely. At lunch, in the school cafeteria, I noticed that there were other vegetarians and they received a special privilege — the salad bar! So one day at lunch, I “became” a vegetarian and queued up with the herbivores.

This phase lasted eight years, until the summer after my senior year of high school. That summer, I volunteered at a homeless shelter. As I scooped Sloppy Joes for people who were grateful for a chance to eat anything, I started to rethink my approach to food. I decided to eat whatever was put before me with gratitude.

Eyes Wide Open

At that time, I didn’t know much about the meat industry, and I didn’t dig for details. I still think it is good practice to eat whatever you are served, without question, when you are in somebody else’s home. But in our home, I try to serve meat, dairy and produce that doesn’t give my conscience indigestion.

Still, it’s not always easy; labels like “organic” or “certified humane” don’t always tell the whole story. I’ve found that the best way to be confident about my food is, when possible, to forge relationships with local farmers, fishermen and ranchers.

Here on the largely rural Big Island of Hawaii, we have more opportunities for this than ever before. My kids love to visit our friends Doug and Sabine who have a free range chicken farm called Kona Hawk Farms. Doug and Sabine take pride in the work they do and the lives their chickens lead, and they allow my kids help gather eggs and plant seedlings. The first time we visited their farm, I was surprised to see a plastic lawn chair situated amongst the chickens. “I really enjoy watching the chickens,” Doug said, “It’s quite pastoral.”

Counting the Cost

Still, there’s no getting around it — in many parts of the country, you pay as much as 30 percent more to buy naturally produced meat, produce and dairy from smaller farms. For large families and people on tight budgets, this might not always be realistic. And in some parts of the country, access is limited.

But whatever situation you’re in, it’s valuable to be aware of how animals are treated, even if you can only take baby steps toward your ideals. As Proverbs 12:10 reads, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.”

In Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson describes a disturbing change in conventional farming methods. It used to be that allowing animals to graze naturally and rest was more cost effective for farmers — animals would live longer, more productive lives when they were given plenty of grazing room and time to rest.

But while this method still yields more nutritionally-dense and better tasting products, it is no longer the most efficient model. As Peterson writes:

Meat and eggs can be produced at a greater quantity at lower cost if the animals involved are crowded into pens too small for them to move around in, fed food laced with animal by-products and antibiotics, and kept awake by bright lights all night long so they eat more and thus grow fatter, and are prevented from destroying one another in these unbearable conditions by the amputation of beak and tails. As horrific as this all sounds (and is) it is tolerated and even encouraged by the culture at large because it results in cheap, abundant food.

There are ways to keep your budget in check while eating with conscience. One is to eat less meat and more vegetables. Some church communities fast from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday. These fasts bring a helpful (and economical) rhythm to meal choices. The practice dates all the way back to the earliest Christian centuries, originating from Judaism, with fasting on Tuesday and Thursday.

In The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, offers another suggestion: Weekday meals should never be a whole anything — you don’t need to consume whole steaks or whole chicken breasts every night. Instead, you can stretch the meat further by serving chicken salad on Monday, chicken fried rice on Tuesday.

An Act of Gratitude

My Hawaiian neighbor tells me that local protocol requires that you never kill an animal without asking permission, you never eat without giving thanks, and you use every part. If you go into the woods to hunt and take something, then you always give something back, even if the something you give back is as simple as cleaning up the mess you have made.

“Here in Hawaii,” she says, “It is all about relationships.”

For the Christian, life is also all about relationships, starting with our relationship with our Creator. Because we are always on the receiving end in this relationship, gratitude sets the tone and colors all the others: with our spouses, our children, our families and friends, the animals that serve us and the land we share.

But it can also shape our choices. Peterson explains:

Whatever we eat, we need to consider where it comes from, and how the animals — and humans — involved in its production were treated. Could we look them in the eye and say thank you without feeling ashamed?

I am haunted by this question, lately, as I push my cart through the isles of Costco and navigate the booths at the farmer’s market. This question challenges me to reach toward that place where I always hope to be — a place of gratitude, eyes and heart open wide.

* * *

  1. “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also, the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)

The article was originally published on Boundless Webzine (link) - and the article image is provided courtesy of Boundless.

One Comment → “ The Conscientious Omnivore ”

  1. Aloha
    As an environmentalist, I appreciate your thoughts. As a failed “mother” by miscarriage and loss, I am eager to read your new book.
    But I have several questions, Do you profess belief in God and Satan? Would someone who reads your books be comforted, even if they cannot believe? Would you speak to someone uncertain as to how to cope with grief over loss of loved ones as an evangelist, or as an equal?
    Please write if you can, and thank you for your insights and compassion

Leave a Reply