Farmers under fire?
On balancing good farming practice and animal rights
In Bible times people lived in an agrarian society. The rituals and feasts, and the metaphors used by preachers, prophets and the Lord Jesus himself speak of the farming calendar. There was a real sense that riches or poverty, and life itself, depended upon God’s blessing in the fruitfulness of labour on the land.
This connection with agriculture was evident in the UK until modern times. Harvest Thanksgiving was an integral part of the church calendar, acknowledging the importance of food production. There was a general appreciation of farming practice. Now, however, that has been lost. Research shows that many children grow up thinking that milk comes in plastic containers from a factory, that white bread is made from milk and brown bread from wheat. Consumers expect strawberries and tomatoes to be available on Christmas Day and at the same prices as when they are in seasonal production.
There is, in particular, a loss of understanding of livestock production. This has been fuelled in part by Darwinian thinking, which encourages us to evaluate animal life as equal in value to human life, rather than the biblical teaching of the unique value of humans as made in the image of God. The God-given mandate to subdue the earth, to rule over the animal kingdom, and to use animals for food has been forgotten. There is instead a new sentimentality in our thinking. Animals are anthropomorphised, pets are ‘companions’ and there is a squeamishness about farming animals for food.
By comparison, in biblical times, the concept of ‘companion’ animals did not exist. Animals were either kept as a source of food and clothing, or were beasts of burden to transport, to plough, to reap, or to thresh.
Why farm livestock anyway?
There is a simplistic view that livestock farming should be largely abandoned in favour of crop production.
It is said that this would be more efficient in feeding the world and there is some weight in that argument, but the reality is much more complex. For example, most of our milk, beef and lamb production in the UK traditionally comes from the wetter western regions and marginal land, where the climate is more suited to growing grass and fodder. Indeed, many thousands of hectares in the West Country, Wales and Scotland, would go unmanaged if livestock production ceased, because the climate, topography or soil type is unsuitable for arable production.
Looking on a world scale, many populations only survive via ruminant livestock, be they on dry grasslands, wet mountains or in the Arctic regions where livestock are their only sustenance. Cereal consumption by pigs, poultry and cattle may become a bigger issue if demand for meat rises and cereal yields fall as a result of climate change. But cattle and sheep do not have to eat cereals.
Keeping ruminants just for milk production is also fraught with complexity, because every lactating cow (or sheep, or goat) will need to produce an offspring each year to keep it in lactation and less than 25% of those offspring would be required as breeding replacements, so whither the rest if there is no meat industry? Thus all milk and dairy by-products would have to disappear if we were to move away from an integrated agriculture of livestock and crop production.
Some may prefer to abstain from meats, and maybe dairy products too, either out of conscience or preference. But such a view cannot be imposed as a Christian norm.
In the Scriptures after the Fall, meat figured strongly in both worship and diet. The slaughter of animals was a vital part of the Old Testament sacrificial system. On Passover night, to reject the sacrifice of the lamb and the subsequent cooking, eating and disposal of leftovers, would have been to sin against God’s commandment and risk exclusion from the great escape to the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is clear that we are free to enjoy meat (Romans 14.1-4).
God’s created order
Ruminants (cattle, sheep and deer) are a wonderful provision in God’s creation plan. He identifies them as ‘clean’ animals in Genesis 7.2 in the loading of the Ark and refers to them as ‘livestock’ in Genesis 7.21, delineating them from the ‘wild animals’ and indicating a very special relationship to mankind. They have this unique digestive system that allows them to consume vast quantities of grass and roughage which is broken down by a bacterial fermentation process. Thus they are able to convert the sunlight on a thousand hills and vast tracts of prairie, savannah and wilderness, through photosynthesis to carbohydrates in the grass and plant life, via the ruminant stomachs, into meat and milk that can be consumed by man. This provision of body-building proteins is an amazing part of the food chain both for human consumption and carnivorous wildlife.
When we look into the ruminant’s mouth we see at the front a set of sharp and ever-growing lower incisors biting against a horny pad, superbly crafted as a constant mowing machine capable of harvesting continuously for eight or more hours a day Then there is the most fearsome set of razor edged molars and premolars grooved into the perfect grinding machine with a jaw that articulates from side to side, to chew that regurgitated and difficult-to-digest green material for another eight hours a day!
