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Moral indigestion: realizing the hidden costs of your hamburger or chicken nuggets could leave an unsettling feeling in your stomach--and conscience.

FORTY YEARS AGO READER'S DIGEST RAN A SERIES OF popular articles uncovering the mysteries of the human body and the threats modern life poses to the organs hidden behind our flesh. In "I am Joe's Lung, Liver, Heart, Kidney, or Brain," readers learned what our organs did, how they worked together to sustain our health, and how they were threatened by vices like smoking, drinking, and overeating.

Two recent books that could have been subtitled "I Am Joe's (and Jane's) Lunch" provide a similar service for the modern industrial eater, who knows far less about where our food comes from and how it is raised, processed, and delivered than our grandparents knew about the mysterious and hidden workings of their bladders and colons. Like the Reader's Digest series, these books provide us with an organic understanding of our bodies, but they do so by uncovering how our eating connects us to the rest of creation and by warning us of the vices of an industrial agriculture threatening our bodies and the environment.

Michael Pollan argues in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006) that the most disturbing trait of industrial eating is the way it hides our relationships to the natural world, and he sets out to uncover these ties (and the moral duties they generate for conscious eaters) by tracing four meals back to the grasses from which they came.

Pollan's first meal is a fast-food lunch he buys at a local McDonald's. But long before we sample the Chicken McNuggets, fries, and 10-gallon sodas his family devours driving away from the pick-up window, Pollan has introduced us to the empires of petroleum and corn lying at the base of our modern industrial food chain. For what separates today's industrial eater from earlier agricultural societies is our growing dependence on oil to produce, process, and deliver our foods, and our increasing reliance on monoculture crops like corn to provide the calories, coloring, and flavor for the thousands of foodstuffs crammed into our supermarkets.

The second and third meals Pollan samples are alternatives to our modern industrial food chain. One is the product of what the author calls big (or industrial) organic--a meal he purchases from a local Whole Foods supermarket--and the other consists of ingredients grown at an alternative organic farm in Swoope, Virginia. What Pollan and we discover in the sampling and study of these meals is that the recent growth of organic foods only addresses some of industrial eating's ills, and that big organic is also reliant on petroleum, monocultures, and the mistreatment of workers.

The last meal Pollan offers up is a hunter-gatherer feast of wild boar and mushrooms prepared for a small group of friends. Though hardly a solution for the world's 6 billion humans, Pollan's narrative reveals just how much labor goes into a real meal (and how little we who eat it usually do). It is a humbling exercise awakening readers to the actual cost of our daily lunch--a cost we have grown accustomed to outsourcing to farmworkers and petroleum.

PART OF THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA IS WHETHER humans--who can eat most anything--should eat meat (or any animal product). And though Pollan opposes the ways industrial eaters treat, slaughter, and eat animals, he believes eating meat is a moral option (for which he offers an interesting evolutionary argument). Peter Singer and Jim Mason disagree, and in The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale Books, 2006) the co-authors focus on the ways industrial agriculture (and factory farms in particular) harm and abuse billions of animals each year.

Like Pollan, Singer and Mason believe industrial eaters are intentionally kept in the dark about how their eating affects others (humans and animals), and they address this blindness by tracing various meals (three, in this case) back to their roots. Unlike Pollan, however, Singer and Mason focus their inquiry on the animals raised and slaughtered in our exploding colonies of factory farms and feedlots and on the workers laboring in these monoculture plantations.

Singer and Mason's first meal is a home-cooked chicken dinner following the "standard American diet"--high in meat and dairy products and processed carbohydrates, low in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Like Pollan's fast-food lunch, this supermarket supper is inexpensive. But Singer and Mason uncover the high and hidden cost of cheap chicken (and eggs and milk) when they take us behind the meat and dairy counters to factory farms that no agribusiness representative wants anyone to see. In overcrowded chicken sheds stinking of ammonia (from droppings), tens of thousands of broilers spend their lives in less space than the placemat they will be served on. The pigs and dairy cows furnishing bacon and milk for this meal fare little better.

For their second meal Singer and Mason sample foods stamped with various "ethical" labels, indicating that the animals raised for this meal were treated with some humanity and compassion, that the vegetables were grown without pesticides, or that the growers were paid a "fair trade" price for their goods. Here the authors explore the virtues of eating locally grown foods and/or supporting Third World farmers.

Singer and Mason's last supper is a vegan meal, in which they address (and argue for) the health and ethics of both eating vegan and raising one's children vegan, and respond to Pollan and others' arguments about the ethics of eating meat. Their answer to the meat question is decidedly different from Pollan's, though all agree about the inhumanity of our current industrial agricultural system's treatment of animals.

PERHAPS THE LESSON FOR CHRISTIANS IN THESE two books is that every time we sit down to break bread with one another we are celebrating a "memorial meal" in which we are called to be conscious and conscientious eaters, people who are grateful for the food that is both "fruit of the vine and work of human hands." Amen.

By PATRICK McCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Previous Article:Why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?
Next Article:Religious Literacy.

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