From farm to fork: How should Adventists view the dark world of factory farms?

If our Creator views animal welfare as a societal issue of ethics, shouldn’t humans, as His stewards, be exploring alternative industry standards that offer a better quality of life to farm animals?

Lentil roasts, mushroom patties, and scrambled tofu have long been dietary staples for Seventh-day Adventists — decades before vegetarianism and “going green” became accepted trends. Together with the mission to share the gospel, the Adventist health message has played a prominent role in the church’s belief system. But does healthful living demand more of us than a focus on our own personal health? Do Adventists have a responsibility to consider the impact of our food choices on the health of our communities, the health of our planet, and the treatment of the animals that are used for food production? In order to address these matters, we must first consider the journey our food takes from farm to fork.

No “Old McDonald’s Farm”

For those of us who have rarely, if ever, stepped foot on an animal farm, we likely envision cows grazing on rolling hills, chickens scratching in the grass, and pigs wallowing in the mud. In the current world of agribusiness, however, the reality contrasts starkly.

The vast majority of animal products — including meat, dairy, and eggs — are produced on factory farms, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The nearly 10 billion animals caught up annually in the U.S. food production system1 typically live in crowded conditions, with no access to the outdoors — eating foods that are unnatural to their species, and enduring a variety of mutilations without the benefits of anesthesia.

Chickens are debeaked, for example, so they won’t peck at and injure one another as they live crammed together in small wire enclosures called battery cages, with no room to move about or stretch their wings. CAFO dairy cows are confined in pens or crowded feedlots and are regularly impregnated in order to continuously produce milk. Genetic manipulation, a diet unnatural to bovines, and growth-hormone injections significantly increase yields. In a natural environment, a cow can live 16 years or longer. Under intense factory-farming conditions, however, they quickly become so exhausted and ill that by age 4 they are called “spent” cows and sent to slaughter. Pregnant sows are kept in metal enclosures called gestation crates that are only a little larger than the pig itself. They are unable to walk or turn around. Although even meat-eating Adventists don’t consume pork, this animal’s plight is still worthy of our consideration.

Farm animals also are subjected to cruel treatment in the process of transport to slaughterhouses. Pigs, cattle, and sheep can legally be confined for up to 28 hours during transport without being provided food and water, even in extreme hot or cold temperatures.2 Severe injury and even death are not uncommon, and are viewed by most companies as simply a cost of doing business.

Slaughterhouse abuses are also well documented.3,4 The USDA Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that farm animals be insensible to pain before they are shackled and killed, but this law is regularly flouted, as many undercover investigations have exposed. Studies indicate that penalties for not following USDA humane-slaughtering regulations for cows, pigs, and sheep are frequently not imposed.5 There are no federal regulations that cover chickens, turkeys, and other animals such as rabbits at any stage of their lives.6

Evolving industry standards

Factory farming originated in the U.S. following World War II. At that time, corn production exploded, and the price crashed. With access to so much cheap corn, the meat industry discovered it could feed corn to cattle more cheaply than grass, and the profits outweighed the fact that corn is not their natural or more healthful diet. The discovery of vitamin supplements for animals also played a large role, enabling farmers to raise animals totally indoors. Antibiotics and vaccines then allowed animals to be raised together in confinement in large numbers, by preventing diseases that would normally occur in such intensive-farming conditions. A lack of government regulations for the treatment of farm animals permitted the industry freedom to treat the animals this way and eventually became the industry standard.

Chickens were the first animals to be raised in factory-farm environments. This was followed in the 1960s by the first factory-farmed cows and pigs. The United States began shifting from small, diverse, independent farms to agribusiness and corporate factories. The family farmers were unable to compete with the low production costs, and the vast majority were forced to sell their farms.7,8

The practice of factory farming soon spread from the U.S. to Canada and Western Europe. Countries in Latin America, the Caribbean,9 India,10 and China11 are also beginning to emulate the systems of the industrialized nations. By 2020, those living in developing countries are predicted to consume more than 86 pounds of meat per person per year — twice as much as they did in the 1980s. People in industrial countries, however, are still expected to consume the most meat — 220 pounds a year by 2020.12

