by David Clough
Last year at this time, Pope Francis called on Christians to fast from indifference towards their neighbours for Lent, rather than just giving up a luxury. Later in the year, his encyclical Laudato Si announced that even the smallest and apparently least significant animal creatures are enfolded in God’s love and are moving with us towards a common point of arrival in God where the risen Christ illuminates all things (§§ 77, 83). Because animals matter to God in this way, Francis wrote, recognize ourselves to be part of a universal family with fellow creatures, and see every act of cruelty towards any creature as contrary to human dignity (§§ 83, 89, 92).
This Lent is a good time to put those two pieces of church teaching together. That’s because our current practices of raising farmed animals for food show complete indifference to the lives and deaths of our fellow creatures on a colossal scale. In the past few decades we have transformed farming practice so that instead of treating animals like animals, we treat them like crops, slashing and hacking and harvesting as if they weren't made of flesh and blood and bone. We are killing more animals for food than ever: around 5 trillion fish, 72 billion chickens, and 4 billion pigs, rabbits, sheep, goats, and cattle in 2014, on an upward trend. That’s 160,000 animals killed every second, or over 600 killed every year for each human on the planet.
We have become ignorant of the animal lives behind our food. Half of fish are now farmed intensively in crowded conditions; the other half come from stocks that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have recently projected will be exhausted by 2050, often taking hours to suffocate on the decks of trawlers. Most chickens are raised in windowless broiler sheds, putting on weight so quickly during their 35 day life that their legs can barely support their bodies. Egg laying hens are mostly confined in small and crowded wire cages, stacked high in warehouses, where excrement falls onto them from cages above. Most pigs live in crowded conditions which makes tail-biting injuries commonplace, with breeding sows in crates that don’t even allow them to turn around. Sheep and cattle are subjected to procedures such as castration, tail-docking, and branding without anaesthetic, and are often transported over land and sea for very long distances. This video from Farm Sanctuaryshows both the ways farmed animals are treated in intensive systems, and the kinds of lives they could be living.
How did we get here? The popularity of pictures of cuddly kittens on Facebook suggests that we cherish our fellow animal creatures when we see them face to face. Our indifference to farmed animals comes from a farming industry that has not wished to publicize its steps towards the factory farming of animals, and by retailers who have distracted us with shrink-wrapped packaging and cheap prices. But if we take seriously the papal call to give up indifference to suffering for Lent, and to recognize these trillions of fellow creatures as sisters and brothers in a universal family, we must stop being ignorant or indifferent to their plight.
We don’t have to treat our fellow creatures in this way. We don’t need to keep animals in these conditions, and as consumers, we don’t need to buy the products that are made from them. Reducing our consumption of animal products would be great for human food and water security, great for reducing climate change emissions, great for reducing the exploitation of workers in meat processing plants, great for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, great for ensuring that antibiotics remain effective, and great for human health. And, unlike some other global challenges, the answer to this one is entirely within our control.
So here’s a thought for this Lent. Let’s give up indifference to farmed animals. For any animal product you eat, consider the life of the animal that was used to produce it. That’s all. If you don't know how factory farmed animals live, a little online research will fill you in. You could start with a briefing from Compassion in World Farming. Fasting from indifference to the lives of farmed animals this Lent might make a big difference to the way you think about your food. And if many of us start to think differently, it will start to make a difference to the lives of the fellow creatures we farm.