When food oppresses

Christian ethics also applies to what we eat.

By Miguel De La Torre

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground -- everything that has the breath of life in it -- I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

It can be argued from Gen. 1:29-30 that that the original intent of creation was for all life, including humans, to be vegetarians.

Killing in Eden, even for food, was considered incongruent with paradise’s primeval peace as designed by God. No blood was shed, and survival of the fittest did not exist in this idyllic garden. There was truly peace on earth and goodwill toward humans.

Since the expulsion from the garden, the idea of a return to Eden has captured the religious imagination. Isaiah’s messianic vision of the future is modeled on the past, with the wolf cohabitating with the lamb, the panther sleeping with the kid, the cow and bear becoming friends, the lion eating straw like the ox and the child playing with the venomous snake (Is. 11:6-8).

So, why wait for some messianic future to begin modeling our behavior on Eden’s utopian paradigm?

Multiple biblical imageries reveal an ancient relationship existing between humans and the animals they have raised. As humans moved from hunter-gatherers to domesticators of animals and crop cultivators; they understood that their very survival depended upon the animals for which they cared. Hence, a relationship, if not a spiritual bond, developed.

We discover a God whose concern for animals is demonstrated in the Flood story where God not only saves Noah’s family from the coming deluge, but also the animals.

Animals must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath, and if the animal’s life is in danger, then humans are permitted to violate the Sabbath.

Calves are not to be cooked in their mother’s milk, lest we become insensitive to animals. Animals are to be killed mercifully. It is an abomination for them to suffer needlessly.

Husbandry techniques rooted in the ancient custom of animal care, spurred human development. Animals provide humans with material for clothing (fur, skins, wools, leather); dairy products; and the ultimate sacrifice, their very lives, so that humans can be nourished by their flesh. In return, humans provided care and protection. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep grazing upon the hill to find the lost little one. After all, the ultimate image of God is that of the shepherd.

The industrialization of agriculture has led to a disregard of animal welfare. Few today are concerned with how the food arrives to their supermarkets. Industrialization replaced husbandry, breaking the human-animal social contract as concern for the animal’s well-being made way for cost effectiveness. While at one time a farmer would spend more time or money than an ill animal was worth, today’s attention to corporate profit would discourage spending more in caring for animals than their book value.

We know that ignoring the conditions that food animals must endure leads to ecological concerns. If people truly wish to reduce their carbon footprint, probably the greatest contribution that can be made is to become a vegetarian.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations our livestock sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems faced at every level of society, from local to global, impacting climate change, degradation, air pollution, water pollution, water shortage and loss of biodiversity.

Food production and distribution account for one-third of all human-caused global warming. The fuel required by the U.S. agricultural sector greatly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Roughly 123 million barrels of oil is consumed during the production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Add to this figure the transportation costs of getting the average American meal, which travels some 1,500 miles from point of origin to our plates, and a total of 450 billion gallons of oil is required each and every year to sustain the U.S. food system.

Further contributing to greenhouse gas problems is the animals themselves, along with their waste. The methane released by cows and pigs, while less prevalent in the air than carbon dioxide, is 23 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas. This makes livestock responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas problem, compared to transportation, which is only responsible for 13 percent.

Due to the sheer numbers, crowded livestock facilities simply cannot properly process the manure generated. A daily farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as a city of 411,000 individuals, but unlike the city, no sewage treatment plant exists. Properly processing animal waste becomes a logistic impossibility.

Animal waste sprayed onto the land creates cesspools that pollute groundwater, streams and rivers leading to health problems among workers and nearby neighbors. Considering that two-thirds of all human infectious diseases are zoonotic – capable of being transmitted from animals to humans -- it should come as no surprise that respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular problems and prenatal and neonatal health concerns rise wherever livestock-based environmental contamination occurs.

These conditions even impact those who are vegetarians or vegans, as illustrated by illnesses and fatalities caused by the nationwide E. coli outbreak in September 2006 that was traced to prepackaged spinach.

Adopting vegetarianism as supposedly found in Eden is not some panacea, but it can contribute to reducing global hunger in underdeveloped nations, and definitely to reducing obesity in developed nations such as the United States.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.