continuing a personal reflection on "Why Creation Care Needs Creature Care" ...
As alluded to a moment ago, one the ways in which creation and the creatures most immediately entrusted to our dominion have been groaning most heavily is through the behemoth industry of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s), commonly referred to more critically as ‘factory farms.’ Before expounding on some of the substantial warrant for this criticism, let me just note for a moment the sheer number of creatures affected.
Well beyond ten billion, with a ‘b’, land animals are raised and slaughtered in this system in the U.S. alone each year (to say nothing of billions more harvested at sea), and 450 billion land animals are factory farmed annually worldwide. In our country, this accounts for more than 99% of the collective meat we consume, including around 60% of dairy cows, 78% of cattle raised for beef, 95% of pigs, 97% of turkeys and between 96.5% and 99.9% of chickens, depending on whether they are raised for laying eggs or for meat (credit to Jonathan Safran Foer’s thoroughly researched ‘Eating Animals’ (Little, Brown and Company ‘09) for relaying the global and livestock-specific statistics).
The numbers are mind-boggling, beyond comprehension really. But they’re even more so when we pause for a moment and realize that these figures somehow represent individual creatures, each one of them uniquely and lovingly brought into existence by God and endowed with a sentience, including both an emotional and relational capacity, according to their kind. These capacities mean that they are able to feel physical sensations ranging from pleasure to extreme pain, and that on some level these animals process their physical surroundings and interactions on a psychological level as well, expressing their awareness of well-being or lack thereof in attitudes and actions ranging from healthy and happy to visibly depressed and unhealthy. Even if they process these emotions and behaviors with less complexity and self-consciousness than we do, as C. S. Lewis suggests in the The Problem of Pain, surely what they are able to process of a subnatural environment and a husbandry hardly worthy of the label, largely devoid of individual care and tenderness, amounts to something quite dismal.
Beyond the visceral pain of nonanesthetized debeaking, tail-docking, dehorning and castrating, not to mention cage squabbles, open wounds, live suffocation or maceration, and other industry mutilations and methods of euthanization; and long before an overcrowded and distressing trip to the factory lines of the slaughterhouse, which in itself further abbreviates a number of their lives, everyday existence is no romp in the pasture or mud. To paint just part of the sordid picture (for more detail, Farm Sanctuary is an excellent resource), for egg-laying hens it consists of cramped and injurious wire mesh cages in which they are allotted less than an 8.5” x 11” paper’s worth of space, smaller than they would need to spread their wings, let alone act on other normal instincts or develop natural group dynamics. Broiler chickens and other poultry groomed for the highest possible meat yield are prone to crippling health conditions brought on by their unnatural frames, and are housed in ammonia-reeking, filthy sheds with thousands of their peers. Feedlot cattle are fed diets of corn and grain which are more conducive to beef production than natural grazing habits, and dairy cows are also frequently kept from pasture and face constant impregnation in order to generate a steady flow of milk. They aren’t allowed to nurse their newborns more than a full day, if that, and bellow in grief while their panic-stricken newborns are hauled away to become milkers of their own, or in the case of male calves, confined to sheds so small they can’t turn around or hardly move at all, and thereby toughen the veal delicacy they are intended to deliver in a matter of weeks.
And this depiction of an industrial pig farm by Matthew Scully pretty well sums up their miserable subsistence:
The smallest scraps of human charity-a bit of maternal care, room to roam outdoors, straw to lie on-have long since been taken away as costly luxuries, and so the pigs know the feel only of concrete and metal. They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn, covered with festering sores, tumors, ulcers, lesions, or what my guide shrugged off as the routine ‘pus pockets.’
C.S. Lewis’s description of animal pain - “begun by Satan’s malice and perpetrated by man’s desertion of his post” - has literal truth in our factory farms because they basically run themselves through the wonders of automation, with the owners off in spacious corporate offices reviewing their spreadsheets. (“A Religious Case for Compassion for Animals,” published by The Humane Society of the United States, Animals & Religion ‘07)
Descriptions like these strike me as a modern-day counterpart to the austere allegory which the prophet Ezekiel draws on in reproaching his countrymen’s leadership:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. (34:2-5)
As caretakers of creation, we aspire to model our stewardship of the earth and its creatures after God’s own merciful image, and the compassionate shepherding of our Savior. Gross and institutionalized violations of animal welfare such as those mentioned above should be more than enough reason for us to speak out unreservedly against factory farming, and work toward encouraging ourselves and others to make food purchases which reflect at a minimum the biblical values of humane husbandry and dignity of all created life. But as if that weren’t enough motivation, the ramifications of the CAFO industry for other provinces of environmental and human health are overpowering as well. To be honest, I’ve always been especially puzzled how this connection could be overlooked in discussions of environmental sustainability and stewardship, including those in our own community.
