Should Christians Be Vegan?

by David Clough

Why might Christians consider going vegan? There are four reasons that overlap with the reasons anyone else might give: concern for the environment, concern for animals, concern for human welfare, and the desire to adopt a more healthy diet. In addition, Christians might be inspired by long religious traditions of fasting from meat and other animal products. I’ll consider these reasons in turn below. Let’s start, though, with something more fundamental: why a Christian understanding of God and the world might provide specific motivation for going vegan.

Christians believe in that everything in the universe owes its existence to God. That’s what monotheism means: the God Christians worship is not just their God, or even the God of all humans, but the God of all creatures. Biblical texts celebrate the God who made all creatures and declared them good (Genesis 1), who made a world in which every creature has its own place (Psalm 104), who has compassion on and provides for every living thing (Psalm 145), and who in Jesus Christ acts to release the whole of creation from its groaning bondage (Romans 8) and to gather up and make peace between all things in heaven and earth (Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 1.10). Jesus reassured his followers by reminding them that not a single sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight (Luke 12.6). John describes God’s son coming to the earth because of God’s love for the world (John 3.16). God’s delight in and care for all God’s creatures means Christians have reason to delight in and care for them too, especially as humans are called to be images of God. Seeing the whole world as charged with God’s grandeur, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is a fundamental aspect of a Christian vision of the world.

So Christians recognize the universe and all creatures in it as belonging to God, beloved by God, and cared for by God. Why might that make a difference for how they eat? Let’s return to the five reasons I noted above.

First, Christians might move towards a vegan diet in order to care for God's creation, the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions from a huge expansion in raising livestock is a significant cause of the climate catastrophe we are bringing about, which will have a devastating impact on humans and other animals. Reducing consumption of animal products is one of the quickest ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Industrial animal agriculture causes local environmental problems, too. Big intensive pig farms with their huge lagoons of excrement are horrible to live nearby, and so are disproportionately likely to be placed near poor communities, making their lives miserable.

Second, Christians might become vegan in order to enable fellow creatures to flourish, to praise God each in their particular way. The vast majority of farmed animals are raised in industrial systems that subject them to unnecessary suffering and impoverished lives in which they cannot thrive and glorify God. Most fish now come from intensive farmed environments, or if wild-caught, are subjected to unsustainable fishing practices and long drawn-out deaths. The large-scale production of dairy and eggs entails killing male animals surplus to requirements and female animals once their productivity declines. These are powerful reasons for adopting a vegan diet, rather than just a vegetarian one. Current production levels of animals for consumption inhibit the flourishing of wild animals as well as domesticated animals. By 2000, the biomass of domesticated animals exceeded that of all wild land mammals by 24 times. The biomass of domesticated chickens alone is nearly three times that of all wild birds. These shocking statistics show that humans are monopolizing the productive capacity of the earth in a way that leaves very little space for wild animals at all, which is part of what is driving their mass extinction.

Third, Christians might shift to a vegan diet in order to save the lives of fellow human creatures. The livestock industry threatens human food and water security, and those already suffering from deprivation are at greatest risk. Christians are explicitly directed to care for those with the greatest needs and the least resources. Currently, over a third of global cereal output goes to farmed animals and humans eating the animals receive only 8% of the calories that would be available if humans ate the cereals directly. Animal agriculture is also a very significant consumer of scarce global water supplies: producing 1 kg of beef requires 10 to 20 times the water required by producing the same calories from plant-based sources. While a vegan diet is not immediately practical in every part of the world (for Siberian pastoralists reliant on reindeer herds, for example), it is very clear that the global human population, as well as animals and the environment, would benefit from a transition towards using plant-based foods wherever possible.

Fourth, Christians might adopt a vegan diet in order to sustain the health and well-being of their families, friends, neighbours, and wider society. The unprecedentedly high levels of meat and other animal products consumed in developed nations directly damages human health (increased incidence of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and strokes). In addition, intensive farming practices contribute to both the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains and the risk of pandemics from zoonotic diseases such as swine and bird flu.

Finally, many Christians will be inspired by the long Christian traditions of fasting from meat and other animal products, on Fridays, during Lent, and at other times. Many Coptic Christians today observe fasts imposing a vegan diet for two-thirds of the year. The practice of not eating animal products can be understood as part of a penitential practice that redirects one’s focus away from selfish pleasure and towards God. Such traditions remind Christians of the limits that come with recognizing God as creator: animals belong to God, so humans must treat them with respect and can’t do whatever we want with them.

