By Judith Boogaart
In presenting his paper “Animal Welfare and Global Sustainability: Eating as an Act of Christian Discipleship” as part of the “Good Food for the Common Good” symposium at Hope College on Oct. 7, Matthew Halteman was quick to point out that the issue of animal welfare is of concern to anyone (no matter what, if any, religion or philosophy they subscribe to) who seeks justice for oppressed human beings, wants to avoid unnecessary animal suffering, and strives to live sustainably in a time of environmental crisis.
The paper’s focus was on animals used for food—56 billion per year, not including fish, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Farming this many animals and fish is “depleting land, grain, water, fossil fuel and biodiversity levels at an unsustainable rates” and is affecting human life as well as environmental stability. Since deciding what to eat and where to purchase food are things many of us can control, changing our eating habits in this area could have a significant positive impact on humans, animals and the environment.
Halteman contends that since eating is a communal activity, the convictions of just a few people can spread, as friends and family come to see that eating more intentionally can be “morally and spiritually invigorating—as well as delicious, nutritious and cost-effective.”
“Eating compassionately” means different things to different people. Halteman described a continuum from reformism and agrarianism (dealing with the way animals are farmed) to vegetarianism and veganism (the way people choose to eat). However these “isms” may differ in details, the common ground is the realization that industrial agriculture results in “serious moral and practical problems” (see FAO’s 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”).
The cost to humans of our current eating habits is high, says Halteman. Overconsumption of animal products is related to diseases that put a strain on our medical system and public health costs. Current industrial agricultural techniques are damaging our land, air and water supply and forcing family farms out of business while providing only low-paying jobs with poor or dangerous working conditions in return. Continuing on this path will mean that the rural poor will lose their land and livelihood, the urban poor will no longer be able to afford their grain-based diet, and the middle classes will continue to consume food that causes increased health problems.
Whether we can change the world on a grand scale or not, compassionate eating has its own rewards, says Halteman: appreciation of the interrelatedness of the natural world, solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, increased compassion for all sentient life, increased personal health, and the development of a tighter-knit community as we share good food together. A worthy beginning, I would say!