Shifting attitudes

Animal advocacy groups, news media, and advancing scientific research on animal intelligence and emotions are raising awareness of factory-farm conditions, and attitudes are slowly beginning to change. As recently as 2001, not a single state in the U.S. had banned any factory-farming practice that is standard within the industry, such as battery cages or veal and gestation crates. A decade later, nine states had legislated phase-outs on gestation crates, six states on veal crates, and two states on conventional battery cages. In 2012, numerous fast-food and supermarket chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Costco, and Sysco, committed to requiring their suppliers to eliminate gestation crates and battery cages at an agreed-upon future date. Food companies such as Kraft and Campbell Soup are following suit.13

Scientists are adding their voices to the issue with an increasing number of published studies confirming the existence of animal intelligence and emotions, asserting that animals are able to perceive pain as humans do because their brains are not that different from ours.14 Temple Grandin, a noted professor of animal science at Colorado State University, says science has shown that animals such as mammals and birds feel pain in a manner similar to humans, and that animals with complex brains also have greater social and environmental needs.15 Cognitive ethology, once dismissed as unscientific, is now a reputable and growing discipline, to the extent that in July 2012 an international group of scientists signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, supporting the notion that animals and humans are comparably conscious.16

U.S. institutions of higher education, such as Washington State University and the University of California-Davis, are incorporating new types of agricultural curricula to meet these altering food-production perspectives.17 Consumers are playing a central role in fueling these changes, as a growing number are demanding food they see as healthier and produced on sustainable farms that are environmentally friendly and treat workers and animals responsibly.

Rising global awareness

North Americans are relative latecomers to the move toward more responsible and sustainable farming. Although awareness of the issues is growing in the U.S. and Canada, countries outside North America are effecting change more quickly. Switzerland, for example, banned battery cages for chickens in 1992 — the first country in the world to do so.18 As of January 2012, the entire European Union has enacted a similar ban.19 Some 485 professors of various scientific fields in Europe have banded together as an environment and nature conservation group espousing the phasing out of factory farms.20 Some are advocating smaller, organic farms as a sustainable solution.21 Claus Leitzmann, director of the academic advisory council of the Urban Growth Boundary (GB) Forum of Germany, says current “husbandry conditions contradict our ethical values of a respectful handling of living creatures. [These practices] are embarrassing for a civilized society.”22

Human and environmental health

In addition to ameliorating the cruel treatment of factory-farmed animals, other reasons exist to consider limiting animal-product consumption. The personal health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for example, are well known to Adventists. The Loma Linda University Health Studies, conducted throughout the last 40 years, have provided evidence-based research and raised scientific awareness of the close relationship between diet and health. The Adventist Mortality Study (1960-1965) indicates that both Adventist men and women live longer (6.2 years and 3.7 years, respectively) than their non-Adventist counterparts, and have less risk of cancer, less hypertension, and lower measured blood pressures. Study results indicate that Adventists experience better health, in part, because of their vegetarian lifestyles.23 Numerous studies by other scientific and nutritional research groups also have confirmed the health advantage granted by a vegetarian diet.

Antibiotic resistance is another issue. Health officials are sounding the alarm on the emerging ineffectiveness of antibiotics in curing illness in people, and the blame for this appears to rest largely on factory farms. About 70 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to farm animals to stimulate faster growth and to keep them alive in overcrowded conditions.24 The antibiotics then pass to humans through the consumption of animal products and other forms of human-animal contact, thus contributing to an increasing resistance to antibiotics used to treat various diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have issued warnings against this practice.

Environmental issues, such as global warming, are also growing concerns, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated portions of the Caribbean and the northeastern shores of the United States in late October 2012. A United Nations report released by its Food and Agriculture Organization in November 2006 describes the livestock sector as a top contributor to the most serious environmental problems — land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity — on both local and global levels,25 largely as a result of animal waste, and that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”26 In 2009, the Worldwatch Institute credited livestock and their byproducts with producing a staggering 51 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.27

More than a billion tons of animal waste are produced each year in the U.S. alone.28 These huge quantities are dumped into open manure lagoons because they cannot safely be recycled back into the earth. Leakage often occurs, resulting in contaminated land, waterways, and air.

