In Chapter Two of his encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis declares that, “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’” This sentence is a powerful summation of his message throughout On Care For Our Common Home. We must use it as a catalyst to redress some of the worst transgressions our modern society commits against God’s creations. At the same time, if read too literally, this sentence can leave us wringing our hands with anxiety about the decisions we make in our daily lives. Or it can tempt us to develop rules and theories that may actually undermine our role as stewards of our common home.
When it comes to food, I believe these complexities are no more pronounced than in our consumption of meat. The dominant way we produce and consume meat in our country is an injustice to the natural gifts God has entrusted to us. The majority of our meat is raised in a factory system known as a Confined Animal Feedlot Operation, or CAFO. It is a system that enables mega corporations in food and agriculture to produce massive amounts of low-quality meat, dairy, eggs at great financial profit to themselves, but little profit to others. Animal abuse is rampant, and where it is not blatant and intentional, it is pervasive by very nature of the practices employed at CAFOs. Beyond the animal welfare concerns, the CAFO system is an environmental and human health disaster. I am not going to delve into the all the details of factory farming, as it would take thousands of words to do so and it is not specifically the purpose of this article. If you are not familiar with factory farming, I encourage you to spend some time on these websites: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Farm Sanctuary, and Mercy for Animals.
Most people, Christians included, remain oblivious or purposely indifferent to our meat and where it comes from. I know I was for most of my life. I grew up in a Catholic family and attended 12 years of Catholic school. There was little if any discussion about where the food on my plate originated. Like most kids, I just thought it came from the grocery store. After college I continued to remain uninterested in the source of my food. I didn’t know how it was produced, and I’d never really stepped foot on a working farm. And then, a few years ago I embarked on a career change that eventually led me deep into the world of food and agriculture. I started an initiative called Foodwaze to help consumers find sources of organic and sustainable food at farms, restaurants, cafes, markets, and other food businesses.
Shortly after I started Foodwaze, Laudato Si was published and I discovered my professional work was merging with my evolving beliefs as a Catholic. That evolution was no doubt fostered by a Pope who opened my eyes to certain realities of our modern world and whose wisdom prompted me to seek further spiritual guidance from Franciscan teachings. I also began to spend a considerable amount of time on farms, learning about regenerative organic agriculture.
What I have witnessed on these farms – livestock farms in particular – is far different from the factory farms that dominate our food system. On these holistic farms, animals are raised on pasture or in the woods, where they are treated with tremendous care, not just for their own welfare, but for the benefit of the land on which they live. I believe this is a critical distinction as we discuss meat within the broader realm of food and faith. This article is the first of a three part series that will explore this topic.
Regenerative agriculture is a holistic land management practice that strives to replicate the rhythms of nature. While the term regenerative and organic are similar, the modern version of the term “organic” has become more circumscribed by the federal government’s organic certification program. Regeneration is formless, timeless and all-encompassing. Balance, biodiversity, and the cycle of decay and renewal are fundamental to its premise. The flow of regeneration, created by God, has made our world turn since the dawn of time. In its truest essence, regenerative agriculture is about staying connected to land, to the soil. Through this connection, the health of all life forms on Earth is sustained. It is also about the resiliency of our social, cultural, and economic structures. For a further description, see this outstanding Tedx Talk video from regenerative farmer Gabe Brown.
What concerns me is that this type of agriculture is mostly – if not entirely – ignored in the discussion about factory farming. Indeed, in the process of calling attention to the horrors of factory farming, it’s common for all animal agriculture to be unfairly swept under the same rug. Meat-free diets are advised and suggested as the solution, not just by some of the websites I mentioned above, but by Christian-based organizations like the Christian Vegetarian Association. Quite a few Franciscans, religious and secular, choose to be vegetarian or vegan in honor of their patron saint. And several popular documentary films in the past couple of years, such as Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives, have censured the consumption of all meat, further heightening the tension around what essentially becomes a binary choice: meat or no meat.
Indeed, this binary choice can be a source of the anxiety I mentioned in the first paragraph above. If I choose to continue eating meat, even if it’s almost entirely from local regenerative farms I know are using humane, ethical practices, am I still doing something wrong? I’ll cut to the chase and say, No… I don’t think so. In Part Two of this series I will further explore why I feel this way, and I look forward to others sharing their thoughts and comments on this topic.