As important as hybrids and other green initiatives are for our transportation needs, recent studies by the Pew Commission and United Nations have shown that farmed animals in general are responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, over one third more than vehicles, trains, planes and ships put together, including even higher percentages of human-caused methane and nitrous oxide. Reports such as these have led some to ask whether Al Gore didn’t miss an inconvenient truth himself. But climate change isn’t the only environmental havoc which industrial animal farming wreaks, as one such critic notes: “Our hunger for meat is the biggest single contributor to planetary degradation. Be it global warming, fossil fuel depletion, water pollution or desertification, meat consumption is a prime contributor to the problem” (David Steele, “Another Inconvenient Truth,” Canada’s Earthsaver, July/Aug ’06).
Additional discharges of airborne and water pollution pose serious problems for laborers and neighboring communities alike, as the sheer numbers of animals and the feed they require and waste they produce absolutely smother and seep out from the condensed space which they inhabit. By way of illustration, average industrial farms produce between 7 and 344 million pounds of manure per year, depending on the livestock, and some of them account for more “raw waste” than entire cities according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Back to the deforestation alluded to previously, the clearing of land for animal farming is a leading cause, especially in Latin American. And long before a relatively small portion of protein is yielded by these creatures at the processing plant, staggering amounts of feed, water and fossil fuels are devoted to their development and inevitable fate, all of which could be allocated with much greater efficacy to human needs or preservation. And this in addition to the shocking quantities of hormones and nontherapeutic antibiotics being administered to U.S. farm animals in an attempt to enhance their output and counteract as much as possible the many health risks of perverted upbringing and genetics (once again thanks to Eating Animals for greenhouse gas and waste statistics).
Environmental degradations and misappropriations of natural resources on this magnitude alone warrants a distinguished seat at the table among other imposing ills confronting creation. But taken with the previously mentioned systemic disinterest in compassionate husbandry and the explicit brutalities which are part and parcel of standard operating procedure, inflicted upon countless creatures, we simply cannot afford to overlook or deemphasize factory farming as caretakers of God’s creation. Without a doubt CAFO’s represent one of the most encompassing and abhorrent abuses of the natural world and billions of its nonhuman tenants, inevitably impacting our communities and neighbors around the world, and our own health. Gratefully, both veteran and fresh voices in the creation care community are acknowledging the realities of industrial animal farming with increasing directness and substance, as more and more recent books, articles and blog posts would seem to indicate. We have a long way to go, especially as a collective front, in advocating for a sustainable and life-honoring ethic of animal agriculture and consumption. But these are much-needed harbingers worthy of commendation and support.
Having said that, please know I do understand that akin to our role in the larger body of Christ we are a community made up of different sensitivities and passions for the suffering and restoration of God’s creation, as well we should be. Another’s particular calling and proficiencies will not necessarily be mine (to say nothing of your wisdom and experience), or vice versa. And I could easily be charged with being far less tuned in and responsive to other matters of stewardship and conservation which are integral components of the mission and witness of others. If personal experience and observation bear out, I suspect we’re not all likely to be equally animal loving and green. But together, hopefully, we might be able to embody the scope of concern and redemptive intention which God has for all that He has made.
So much more could be said about the needs of particular farm, wild and even companion animals, which so often represent our first and most intimate impressions of the individuality of animals and glimpse of the mutually affirming relationship our Creator intended us to have with them. What might our criticism of a culture of waste have to say for instance about more than three million pets euthanized each year simply for lack of a home to belong to, while countless others are being bred for a profit? But this personal manifesto of sorts is already running far too long, for which I apologize.
To wrap things up on one last note, which I don’t feel I’ve communicated very articulately to this point: We know from the time-honored doctrines of omniscience and sovereignty that what God created, He knows and sustains in whole and in part, from tropical ecosystems and species groups to a single delicate lily or humble sparrow. However much we may disregard or take advantage of them, not one of those sparrows is forgotten by Him. And I long for the day when as God’s children and custodians of His creation we not only take comfort in that axiom of faith, but also take it upon ourselves to model the truth of the analogy on which it is based. As stewards and heralds of creation care, let’s join together and be bold in our message of responsibility for each one of God’s creatures.
Thank you for allowing me to share my heart on this matter, and at such length no less. If you were kind enough to read this far, please feel free to let me know what you think ...