Many thanks to Lauren Merritt of The Christian and Creation for sharing this poignant and challenging post contrasting the good shepherd model of animal husbandry with today's callous industrial farming. Lauren also shares some excellent encouragement and resources toward eating more humanely ...
Good shepherds lead their flocks kindly, provide them rest and shelter, are tender with the mothers and young, and protect the flock from harm. The flock, in turn, is comforted, rather than fearful of the shepherd’s staff and turn to him for guidance and care.
It’s the pastoral ideal. It’s the scene portrayed in children’s books and famous paintings, seen in movies, and commercials about happy cows. But today, it’s a sadly misleading version of an American farm.
Once upon a time, really not that long ago, farms were healthy, self-sustaining centers of biodiversity, often producing many products on the same land – a practice healthy for the animals, the land, the farmer, and the crops. Today, we see thousands of acres of monocultures, both in crop and animal farming, that lead to disease, stress, and diminished food quality. This practice helped industrialize agriculture, made it easy to grow and harvest the product, and utilized every acre to its maximum production. But while an assembly-line approach to creating a product works for cars, when dealing with living creation it has disastrous consequences.
Maximizing acreage output for farmed animals means putting animals in as close proximity to each other as they can survive while still eating, drinking and growing to the desired slaughter weight. The waste of thousands of cattle (or chickens, or pigs, or you name it) on one gargantuan lot sends up a smell that warns travelers for miles. On these vast monoculture animal “farms,” feed must be shipped in from other states, burning gas and supporting another monocultural farm, and the animals’ diseases and parasites are highly concentrated, leading to a need for a medical regimen.
To complete the assembly line from creature to cuisine, the animals are shipped from their feedlots to the abbatoir, often hundreds of miles, since such farms are generally located far from populated areas. This long-distance shipping is one of the most stressful parts of the animal’s lives, because the shippers are often not required to rest, feed or water the animals and rely on tools like electric prods to handle those that are stubborn, excitable, or fearful. The stress humans often feel is emotional, causing us to pursue some escapist behavior or eat a pound of chocolate, but the term stress in animal behavior relates to the particular abnormal behaviors, diseases and general malaise that afflicts animals subject to stressors such as hauling. Shipping fever is a common ailment of cattle. Hogs die of heart attacks after repeated prodding or too much exertion after lives in tiny pens. Chickens often die in transit due to exposure to wind and heat or crushing from their fellow cagemates. The extreme weight loss experienced by shipped animals is termed “shrink.” The expected loss due to death, injury and ‘shrink’ is calculated into the overall expenditures of the farming enterprise.
A good shepherd leads his flock by streams of still waters. Our food industry ships its flock hundreds of miles in steel trailers with no water. The good shepherd gives his flock rest. The industry squeezes every calorie of production out of a creature, by every imaginable method, until it is spent. The good shepherd protects his flock from the wolves that come to destroy. The industry is both careless shepherd and greedy wolf. The good shepherd uses his staff to protect his flock, and they turn to him for comfort. The industry uses electric prods, battery cages, sow crates and squeeze shoots, to control the fearful flock.
Dominion, yes. God glorifying, no.
Through all this the creation groans. The animals groan under the stress of a “productive” life, the land groans under poor management and depleted nutrients, the wildlife groans as forests are blasted away and natural grasses burned to make way for feedlots and hog sheds. In the beginning, God created the world and saw that it was good. He created the animals and He created the plant life and saw that they were good. He created a garden and gave it to Adam and Eve to tend in the companionship of the creatures Adam named. God himself walked among the trees with them.
Sin entered the perfect world through the first human disobedience and, as a race, we have never looked back. We have disobeyed and disregarded God’s original plan for the world to the point that we can now easily wonder if God ever had anything to do with this world at all.
So where are the good shepherds in our sinful world? Can such a thing exist in a world of fast food and fast profits and conveniently ignorant consciences?
There are farmers out there who care for creation while still intending its creatures for food. An excellent example is Joel Salatin, a Christian and farmer, who runs Polyface Farm in Northern Virginia. I highly encourage you to read through his website and see how a farm can embrace the world as God made it, and reap food from its natural courses.
