by Steven McMullen
Angst about our food system is prevalent. Amidst the fair trade, organic, locally produced, and hormone-free labels, one can easily produce a hierarchy of moral standing based solely on a person’s diet. In this environment, and given the plethora of other important concerns facing us, it is understandable that many people simply purchase the products they desire, leaving the regulating of agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture. Such indifference should give Christians pause
if we believe that God has called us to be stewards of the earth and its inhabitants. To live up to this calling, we must consider the economic practices in which we participate. For most Christians in North America, this means seriously scrutinizing our consumption habits, particularly our eating habits. Moreover, the systematically inhumane treatment of animals in our food system is a cause Christians need to address. By focusing on the example of harm to animals in our food system, I will make the case for a particular kind of Christian involvement in the economy.
Advocacy groups routinely demand that firms engage in more ethical behavior, perhaps by giving their workers benefits, limiting pollution, or treating animals humanely. These firms often rightly respond that such actions, while laudable, would be too expensive, and would leave the firm unable to compete. This scenario reveals a hard truth: given our economic system, individual firms do not bear full responsibility for their production processes. In competitive industries like agriculture, individual farmers are rarely in a position to redefine industry practices in ways that could be more costly, even if doing so would improve their treatment of animals and the land they cultivate. This lack of freedom on the part of producers necessitates a communal rather than individual responsibility for production processes. It is the joint task of individual firms, industries, consumers, and governments to collectively bear responsibility for the economy in which we live.
Unfortunately, this truth about our economic system runs counter to our economic culture. Our economy, with long supply chains and innumerable connections, makes it extremely difficult for consumers to give their role in the economy the attentiveness that it warrants. With the exception of some produce, we usually do not know where our food comes from, much less how it was produced. In many cases the social distance between producers and consumers is unproblematic. Our economy is productive because individual workers and firms are highly specialized, necessitating wide-ranging cooperation in the production of even very simple products. As a result, though, our culture often conceives of consumption as a morally neutral activity. Consumption is viewed to become valueladen only when it has some pernicious impact on the consumer, as when we buy marijuana, or eat too many saturated fats.
Contrary to our culture’s assumptions, much of our participation in the economy as consumers is morally significant. When we purchase chicken wings we are not only providing economic support to a particular grocery store or restaurant, we are implicitly also condoning all legal methods used to produce and deliver the chicken. Whether we want to or not, we are “voting” with every dollar that we spend in favor of an economy that takes a particular shape, which assigns particular values to people, animals, and things. Every time we purchase a fastfood hamburger, we devote more resources to the expansion of a problematic type of food production. Or, alternatively, every time we choose to purchase a plant-based meal, we encourage more of our resources to be allocated toward this type of food production.
If we accept the nihilist, utilitarian logic of our particular economic culture, then there is no reason to forgo the significant advantages that industrialization brings to food production. Especially in the case of meat, the morally problematic production processes significantly increase the purchasing power of millions of people. Remember that all else being equal, cheap food is better than expensive food. Moreover, it is worth noting that while large scale agriculture is often the source of ethical and environmental problems, it is also the source of the extraordinary productivity of our farms. There are significant cost savings that come from producing food in large quantities.
Christians, however, must weigh the responsibility that we have to animals. Our economic culture distorts the nature of the world in which we live, denying the basic truth that animals have intrinsic worth apart from their value as commodities. While animals may have lower moral standing than humans, it is important to remember that as St. Basil of Caesarea famously prayed, “our brethren the animals…serve Thee in their place better than we in ours.”1 Even if laws allow it, animals are not ours to dispose of however we like. Rather, it is our charge to care for them in a particular way.
It has been well documented that, even when following standard industry practices, many meat producers end up subjecting their animals to severe harm. Not only are animals routinely subjected to pain, due to their living conditions, diet, and genetic alterations, they are also are extremely limited in their ability to follow many of their basic instincts.2 To cite one example, according to industry statistics, dairy cows generally live to an age of four years, compared to a natural lifespan of fifteen years or higher. Moreover, by the time they are slaughtered, 40 percent of these cows are lame.3
It is important to note that this harm is systemic in nature, and not the result of character flaws on the part of any particular farmer. Indeed, farmers know better than most the sort of life in which their animals can thrive, and most, given the choice, would likely change the way they operate if such changes could be made in a competitive industry without going out of business. There are all sorts of excellent examples of farmers who have found opportunities to adopt better methods, though their farms are usually small.4Unfortunately, because our system separates production from consumption to such a large degree, most farmers are constrained to produce meat in a way that gives no independent weight to the well-being of the animals. For Christians to choose to refrain from purchasing most mass-produced animal products would seem an appropriate action.
Christians have long stressed that we are called to serve God by actively shaping the institutions around us to better reflect the good purposes that God has for all of creation. God’s concern is not just for our immediate and eternal well-being, but for the the whole of God’s creation, human and animal, urban and rural. Today this must include an effort to counter the systemic elements of the economy that Christians find troubling. The larger our economy becomes, the easier it is to view the economic system as “natural” and beyond critique. Doing so ignores that God expresses real preferences for certain types of economic practices and relationships.