U.S. attorney and environmental specialist Robert Kennedy Jr. describes good environmental policy as identical to good economic policy. “We can generate instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy,” he says, “but our children will pay for our joyride, and they’re going to pay for it with polluted landscapes, poor health, and huge cleanup costs that will amplify over time. We’ll be left with a nation that’s something we won’t be proud of.”29

CAFO workers

The health risk for CAFO workers is significant. The approximately 700,000 full-time and part-time factory-farm workers in the U.S. are continually exposed to harmful gases (ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane, resulting from microbial degradation of urine and feces) and particulate matter (fecal matter, feed materials, skin cells, and products of microbial degradation of feces and urine).30 This results in respiratory disorders, cardiovascular complications, chronic aches and pains, repetitive stress injuries, and premature death.31

Emotional dangers also exist. Routine exposure to animal suffering and death can desensitize workers, who naturally must limit their concerns about the pain they inflict. Studies indicate links between the methodical slaughterhouse killing of animals to thoughts of violence and violent actions, and “can be compared to the mental and physical manifestation of war crime atrocities.”32 Links between animal abuse and domestic abuse also have been documented.33 More than a century ago, Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White addressed this matter. She implored believers to consider the effect that meat-industry cruelty has on those who inflict pain on animals, saying “it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God.”34

Is anyone doing it right?

A rising number of farmers are examining today’s industry standards as they apply to animal welfare and human and environmental health and are choosing a more ethical position. Will Harris, a multigenerational family farmer and owner of a large organic cattle, sheep, and chicken ranch in Georgia, believes that because humans take dominion over these animals (see Genesis 1:25, 26), we must take on responsible stewardship.35 Harris’s cattle and sheep are not raised in confinement but graze freely on pastures. They are solely grass fed. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used on the land, nor are the animals given any artificial hormone implants or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. Sixty separate enclosures house his chickens, kept in relatively small flocks of 500 each. (Factory farms typically keep 10,000 birds that are being raised for meat permanently confined in a single shed.) Once the chicks reach three weeks of age, they are free to come and go inside and outside the enclosures. No debeaking is done.

Harris ran his farm by CAFO standards for a number of years, but found that the production model had unintended adverse consequences for the land and the animals.

“We used copious quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It really boosted the production in the short run, but it caused an addiction to those pesticides and chemical fertilizers,” he said.

Harris returned to his family’s previously-employed organic and humane farming methods in 2003, focusing again on the health and overall welfare of his animals and the land.

Why should Adventists care?

To Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible is the foundation of the understanding of right and wrong. If we carefully examine Scripture, God’s care and compassion for His nonhuman creatures is evident in numerous instances throughout both the Old and New Testaments, including the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11). Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary professor Denis Fortin says that God, in His directive to rest and keep holy the Sabbath day, remembers the animals and the environment:

“His original plan included a symbiotic relationship between animals and humans; that there was to be harmonious support and care between all parts of His creation. Adam and Eve were given the stewardship of the earth, to care for the earth, not to destroy it. In the Sabbath commandment God enshrined a clause for the protection of animals. Adventists recognize that it was never part of God’s plan that animals should suffer at the hands of humankind, or to be eaten. This commandment reminds us that we are still stewards of all the earth, and we are responsible for protecting it.”36

God’s compassion for animals and His expectation that the Israelites were to care for them responsibly is evident in biblical societies: one must help a donkey when it has fallen under a heavy load, even if the animal belongs to an enemy (Exodus 23:4, 5; Deuteronomy 22:1-4); large work animals were not to be muzzled while working, so that they could eat while doing heavy agricultural work (Deuteronomy 25:4). In the New Testament, Jesus declared that even the most common of creatures is loved (Luke 12:6). If our Creator views animal welfare as a societal issue of ethics, shouldn’t humans, as His stewards, be exploring alternative industry standards that offer a better quality of life to farm animals?