But, in God’s wisdom, he has blessed the human mouth with four incisors — just about adequate to bite an apple, some modest canines to tear at meat and deal with tough food, and some pre-molars and molars to reduce food just a little, before it disappears down the hatch into a digestive tract with the perfect enzymes and processes to handle a completely varied diet. So, whether my lot and circumstances are to live where I have access to a predominance of green food or meats or a blend of both, my creator God has provided me with the most adaptable dentition and digestive tract to survive almost anywhere that is hospitable on this planet earth.
Farming with compassion
Farming livestock does not mean an absence of compassion. There is much legislation on this subject in the OT.
Owners of working animals were to ensure that they were appropriately fed and watered, even to the point of helping themselves when treading out the corn (Deuteronomy 12.4). They were to retrieve animals out of a ditch even on the Sabbath (Matthew 12.11). Jesus with confidence of being well understood, could call himself the ‘Good Shepherd’ who cared for his sheep (John 10.11), and the caring shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep grazing while searching out, ‘retrieving’ and ‘rejoicing’ over the one that was lost (Luke 15.3-6). Although these are pictures of a compassionate Saviour, their truth and powerful message was embedded in the culture and practice of the Eastern shepherd. Indeed, both Jesus in his teaching and Ezekiel in his prophecy (Ezekekiel 34.1-16) castigates neglectful leaders and teachers of the Israelites, comparing them to careless shepherds who were unworthy of such a profession.
By common grace, such good stewardship is reflected in farming in the UK where standards of animal welfare are the highest of anywhere in the world. A brief review of farming history in the UK will help our understanding here.
During World War II, when supply lines of ships were devastated by the German U-boats, domestic gardeners and farmers alike were all encouraged to ‘dig for Britain’. Farmers were incentivised by government grants, free advice, free training and intensive government-funded research, to maximise production in every crop and livestock enterprise. Mechanisation was developed and embraced to make processes more efficient and costs of production lower. British agriculture responded to the challenge with increasing intensification, so that yields per acre and output per beast rose by leaps and bounds. But then, in the 1980s, the beef, grain and butter mountains began to build. Issues of animal welfare, soil health, wildlife and countryside, figured ever higher on the political and consumer agenda, challenging practices and demanding a re-evaluation of methods and processes, putting farming in the spotlight for radical change.
It was recognised that the rush to maximise output was sometimes at the expense of husbandry standards and lacked an understanding of long-term holistic consequences. There has now been a massive signing up to assurance schemes with clear and demanding standards of production and animal welfare, co-operative marketing, labelling and quality marking, so that there is transparency and integrity in the journey from field to plate.
These reforms have been driven by a responsible industry, backed up by legislation, European Directives and special interest group standards. As Christians, it is right to ensure that the food we consume has been responsibly produced and to be informed and intelligent buyers. Of course the industry is not perfect, but change is ongoing and it takes the consuming public a long time to divest the images of excess and intensification that marked the heady 80s.
Current pressure on farming
Today, farmers are under intense pressure. While maintaining the highest standards of husbandry, there are fresh demands to increase production. UK food self-sufficiency has fallen below 60%. There is increasing political interest in food sustainability, and the need to double output by 2050 to feed the world’s burgeoning population. There is also, of course, the ever-present pressure to keep down costs, especially when squeezed by the buying might of the supermarkets, and by competition from low-priced imports from countries which don’t insist on such high standards of regulation.
Individual farmers are running a business. They are anxious to provide what households require. They feel passionate about their animals, the crops they grow, and the wildlife and countryside on which they impact. That is no mean mix of often conflicting objectives for a small business. How are such farmers, and especially Christian farmers, to respond to the pressures upon them today?
In 21st-century Britain, where agriculture is misunderstood and too often misrepresented, we as Christians should be in the forefront of those who present a realistic and biblical view of farming which is a positive expression of God’s creation mandate for us to steward and develop his world for our benefit and his glory.
Bryan Jarvis is a former principal of an agricultural college.