Two elements of our tradition give a strong grounding for a pattern of consumption that is mindful of production processes. First, is our call to be peacemakers. This includes the goal of ensuring that our consumption takes place in the context of a system where others are also able to pursue their calling. This is what it is to bring Shalom in our economy. In other words, we need to be concerned not just with the quality of our immediate relationships, but we should also strive for an economic system characterized by right relationships between individuals, God, animals, and the created environment. In Leviticus, God communicates a concern for the economic, even the agricultural, system in which we operate,5 prescribing a set of rules in which neither humans, animals, nor the land itself could be subjected to an exploitative relationship. Even animals owned, and killed for food and sacrifice, were treated in a way that recognized that their lives brought glory to God.6
A second helpful element of our tradition is our call to practice Sabbath. In the Old Testament it is a system-wide practice, amounting to what we today would call an economic philosophy. The Sabbath practice is given two distinct warrants in the Old Testament. In Exodus (20:8-11) Sabbath is described as a reflection of God’s act of creation. In Deuteronomy (5:12-15), the practice of rest is a response to God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves from economic oppression in Egypt:7 The basis of Sabbath rests both in the way God created the world, and also in the salvation history, particularly the economic history, of God’s people. Both justifications speak to us today. We look to God’s original ordering of Creation and also actively resist economic exploitation.
The explicit constraint that Sabbath placed on the economy is a vivid reminder that production and consumption are not the only ends served by humans, animals, and land. Moreover, animals were included in the Sabbath rest not only because it is prudent to allow animals rest, as in God’s ordering of creation, but also because they have a part to play, in their own way, in bringing glory to God. Animals deserve better than the economic exploitation to which they are often subjected.
The Sabbath tradition also reminds us to build celebration and gratitude into the daily and weekly rhythms of our lives. The purchase, preparation, and sharing of food is certainly one place where the celebration of God’s abundant gifts to humanity is appropriate.8 But can we truly celebrate God’s provision if, in order to save two dollars per pound on meat, we perpetuate practices that denigrate God’s creation, and violate the Sabbath prescriptions? Unthinking consumption can make the unnecessary suffering of animals a central element in our celebration of God’s gifts.
Our economic choices are strongly interdependent. Moreover, while we are accustomed to being ethical participants in the workplace or at the ballot box, much of our power to shape the economy actually comes from our consumption habits. Consider Trillium Haven Farm in Jenison, Michigan, able to feed 450 member families during their growing season from their 50-acre farm, in addition to selling some products to restaurants and at the local farmers’ market. They grow all of their produce chemical-free, and most notably, instead of focusing on the mass-production of one crop, they produce a dazzling array of different vegetables throughout the year. The commitment of their community to consume a particular set of goods allows this farm to operate very differently than standard industrial producers. In other words, changes in the consumption choices of small communities can enable significant changes in agricultural practice.
A broad change in eating habits toward plant-based diets and some ethically produced animal products is both possible and could be economically beneficial. If communities switch consumption habits slowly, farmers will be able to shift their production away from producing animals to the production of plants. Changes in production need not be dramatic or catastrophic. As individuals and cultures deliberately and gradually change, so too can the focus of our economy. As we spend fewer resources on animal products, more resources will be available for other productive uses and for more land-intensive ethical animal agriculture. Moreover, adopting more efficient plant-based diets would likely cause a net increase in wealth in the form of saved resources, improved health, and environmental benefits.
Additionally, our fellow consumers are also affected by our choices. Our consumption decisions are strongly determined by the information we have, the selection of goods easily available to us, and the habits of our peers. The situation in many communities could be considered an “ethical food desert” since there are so few options for consumers who want to eat a diet that does not unduly harm animals. However, as people begin to change their eating habits, the market for ethical foods expands, which, in turn, is quickly reflected in grocery stores. Once vendors know that consumers care about production processes, they quickly make a selection of different goods available and provide the information necessary to make better choices. When one person makes the choice to eat ethically, they make it easier for their neighbors to do the same.
We have witnessed this process over the last decade as organic foods have become more common and less expensive. The result is a rapid increase in organic agriculture and much greater demand for organic foods. Organic options are now widely available at most grocery stores. We owe our gratitude to those consumers and farmers who worked to bring organic products into the mainstream, thus making it easier for the rest of us to make informed choices about production processes.
Thinking carefully about our food consumption is only one part of our Christian calling to live and act in a way that helps shape a more humane and just economy. It is probably not possible to fulfill this calling individually. As congregations, we can act collectively in ways that make it easier for any one household to make good decisions. The Square Inch Community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, provides one example of what that could look like, with vegan potlucks that follow worship every week. It is as a community that we seek a common vision for a good economy and right treatment of all participants.
1 Halteman, M. (2010). Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation. The Humane Society of the United States.
2 Halteman, M. (2011). Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming. Forthcoming in the Journal of Animal Ethics.
3 Roeber, D.L. et al (2001). National market cow and bull beef quality audit-1999: a survey of producer-related defects in market cows and bulls. Journal of Animal Science.
4 Wirzba, N. (2007) Barnyard Dance: Farming that Honors Animals. The Christian Century. January 23rd.
5 See especially the Jubilee and Sabbath rules in Leviticus 25. For an economic defense of the practicality of the system outlined in these passages, see Schaefer and Noel. (2005). Contract Theory, Distributive Justice, and the Hebrew Sabbatical. Faith and Economics, 45, 1-19.
6 Hare, John (2011). Animal Sacrifices. In M. Bergmann, M. J. Murray and M. C. Rea (Eds.), Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 121-137.
7 TNIV, Zondervan 2005.
8 Wirzba, N. (2011). Eucharistic Table Manners: Learning How to Eat. Perspectives, February, 13-16.