Ellen White expressed sensitivity to the issue of animal cruelty. She wrote that animals love and fear and suffer, show sympathy and feel tenderness toward their fellow animal companions in suffering, and often exhibit affection for people that is superior to that shown by some of the human race.37

Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and a member of the University of Oxford theology faculty, asserts that God expects humans to care for creation because “the divine image only warrants a more careful, diffident, and conscientious stewardship of creation, and animals in particular” — a concept, he noted, that is gaining increasing acceptance among theological scholars and religious organizations today.38 In June 2011, for example, the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations passed a statement of conscience titled “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.” It reads, in part: “We acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. With gratitude for the food we have received, we strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution.”39

Worldwide hunger and malnutrition add another weighty moral component to our dietary choices. Approximately 2,500 gallons of water40 and 10 to 16 pounds of grain41 are required to produce one pound of beef. These statistics indicate that the more meat people consume, the less total food and pure water are available to feed others.

Pursuing a better way

Practicing appropriate farming methods and feeding a growing world population are obviously complex challenges without easy solutions. The high costs to human health, the environment, and animal welfare resulting from today’s CAFO industry standards, however, compel us to pursue a better way.

Unfortunately, many people appear to be disinterested in the animals’ journey from farm to fork, rarely thinking past the grocery store. Perhaps this is because the process is often invisible to consumers, making it harder to understand the realities of the animals’ plight. Others don’t grasp the bigger picture of whole earth care, which affects environmental and human health.

We humans, however — particularly Christians — have a biblical and ethical mandate to care for all God’s creatures and the environment in which we live. The original diet of Eden will be restored in the earth made new (Isaiah 11:9), but even now we can care responsibly for the world that we share with the rest of God’s creation.

Ways to effect change

1. Consider reducing or eliminating meat from your diet, and possibly your consumption of dairy products and eggs.

2. Be a conscientious shopper and purchase animal products from companies that utilize the most humane farming practices and are earth-care conscious (e.g., read product labels, contact vendors, do research on the Internet). Buy locally-raised animal products from small family farms that embrace more humane standards. Become familiar with humane-standards certification programs, including Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and the Whole Foods Market program.

3. Raise awareness. Share with others what you learn about the origins of food through research and conversations with experts in the field, and suggest better options that you personally have discovered in your community. Talk to your local grocery store manager about the possibility of carrying humanely-raised animal products.

4. Contact your political leaders to encourage their support for laws that help improve the treatment of farm animals and care for the environment.

Sandra A. Blackmer is features editor for Adventist Review and assistant editor for Adventist World magazines. She has received awards and recognition by the Associated Church Press, and was nominated for a Genesis Award in the Outstanding Written Word, William Wilberforce Award category for her interview with Loma Linda University’s Sigve K. Tonstad in “What Are We Really Doing to God’s Creatures?” (Adventist Review, Mar. 18, 2010). This award recognizes journalistic excellence on animal protection issues in faith-based publications. E-mail: blackmers@gc.adventist.org.

