One of the most challenging topics to explore in the realm of food and faith is our consumption of animal products – including meat, dairy, and eggs. This article is the last in a three-part series that explores this challenge. In Part One, I began by quoting Pope Francis from Laudato Si: “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’” I concluded Part Two by stating that I believe truly caring for our common home requires of us a focus on regenerative agriculture as a way to foster balance and diversity in our food system and throughout our world, as God intended in nature.
Animals play a critical role in this process, particularly grazing animals, like cattle, sheep, and bison. Holistically managed cattle can graze on land that can’t be used for crops, improving soil quality and sequestering carbon. To understand more, take a look at the short video called Soil Carbon Cowboys. It can’t be emphasized enough that grazing animals raised using ethical regenerative practices are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem created by factory farming. We need to shift the focus from condemning meat to extolling the virtues of livestock as an essential part of renewing the land in a balanced ecosystem.
In shifting this focus we can also restore meat to its traditional role as a precious and revered source of nourishment. Until modern times, the consumption of meat was typically a limited, and indeed spiritual, act. Reflect again on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Killing the fattened calf is understood as the highest gesture of celebration for the lost son. Rarely if ever in the traditional consumption of meat were any parts of the animal discarded or wasted.
Contrast this with our wasteful, throwaway modern culture, one that the Pope laments in Laudato Si when he says the earth “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Food is at the heart of this throwaway culture. In the U.S. we waste nearly 40% of the food we produce. There are many reasons for this, one of which is consumer beliefs that food is cheap and easy to come by. It’s an attitude created by our industrial, factory food system that has deluded us into thinking a certain way. Meat is the poster child, with fast food restaurants cluttering streets in every city and town in America. Cheap beef got us started, but slick marketing has convinced us to eat more chicken. It’s now the most consumed meat despite the fact that poultry production may well be the most harmful of all factory farmed meats. Rather than condemn meat in its entirety, we can point to ethically, regeneratively raised livestock as an exemplification of the inherent value of all food. And rather than wasting 40% of it while millions of people around the world go hungry, we can harness all of what we produce to truly feed those in need, as we’re called to do.
Indeed no discussion about food and faith can ignore the plight of the poor and hungry. We certainly have the modern tools to take care of all our brothers and sisters around the world, but we are not harnessing those tools for the glory of God’s creations. Feeding the world must mean revitalizing food sovereignty and security through the resiliency that local regenerative organic agriculture provides. Food sovereignty has been eroded in our industrial food system. Restoring it is about empowering local peoples to nourish themselves through ecologically sound – as well as culturally and geographically appropriate – food production methods. In many cases, this includes livestock.
With all this said, I do realize that for some people this issue boils down to the topic of death. That no matter how humanely livestock are treated in the process of raising them, they still need to be slaughtered. This falls under the philosophy of doing the least harm, and by avoiding the slaughter of animals we are minimizing harm to God’s creatures.
This philosophy has been fundamental to certain cultures and religions, such as Buddhism, for thousands of years, so it extends beyond the dilemma of our modern day factory farming system. There have been people who have chosen not to eat throughout history and there always will be. We just need to be careful not to mix the issues.
Just because our food culture is broken, doesn’t mean it’s all broken. One of the eight core principles at the Center for Action and Contemplation is: The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. When it comes to eating meat, there are better choices than what currently constitutes the majority.
We must flip this equation and strive for a world that is fed 100% on regenerative organic agriculture, whether it’s plant or animal food. This seems impossible… much like the vision of converting energy completely away from fossil fuels. But our collective commitment to strive for these two goals – with a loving heart toward all those whose livelihoods might be negatively impacted by these changes – will define the future of our world.
Eating meat must evolve from a thoughtless and insincere act to a conscious choice that respects death as a vital and sacred role in the food chain, and indeed in the totality of our existence. This is best achieved by gazing through the lens of the Holy Trinity. As Fr. Richard Rohr says in his book, The Divine Dance: “The divine pattern revealed in the Trinity is loss and renewal…”
The paschal mystery teaches us the power of renewal, the gift of mercy available to each of us through God’s grace. It gives us the chance for new life after every sin, after every mistake we make. This power of renewal is also reflected in the physical world all around us. Everything is connected, everything belongs, as the circle turns. We’re called to be stewards of this circle, known as our Common Home. Make no mistake about it, every bite of food we take determines how well we will perform this role in the years to come.