I already know what’s coming in response to that question.
God said we could eat meat. Jesus ate fish. God told Peter to “kill and eat.”
But, I am not asking whether it is wrong to ever eat meat. For the most part, the biblical writers had no problem with it. (Although, Genesis and Isaiah both reveal that in the perfected creation, both in the Garden of Eden and in the eschatological Kingdom, humans and animals do not eat meat. In fact, herbivorism is a symbol of the peace of the Kingdom of God in these passages.)
I am asking whether it is wise to eat meat. As St. Paul might ask: It might be lawful, but is it profitable?
I went vegetarian for Lent last year so that I could think about Creation and food from a new perspective. If you’ve read the Bible at any length, you know that meals have remarkable importance for the Hebrew and Christian story–it’s where we tell our own story.
Our fast-food culture desensitizes us to the importance of food. In fact, before last Lent I had never thought of food as an ethical issue. Once Lent was over, I decided that being an omnivore isn’t worth it.
Here are a few reasons why we should at least reconsider our love for meat.
Animal Mistreatment is Real.
This is the number one reason why I decided to go vegetarian for Lent.
As humans, and especially as Christians, we have the obligation to care for Creation. The same God who knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground (Mt 10:29), cares for every cow, pig, and chicken that is brutally beaten, boiled alive, deprived of basic comforts, and biologically altered to the point where they grow so fat that they cannot stand.
In our industrialized world, we know nothing about the animals we ingest. We don’t know the story of how they made it onto our plates. We don’t know–because we don’t care–what kind of suffering they endured so that we could eat them. Then, we have the audacity to thank God for it. I can’t think of a less Christian way to eat.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (Lk 12:6).
Worker Mistreatment is Real.
Not only are the animals themselves treated in ways that no one can justify, the low-level employees are treated almost as shamefully. It is no secret that, for instance, poultry companies like Tyson force low-income people into what amounts to slavery–and this happens every day in the good ‘ole US of A.
This excellent piece by John Oliver exposes how companies exploit low-income people. It’s worth the time to watch. (Warning: John Oliver is a pretty vulgar comedian. If you can get past his language, I think he does a great job of explaining the problem. My apologies to anyone who finds it offensive.)
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Mt 6:26)
Meat is Unsustainable on Every Level.
The recent documentary, Cowspiracy (available on Netflix at the time of this writing), reveals that animal agriculture is the single greatest contributor to deforestation, ocean destabilization, and air pollution. The debate is over. Climate change is real, and its single greatest enemy is the American taste bud.
Aside from the massive environmental problems caused by animal agriculture, a Cornell study found that it takes around 100,000 liters of water for a single kg of beef. A whopping 87% of fresh water use in the US goes to animal agriculture rather than to places with water shortages such as California or Flint, Michigan. Furthermore, almost half of the grain produced by the world goes to the animals we eat.
Do you know what we could do with that water and grain?
The 7 billion livestock animals in America alone eat 5 times as much grain as the American population. The amount of grain and water that goes into our meat could solve water shortage issues and feed 800 million hungry people!
Christians are rightly adamant that caring for the poor and hungry is the responsibility of the church. Around 70% of the US population identifies as Christian. What if we actually made the small sacrifice that could actually make a difference? What if we decided that Creation and humanity was more important than the taste of bacon?
We could literally eliminate (or, at least drastically reduce) world hunger.
Meat is unnecessary.
One of the most common questions I get when people find out that I am vegetarian is: Where do you get your protein?
I get unreasonably annoyed by this question, mostly because those who ask it have terrible eating habits. Aside from the absurdity of a couch potato criticizing my protein intake, Americans eat far more protein than is ever needed. In fact, the Cornell study mentioned above shows that if Americans completely got rid of grain-fed livestock and switched to grass-fed, it would radically reduce the amount of livestock consumed and we would still have more protein than necessary for the average diet.
So,why don’t we just switch to free-range, grass-fed livestock? I’m glad you asked. The land necessary to feed the amount of livestock consumed by Americans alone would require bulldozing every building and leveling every mountain in North America and converting it into pasture. There is no possibility of living sustainably on the American diet.
We can get all of the nutrients we need from other sources. We can do so sustainably. We can do so with enough food to feed the hungry.
So, if we don’t eat meat for nutrition, and we have more than enough food to end hunger without ending the life of an animal, why do we eat meat?
Other than the protein question, the most common response to my vegetarianism is: I will never give up bacon.
This raises serious ethical questions.
In his book, Eating Animals, Jonathon Foer quotes an anonymous source who puts it this way:
This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Tell me something: Why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses?
We know that the meat we eat is unhealthy, unsustainable, and unnecessary, and yet we harm animals for the sole purpose of satisfying our taste buds. In what world can we call this responsible care for God’s creation?
Meat is a moral issue.
In the end, I know that few people will decide to change their behavior. Many even use that as an excuse not to change their own behavior. It’s not like anything will change if I stop eating meat, they say.
But sometimes Christianity requires moving against culture for the purpose of showing the majority what it looks like to live as God’s Image. We should be willing to live counter-culturally, to show the world what it means to “have dominion” over Creation.
“Dominion” doesn’t mean that we get to exploit animals and low-income workers for our own greedy taste buds. It means living in a way that benefits all life–human and animal. It means that we take after our Creator, the One who cares for every one-cent sparrow that falls to the ground.
“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Prov 12:10
What do you think? Do animal have rights? Is it acceptable to harm or kill an animal for personal pleasure?