REFERENCES

  1. USDA, “National Agriculture Statistics Service,” 2010. Retrieved July 7, 2011, from www.nass.usda.gov.
  2. Animal Legal and Historical Center, “Transportation of Animals,” 2011. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stusfd49usc80502.htm.
  3. J. Warrick, “Modern meat: a brutal harvest,” The Washington Post, April 10, 2001.
  4. L. Orlowski, “Ecofeminism: systemic change for the violent and addictive power of our meat-centered culture,” Maryland Institute College of Art Gender Studies Minor, 2009, 11.
  5. Animal Welfare Institute, “Humane slaughter update: humane slaughter laws, enforcement up, but still insufficient,” April 10, 2010. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from http://www.awionline.org/awi-quarterly/2010-fall/humane-slaughter-laws-enforcement-still-insufficient.
  6. United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Treatment of live poultry before slaughter,” Federal Register (September 28, 2005): 187.
  7. In Defense of Animals, “Factory Farm Facts,” www.idausa.org/facts/factoryfarmfacts.html. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
  8. Independent Lens, King Corn, “Corn Fed: Cows and Corn” (April 2008), www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/cows.html. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
  9. T. Raney, et al (2009), “The state of food and agriculture.” Retrieved Jan. 17, 2012, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0680e/i0680e.pdf.
  10. M. MacDonald and S. Lyer (2011), “Veg or non-veg? India at the crossroads.” Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://www.brightergreen.org/files/india_bg_pp_2011.pdf.
  11. M. MacDonald and S. Lyer (2009), “Skillful means: the challenge of China’s encounter with factory farms.” Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://brightergreen.org/files/brightergreen_china_print.pdf.
  12. Worldwatch Institute (2007), “From farm to factory — and back.” Retrieved August 17, 2011, from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/813.
  13. Paul Shapiro (2011). Shapiro shared this information during an interview I had with him at The Humane Society of the United States headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on July 28, 2011, and a follow-up conversation in 2012.
  14. Katherine Houpt, professor of animal behavior, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, for example, shared such research results with author Amy Hatkoff when Hatkoff was writing her book The Inner World of Farm Animals (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2009), 85. Hatkoff confirmed this in an e-mail, September 21, 2011. Numerous additional scientific studies also have been published on this topic.
  15. Temple Grandin, “Animals Are Not Things: A View on Animal Welfare Based on Neurological Complexity,” www.grandin.com/welfare/animals.are.not.things.html.
  16. Philip Low, “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” July 7, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf.
  17. S. Dininny, “College Organic, Sustainability Program Growing,” Associated Press, Aug. 15, 2011. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=14305000.
  18. Swiss Farming, “Chicken husbandry.” Retrieved Jan. 23, 2012, from http://www.landwirtschaft.ch/de/wissen/tiere/gefluegelhaltung/haltung/; (translated).
  19. Andrews, J. (2012), Food Safety News, “European Union bans battery cages for egg-laying hens,” Jan. 19. Retrieved Jan. 22, 2012, from http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/01/european-union-bans-battery-cages-for-egg-laying-hens/.
  20. Association of Independent Health Counselors, “Phasing Out Factory Farming: We Have to Start Now,” June/July 2011. Interview with Claus Leitzmann; translated.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Loma Linda University School of Public Health, “Adventist Health Studies,” 2012, www.llu.edu/public-health/health/about.page. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2012.
  24. A. Elles (2011), Food and Agriculture, “Prescription for trouble: using antibiotics to fatten livestock,” Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved Jan. 15, 2012, from www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_industrial_agriculture/prescription-for-trouble.html.
  25. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2006), “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environment Issues and Options,” www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2012.
  26. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Livestock a Major Threat to Environment,” Nov. 2006, www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2012.
  27. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, World Watch Institute, “Livestock and Climate Change” (2009), www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2012.
  28. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (2011), “Environment.” Retrieved October 2, 2011, from www.ncifap.org/issues/environment.
  29. Robert Kennedy Jr. (2011) from panel discussion held at U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on March 9, 2011. Kennedy is a U. S. attorney and a specialist in environmental issues.
  30. Iowa State University (1992). “Livestock confinement dusts and gases.” Retrieved July 7, 2011, from http://nasdonline.org/static_content/documents/1627/d001501.pdf.
  31. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Toxics Steering Group (2006), “Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) chemicals associated with air emissions.” Retrieved July 7, 2011, from www.michigan.gov/documents/CAFOs-Chemicals_Associated_with_Air_Emissions_5-10-06_158862_7.pdf.
  32. L. Orlowski, (2009). Ecofeminism: systemic change for the violent and addictive power of our meat-centered culture, Maryland Institute College of Art Gender Studies Minor, p. 12.
  33. Piers Beirne (2004), “From animal abuse to interhuman violence? A critical review of the progression thesis.” Retrieved July 10, 2011, from www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/527_s1213.pdf.
  34. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, California, Pacific Press Pub Assn. 1942), 315, 316; and White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 441-443.
  35. Information about White Oaks Pastures and owner Will Harris is based on an on-site interview I conducted with him in July 2011. For more information about this operation, go to www.whiteoakpastures.com.
  36. D. Fortin, professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, in a presentation at the General Conference Annual Council, October 8, 2010, held at the world church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.
  37. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 315, 316. See also White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 441-443.
  38. Ibid., 29.
  39. Unitarian Universalist Association, Ethical Eating Advisory Committee, “Ethical Eating: Statement of Conscience,” June 2011. Retrieved on October 1 from http://ethicaleating.uua.org/statement-of-conscience.
  40. G. Borgstrom, “Impacts on demand for and quality of land and water,” presentation to the 1981 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  41. Sierra Club, “Choosing for nature, three times a day: the true cost of food.” Retrieved Jan. 17, 2012, from www.sierraclub.org/sustainable_consumption/toolkit/choosing.pdf.