Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food as Metaphor

I realize we're late to the bandwagon on this, but my wife and I finally watched Food, Inc. this past weekend.  For those that haven't heard of it, it is a very trendy movie and is being used by the clean food movement to steer consumers from corporate food to local and organic food.

I've read many books on food in the past year and found little new information in Food, Inc. that I hadn't read prior to the film.  The film is at best an introduction to the topic, or for those that don't want to take time to actually read about food.

The gist of the movie is that with the advent of fast food--particularly McDonald's, our food chain has become highly corporatized with an emphasis on profit over quality.  There are those that will try to make too much of the film, arguing for a diet consisting of entirely organic, local food.  But the reality is that much of what has happened in the past fifty years is good, and necessary to support our population.  The producers of Food, Inc. lay the blame for America's food system largely upon the government, which does little to regulate the industry. The film culminates in an appeal for greater government regulation, but more importantly for consumers to vote with their fork, as they say, "You vote three times a day."

America is in a cultural decline—something I've written about extensively in relation to government, but I believe the nation's food crisis is directly related to the decline of American culture. I do not believe that the growth of the fast food industry is coincidental to the decline of our culture. I don't argue that fast-food has led to cultural decline, but that cultural decline has led to fast-food.

 In a way, the story of humanity is one of counterfeiting. Adam and Eve desired a counterfeit God, yet discovered not only the vacuity of the counterfeit, but the idolatry at the heart of it.
 Deism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and liberal Protestantism delivered a counterfeit gospel. In 1913, the U.S. Treasury began printing counterfeit dollars as a result of the Federal Reserve Act. Film and television brought artifice to the masses. Food has undergone a similar metamorphosis. With the rise of industrial agriculture, our food became counterfeit, having once been packed with flavor and nutrition.

 God endowed man with a desire and ability for dominion over creation. We see this all around us in works of art and marvels of engineering. Yet as a result of the fall, man's labors were cursed with futility and toil. The dominion impulse contends at every juncture with the curse of the fall. To complicate matters, man's impulse to dominion is also skewed toward the usurpation of God's ultimate dominion. We see this in the environmental degradation that results from various technologies, wars, the idolatrous nation-state, and so on.

In other words, men have long tried to make something out of nothing, to make lead into gold, or in the language of our age, to "create markets," without regards to consequences. Kings would "clip" gold or silver coins, debase the coinage by replacing small amounts of gold with copper and silver with tin. Others would use false scales. Farmers and merchants have probably been diluting milk with water as long as people have consumed milk. So we should not be at all surprised that in an age of funny money, government entitlement, artificial entertainment, and faux-intellectualism that our food is not what we're told it is.

 The film Food, Inc. explains at length the contrast between the image food corporations project and advertise and the reality of it. Food labels use words like "fresh," "natural," and "farm" as well as pastoral images of wheat fields, cows in pasture, and foods in whole form which are otherwise unrecognizable inside the package. The food industry projects an image of wholeness and health when the actual ingredients consist of unpronounceable chemicals that owe their creation to professionally trained chemists working in laboratories.
But we can all easily avoid most foods with such ingredients because of product labeling. It is the whole foods themselves that are more difficult to discern. 

A good Chef can certainly tell the difference between a good egg and a bad one—but the average consumer will usually have to trust the product marketing to believe one egg is superior to another. The inputs for an egg may vary dramatically, yet both are labeled "egg." One hen may never see the light of day and eat meat and bone byproducts along with its corn mash. Another may be raised in the sun, eating grubs, worms, bugs, and grains. Common sense tells you one will be healthier than the other.

 Scientists have been able to confirm what our common sense tells us. Differences between the average egg at the grocery store and those that are laid by hens raised naturally are dramatic. Hens given access to pasture and outdoors have one third less cholesterol, one quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two-times as much omega-3 fatty acid, seven times more beta-carotene, and three to six times more vitamin D than those eggs from hens living in indoor confinement. To the average, uninformed consumer, the pastured egg is a "rip-off." But to those that want a wholesome egg, the more expensive pastured egg is the "better buy."

There are similar patterns in most every other food. There are reasons that small, family farms are not able to compete against agri-business, and it is not simply a matter of scale. Family farms following traditional practices that simply cost more than industrial farms that cut corners, saving money on the front end, but ultimately deliver an inferior product under the same name.

 The film also exposes the government subsidies behind agri-business which help manage their costs. This is a strength in the film, and a weakness in our society. I firmly believe that we get what we deserve. So if we accept agri-business subsidies as a valid use of taxpayer money, we deserve the inferior egg.

Counterfeit eggs are produced because there is market demand for counterfeit eggs. One may argue that the counterfeiters have created the market, but the market is still to blame for accepting the counterfeit product and not demanding the genuine egg. We accept the counterfeit egg because we've accepted the legitimacy of counterfeiting. We would rather pay less for the counterfeit egg so we can indulge ourselves in other pleasures. We're willing to allow our government to plunder the other half of the tax base so we can have a cheaper egg through farm subsidies, tax breaks, and incentives. These spiritual compromises are only acceptable to the spiritually compromised. 

 This is not to say that it is sinful to buy or eat counterfeit eggs. Saint Paul would take exception to such logic. Again, what is at issue is societal decay and idolatry. The counterfeit eggs are the symptom, not the cause. No matters of eternal consequence will be resolved if we all ate better eggs. Being concerned about the food we eat is a good thing in proper proportion, but the important principle is submission to Christ in all things.
The answer to our food crisis is repentance and faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This may seem like a non sequitor, but I firmly believe that the food crisis facing our nation is directly related to spiritual corruption. Once we submit all of life to the Lordship of Christ, our food crisis will merely be history.

Films like Food, Inc. make the egg the primary principle, ignoring Christ altogether.

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