Christians often note arguments against vegetarianism or veganism, but these concerns do not end the conversation. Genesis 1 identifies human beings as uniquely images of God and grants them dominion over other animals, but the end of the chapter prescribes a vegan diet for humans, so this original dominion does not include permission to kill animals for food. In Genesis 9, following the flood, God allows humans to kill animals for food, but this does not justify modern patterns of raising animals in industrial systems in ways that are so clearly damaging for humans, animals, and the wider environment. Gospel accounts record Jesus as eating fish and offering fish to others (although, interestingly, he is not recorded as eating mammals or poultry), but whatever his practice, it does not justify eating the products of modern industrial animal agriculture. Some of these concerns suggest that would be implausible to claim that a vegan diet should be an absolute obligation for all Christians. They do not show that it is inappropriate to adopt a vegan diet as a response to the broad concerns noted above that relate to the modern context of raising animals for food where there are readily available alternative sources of nutrition.

It is important to note that veganism in a Christian context should never be presented as a moral utopia. Christians recognize a brokenness in our relationships with fellow creatures which cannot be overcome by adopting a particular dietary practice or by any other effort we can make. Vegan Christians should not make claims to moral superiority: they are sinners like everyone else. They are simply seeking to act as responsibly as they can in this aspect of the choices they make about what to eat. They should hope to learn from fellow Christians about better ways of living in other areas of their lives, just as they may hope that fellow Christians may be open to learning from their practice.

Concern for fellow humans, fellow animal creatures, and the environment are obligations for Christians, and so the impacts of modern industrialized animal agriculture should trouble all Christians. It’s important to realize that farmers are not the villains here: farmers are often pressured into systems of poor farmed animal welfare because of the popular desire for cheap animal products and the retailers' power to determine pricing for their own advantage. A Christian vision of delighting in God’s world and living responsibly among the fellow creatures God loves will be an inspiration to many Christians either to adopt a vegan diet, or to move in that direction by reducing their consumption of animal products and seeking out animal products raised to higher welfare standards than those offered within industrialized systems.

This article was originally posted on The Vegan Society’s website.

New Animal Welfare Standards for Organic Meat and Dairy Products Are Withdrawn. Now What?

by Lois Godfrey Wye

On January 19, 2017, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule imposing new requirements on suppliers of organic meats and dairy products. The new rule set certain standards for animal care, to “create[] greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practice standards” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”[1] The effective date of the regulations was repeatedly delayed, however, and on March 13, 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rule. No new standards for animal care will be required for organic meat or dairy products. Why did the agency change its mind? And what does it mean for us, as Christians who care about how animals in our food supply are treated?

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

The Rule

First, let’s take a quick look at what the regulations would—and would not—have done. Kitty Block, Acting CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, summarized the requirements this way in her blog, A Humane Nation:

[The regulations] encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.[2]

Gene Baur, of Farm Sanctuary, however, points out that even these protections were “minimal,” that many cruel practices would have been permitted, and “and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals . . . The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.”[3]

What Happened?

So why are these improvements, minimal or otherwise, not going into effect? After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the new administration wanted to review the rule, so it delayed the implementation date, and took public comment on whether or not the regulations should be withdrawn. Public comments overwhelmingly favored allowing the regulations to go into effect—by a margin of 63,000 comments supporting the rule to 50 comments opposing it[4]—but the USDA determined, after reexamining the statute under which the regulations had been issued, that it did not have legal authority to impose requirements regarding animal care.  Instead, the agency believes its authority is limited to restricting use of chemicals or synthetic substances in feed, nontherapeutic use of medications, and similar activities for organically-produced meats and dairy products. It also believes that the costs and benefits of the regulations had been inaccurately calculated and that the costs of the regulations outweighed the benefits.

In assessing the benefits of the regulation, the agency did not consider benefits to the animals themselves, which it called “speculative.”[5] The issue is addressed only in the context of economic benefits, and the agency observed that “it is uncertain that organic farmers and consumers would see positive impacts from implementation of the OLPP rule. The assertion that the OLPP final rule would result in economic benefits from healthier animals is not supported by information or research linking outdoor access on pasture or vegetation to improved economic outcomes for producers.”[6] Consideration of what may or may not be humane treatment does not appear to have entered into the calculus.

A Christian Response

It is, of course, heartbreaking to lose an opportunity for real improvement in the way at least some of the animals in our food system are treated. But, without debating the correctness of the agency’s decision, what does this mean for us, as Christians who care about animals? 

First, as Christians, we do not have the luxury of giving up hope. Writing this on Holy Saturday, I think of the words of Fr. James Martin, “We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work, even if we cannot see it clearly right now.”[7] Because hope is an “active waiting,” we can and must continue to work for change and to support animal welfare improvements whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is the work of caring for God’s creation and bringing God’s kingdom nearer.

Second, even as we continue to work for institutional change to benefit animals, both the rule and its roll back underscore the limitations of that process. As Gene Baur explained, the rule “still place[d] commercial interests above ethical considerations,” and the animals were still seen as commodities rather than living beings. While the rule would have meant definite improvement for some animals in the food system, they were limited changes for a limited number of animals. We cannot depend on Caesar to implement our ethics for us. Many organic farmers who supported this rule did so because of consumer demand for a reliable organic label that would provide assurance of certain standards.[8] This is a testament to the importance of personal choices in driving change. Our choices and our behavior matter—not just to us, but to those around us. We need to live our ethics. 

