In “Shut up and Eat,” a recent essay in The New Yorker, a former restaurant reviewer laments,
By the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that more or less the entire developed world was shopping and cooking and dining out in a way that was given over to self-definition and self-expression and identity-creation and trend-catching and hype and buzz and the new thing, which sometimes had to do with newness (foams! gels! spherification!) and sometimes with new ways of being old (slow food! farm-to-table! country ham!).
Clearly, the last thing we need is a new food trend. I’ve never met a food I didn’t love (save caviar and lima beans), and my appetite even led my in-laws to pronounce me, with astonishment and approval, “a good eater” upon our first meal together. I would have considered myself the last person on earth to adopt a label for my eating habits.
But a few years ago, in the middle of a dinner party with friends, I suddenly felt sick and excused myself from the table. I passed out on my way to the restroom. Later tests showed the likely cause as a newly developed beef allergy. Coincidentally (perhaps providentially), I became involved in animal welfare advocacy around the same time and joined the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Although I’d tried to avoid the uncomfortable facts about how most meat gets to the table, I could live in denial no longer. This convergence of events forced me to face both personal health concerns and the larger ethical issues surrounding meat production and consumption. By necessity, I cut beef entirely from my diet. By choice, I began striving to eat only meat I know has been humanely raised and harvested. I became a reducetarian.
I didn’t know that’s what I was until recently when the term was introduced at a TEDx Talk by Brian Kateman. “Reducetarian,” Kateman explains, “describes a community of individuals who are committed to reducing their consumption of meat and can encourage others to…simply eat less meat.” Although I remain skeptical about labels and trends (and, even more, rooting our identity in them), Kateman argues that “labels to describe our eating choices matter a great deal. They determine how seriously we are taken, how our messages our understood, and our feeling of belonging.”
As Christians, our responsibility to steward well our bodies, God’s creatures, and the earth we all share can never be reduced to trend, fashion, or self-identity. Such stewardship is a scriptural command. “Reducetarian” encompasses many approaches to eating, including the flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan, and locavore, and involves both health and sustainability concerns. This philosophy allows us to acknowledge that it may be better in some cases to eat locally sourced meats from small, responsible farms than replace meat with substitutes that must be manufactured, packaged, and transported from afar, a point made in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Reducetarianism also squares well with the balanced, yet exuberant, approach to food taken by Rachel Marie Stone in her excellent book Eat With Joy, which replaces dietary legalism with holism. Sustainable eating, Stone suggests, “means remembering Eden and anticipating the new creation while living here and now.”
A USDA advisory panel recommended this holistic, more sustainable approach to healthy eating shape forthcoming updates to the country’s dietary guidelines. They suggest taking environmental impact into consideration, since what’s good for the environment often overlaps with what’s good for health. According to the recommendations, diets lower in animal-based foods and higher in plant-based foods promote both health and the environment. Indeed, a new report ranking the top diets of 2015 bears this out in its finding that trendy meat-rich diets—supposedly recreating the diets of cavemen of yore—are neither realistic nor advisable today.
Nor is most of the meat we eat today derived by humane means, a reality Christians should be leading the way in changing. Nearly all of the animal products we consume, 99 percent, are produced by factory farms where most animals are condemned to unnatural, miserable, cruel existences that surely break the heart of the Good Shepherd. The time is ripe for creative entrepreneurs to develop food sources (and jobs) that will advance economic and personal flourishing while rejecting cruelty.
A balanced, healthy, and humane approach to eating for most people is the simple one advocated in Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan’s argument for biodiversity in diet reinforces the contention of the proposed USDA eating guidelines that bodily and environmental health are inextricably connected: “When researchers extract a single food from a diet of proven value, it usually fails to adequately explain why the people living on that diet live longer or have lower rates of heart disease or cancer than people eating a modern Western diet. The whole of a dietary pattern is evidently greater than the sum of its parts.”
Our dietary patterns include more than merely our bodily health. In his essay, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Wendell Berry cautions against receiving as merely “passive, uncritical, and dependent” consumers something as central to our humanity as food. “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing,” Berry says. “The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.” Eating, Berry argues, “takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
Regardless of whether you adopt reducetarian as a label or lifestyle, its goals of eating healthfully, promoting sustainable agricultural practices, and reducing animal suffering uphold the biblical mandate to steward well our bodies, the earth, and God’s creatures.