Unhappy meals

One of the best ways to care for creation – people, places, creatures and even ourselves – is to reduce our consumption of animal products, argues Jonny Hanson.

Horsegate – what is there left to say?  All the puns have been coined, the jokes cracked and the airwaves filled with endless analysis of what went wrong.  What is clear is that the pressure to drive down prices led to corners being cut.  Rewind back to 2012 and another food-related crisis: ‘milkgate’.  Farmers across Europe protested against plans by retailers to further slash milk prices, adding insult to the injury done to by years of paying at just about, or sometimes even below, the cost of production. 

But more than scandals, these are gross farmgate injustices.  And more than coincidences, they are closely linked.  It’s the supply of and demand for cheap animal products – meat, milk and eggs – that is at the root of both these scenarios.  Nor is it a phenomenon that’s confined to European milk and burgers, but is part of a global trend. So should we be concerned, what can we do and will it make a difference?  This article investigates. 

‘Give us this day our daily bread’.  The opening request of the Lord’s prayer highlights the significance of food: along with water it is our most basic physical need.  Food production has been the basis of societies and cultures for millennia, and today, it is still the biggest form of employment and land-use around the world.  The diversity of plant and animal varieties in agriculture is staggering, the result of generations of human co-creation with God.  The simple wonder of food – its varied types and meanings, the complexity of taste, its central place in human life – is a unique manifestation of God’s wisdom and power.  On it we depend completely.

But like any process on earth it’s flawed.  There’s not much we can do to stop droughts and floods and sodden summers, but there is certainly lots we can do with the human elements of the food system. And the element that contributed most to horsegate and milkgate and others like them is none other than greed.  Greed is not good.  It is not a fit foundation on which to build an economy, whatever way it is dressed up.  It is certainly not a fit foundation for a food system on which seven billion people, and counting, depend. 

This is not about political posturing, or mere starry-eyed optimism, but about the truth: the love of money isthe root of all kinds of evil, 1 Timothy 6:10 tells us. Naturally, when short-term financial goals are pursued at the expense of social and environmental ones, whether at the individual or organisational level, food scandals will happen.

We can see this clearly with another scandal: intensive livestock production.  Whether it’s the cruelty of sentient and intelligent creatures being treated like machinery; the ecological impact of its excessive pollutants, including more Greenhouse Gas emissions than transport; the injustice of a third of the world’s grain and seafood being fed to farm animals, as people starve; or the impact on human health, from heart disease due to overconsumption to the labour conditions in processing plants. 

All of these are the symptoms of a system that produces excessive quantities of animal products that are financially cheap up-front but costly for society and creation in the long-run.  In fact, cheap meat, milk and eggs can actually be a bad thing; for the reasons outlined above, it means other people, other places and other things are paying the price.

We’re all complicit.  Farmers and their bottom lines, consumers and their desire for ever cheaper food, governments promoting unlimited economic growth, retailers ruthlessly competing for customers: we’ve all swallowed the ‘cheaper-is-always-best’ mantra, hook, line and sinker.  But this isn’t meant to be a blame game or a guilt trip.  Overconsumption in this area may arguably be our biggest impact on God’s creation, but that also means it’s an area where we can make the most positive change, by reducing the quantity and increasing the quality of the animal products we eat.

Inspiration is part conviction and part encouragement.  So let’s be encouraged to think seriously about where our food comes from and how it’s produced.  To ask whether the people and animals who produced it have been treated right, whether that’s a fair price or a decent life and death.  To have the courage to accept the real cost of food, even if that means less to spend on gadgets and gizmos.  Genuinely happy meals – humane, sustainable, fair and healthy – can be a joyful part of a life and lifestyle that seeks to honour God in every part. 

What can we do practically, then, as individuals, families, churches and communities?  We don’t necessarily need to become vegetarian or vegan, although those are admirable choices, but we do need to become ethical omnivores.  As a former carnivore and recovering meat-addict myself, and with a young family to feed on a below-median income, here are a few guidelines that we follow:

  • Eat less animal and more plant protein.

  • Eat organic meat, eggs and dairy products, and Marine Stewardship Council seafood (MSC).  These are the most humane and sustainable options.

  • Prioritise grass-fed beef and lamb instead of grain-fed pork and poultry.

  • Prioritise local produce instead of imported animal products.

  • Spend less on unnecessary and status-related ‘stuff’ and more on food.

  • Skip the supermarket and buy direct from farmers where possible.

A final comment.  This issue can seem trivial when faced with unemployment, hunger, war and all the other concerns we are confronted with daily.  But actually, they’re all related.  They all share the same cause, sin, and the same solutions, on which the entire kingdom of God is founded: righteousness – right relationships – and justice – righting wrong relationships. 

All relationships are God-given, corrupted by sin, redeemed by Christ, and worthy of our attention, including with what we eat.  Either everything matters, or we revert to a Christianity of converts not disciples, that’s so heavenly-minded it’s of no earthly use.  Jesus said: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added onto you.’  There’s the answer – straight from the horse’s mouth.

This article first appeared in the July – September 2013 edition of VOX.

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