If we choose to eat meat or dairy products, we have to do the research to find suppliers who meet our ethical requirements. That means we need to know what food labels really mean—which can be a challenge, because they are often misleading.[9] It also means we need to look past the labels to find out whatever we can about the brand. We are responsible for our choices, and we cannot pass the implications of our actions on others.[10] 

It also means that—whether we choose to eat meat and dairy products or not—we have an opportunity for education. We can make sure that people who do so choose are aware that “organic” does not mean “humane,” and if they are concerned about animal welfare, they, too, need to understand labels and suppliers. There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers, and if we have lost an opportunity to see some industry-wide standards implemented and clarity in labeling, we have not lost the opportunity to continue to speak out to our friends, our families, and others to help them understand what labels mean—and what they do not mean. 

For Christians, loss is never defeat, and as we live in hope and gratitude, we will continue to seek ways to bring the Kingdom nearer.   

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Lois Godfrey Wye has a Masters Degree in the Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, where her studies focused on the intersection of animal welfare and Christian theology. She is an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of Directors of the Humane Rescue Alliance. She blogs (occasionally) at Dominion In The Image of God

References

[1] 82 Federal Register 7042 (Jan 19, 2017).  

[2] A Humane Nation, March 13, 2018.

[3] Farm Sanctuary, Compassionate Communities Campaign, Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness, undated, https://ccc.farmsanctuary.org/organic-standards-draw-ire/.

[4] 83 Federal Register 10775 (March 13, 2018)

[5] 83 Federal Register 10779.  https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-05029/p-56

[6] Id.

[7] Father James Martin: Holy Saturday Teaches Us The Right Way to Wait, America, The Jesuit Review, April 15, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/15/father-james-martin-holy-saturday-teaches-christians-right-way-wait.

[8] 83 Federal Register 10779.

[9] The Animal Welfare Institute has this helpful guide.

[10] There is a confession of sin used in the Episcopal Church which asks forgiveness for “the evil done on our behalf.” Enriching our Worship, p. 56.  Reprinted here. https://www.facebook.com/stcolumbasmaine/posts/499669426761028 I cannot say this without thinking of animals on factory farms, fur farms, in labs or circuses, or other places so terrible for them for the supposed benefit of humans. 

CreatureKind First Christian Organization to Endorse "Prevent Cruelty California"

A coalition of animal protection organizations, veterinarians, and family farmers have come together in California to attempt to place a measure on the November 2018 ballot that would ban the sale of animal products in the state that were produced using intensive confinement. If the measure is brought to the ballot and passed, it would mean that hens who produce eggs sold in California would have one square foot of space (at least). And the sale of pig and cow flesh from animals who were kept in gestation or veal crates would be prohibited. 

CreatureKind was proud to be the first Christian organization to endorse this important effort. 

Of course, animal welfare reform can't stop at the cage door. Even optimal welfare farming has its shortfalls. 

But it seems clear to us that there's no room for battery cages, gestation crates, and veal crates in the good stewardship of God's creation. 

If you'd like to learn more about Prevent Cruelty California, please visit the coalition website: https://preventcrueltyca.com/

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Incarnating a CreatureKind Church at the Summer Institute for Reconciliation

by Sarah Withrow King

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created...and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things..."

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of teaming up with Christopher Carter, who is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego, a Faith in Food Fellow for Farm Forward, and a member of CreatureKind's North American Advisory Council and Christine Gutleben, Senior Director of Faith Outreach at the Humane Society of the United States to co-teach "Incarnating a CreatureKind Church" at Duke Divinity's Summer Institute for Reconciliation.

Seminar participants feeding sheep at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. Photo by Christopher Carter

Seminar participants feeding sheep at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. Photo by Christopher Carter

During the four-day-long event, our afternoon seminar discovered new ways to think about Christianity and animals. Following the "Word Made Flesh" methodology from the book Reconciling All Things, we discussed ways in which Christianity is good news for all creation. We lamented the realities of factory farming, a broken system that hurts animals, humans, and the environment. We visited a farmed animal sanctuary, to meet individual rescued animals and to hear their stories. We were invited into the notion of adopting an anti-oppressive mindset. We told our own stories of hope, of people and organizations working to bring about reconciliation in creation, and we talked about how to sustain ourselves spiritually for the long haul. 

Our diverse group shared their tender and courageous hearts with us throughout the week, we were able to learn much from one another, and we got to meet these two loves:

Photo by Julia Johnson

Photo by Julia Johnson

 

We are exploring the possibility of turning this extraordinary seminar into a webinar, so that more people can experience the renewal and fellowship that was such a blessing to us. If you want to help make that happen, please give a donation to CreatureKind today. 

Sarah cradling Charleston the rooster, who loved to have his face massaged. He fell asleep in my arms! Photo by Blue.

Sarah cradling Charleston the rooster, who loved to have his face massaged. He fell asleep in my arms! Photo by Blue.