I don’t live in Virginia, and you probably don’t either, but there are others; we just have to uncover them. Luckily many farms now have websites, or at least advertise online, so it’s not as tricky as it may seem.
Eatwild.com is a site that advocates grass-fed animals and has listings of local farmers. Certifiedhumane.org explains the process for a farm to become certified humane and has a list of certified farms. Localharvest.org helps you find community supported agriculture programs, grass-fed animal products and farmer’s markets. In addition, I have found many websites local to my home in Lousiville, Kentucky, and there are likely some for your area as well.
With the exception of Certified Humane, none of these websites have explicit standards for animal care, so it’s still up to you to read further about individual farms (fortunately many of them have websites, and a large number of them even offer farm tours or have markets on their property so you can see for yourself the animals’ conditions). Finding a true good shepherd, after the likes of Joel Salatin, may be hard, but is well worth the extra effort. And not just to you as a consumer. It’s worth the effort to pursue godliness in every area of your life and to bear a cross of inconvenience to glorify God. Our actions and decisions bear witness to the Lord of our lives. Will we proclaim a compassionate Creator Christ, or cruel convenience?
To help you off to a good start, I will add that for several reasons I believe that buying local animal products, even without additional research or standards, is one of the most important and simple things you can do to ensure the humane treatment of the animals you intend to eat:
1) The animals are raised on much smaller farms. There is therefore more attention to individual animals, more attention to detail in their care, and none of the logistical problems of raising thousands of cattle in a mechanized manner.
2) The animals are more likely pastured their entire lives, even if grain is given as a supplement before slaughter. A small, local farm is unlikely to send their 15 or 20 cattle to feedlots hundreds of miles away. Even Kentucky has only a few large feedlots, despite being the most beef-producing state east of the Mississippi. Check your area and see where animals are slaughtered and if there are any feedlots. Plus, it’s usually easy to check a farm website to see if they “finish” their animals on grass, grain, or feedlots. If they don’t say, send a short email (or if they’re stuck in the early 90’s find their phone number and call) and ask. It’s a simple question that perhaps means the most to animal welfare.
3) The animals are not subject to long-distance hauling. Because they are not shipped to feedlots, they are saved the stress of riding in a packed trailer for hours or days, packed shoulder to shoulder with other animals. This practice of shipping is, in my mind, one of the worst practices in animal raising because of the obvious stress and fear inflicted upon the animals, and it is mostly eliminated by buying locally. A local farm will probably also slaughter their animals locally, meaning only one short haul. Ask where a particular farm sends their animals for processing. I asked and happily discovered the butcher shop is just 40 minutes from my house, and even closer to the farm where the cattle are raised.
4) The farms are more diverse. This is not true in every case, certainly, but smaller farms will often raise a few other animals, a garden, or grow a few crops. This biodiversity is good for the environment and also good for the animals. Pasture rotation, as opposed to feedlot raising, ensures parasites and diseases are not concentrated. The presence of other animal species further dilutes any ill effects.
I earnestly hope that God is using Scripture and His Spirit to convict you of areas of purposeful ignorance regarding animal welfare. If you think “I don’t want to know…,” then you already know it is wrong. God created the world and gave it to us as stewards. He gave us his fellowship, and we spurned him. He has saved us from our sins at an incredible cost. He has now given us a ministry of compassion and reconciliation, calling us to be his witnesses in all the earth to the death and resurrection of Jesus and His power to bring new spiritual life into once dead people. Can we love him, serve him, honor him, respect and fear him in all areas of our life? Even in choosing compassion in our eating? Can we spend the time and find the good shepherds?
If you have any questions about humane eating, need help finding a farm, or just want to talk, please feel free to email me.
(many thanks to Lauren for sharing "The Good Shepherds," originally posted on her blog The Christian and Creation; Lauren and her husband Nate are also looking to adopt a child in need, and have a great family blog documenting and raising support toward this process; for more on the good shepherd theme, please see our previous post "A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23"; public domain artwork by Joseph Wilpert and Inconnu via Wikimedia Commons, photo courtesy Farm Sanctuary)