An edited version of this short article appears in the latest edition of the Green Christian magazine:
I was recently asked by Green Christian Magazine to write a short article which incorporated the various topics outlined in the title. Obviously this short article cannot do justice to the multiple animal suffering issues caused by the use of animals for human/non-human food; I will therefore, give some links/references for further study.
I will begin by stating that the Covid 19 pandemic was entirely predictable and will undoubtedly, be followed by other epidemics and pandemics in the future. How can I be so sure? Numerous articles and scientific papers have informed us that similar zoonotic diseases such as the influenza pandemic of 1918, HIV, Ebola, MERS, SARS, H1N1 Swine flu and H5N1 avian flu, have arisen from similar sources. It is entirely reasonable therefore, to postulate that new epi/pandemics will emerge over time, perhaps within the next decade, with similar outcomes.
The overall loss of life for animals involved in these outbreaks is not recorded but an educated assessment would put the numbers in the billions. It would be naive to think that these animals have a pain-free death, for the usual mode of slaughter for such numbers is burying, drowning or burning them alive. Yet the fault lies not with the animals themselves but in the way humans keep them and use them.
In many traditional markets across Asia, both wild and domestic animals are kept together in appalling conditions and unnaturally occurring confined spaces. I have encountered wet-markets in many of the countries I have lived and worked in, although the vast majority, are found in countries like China, Vietnam and Cambodia. These countries have little, if any, animal protection laws and if they do exist, laws are unlikely to be enforced. Therefore, undercover investigations are vital in capturing the reality on the ground: https://animalequality.org.uk/act/ban-wet-markets.
The plight of the animals within these markets is often too distressing for people to view, but unless we take courage and view the reality we are unlikely to fully understand what we need to change and of equal importance, to convince others of the need to engage with the issues involved, one such, is the illegal trade in wild animals. What is abundantly clear to all who view this or similar videos is that the unsanitary conditions alone make it inevitable that future zoonotic diseases will arise.
INTENSIVE FARMING PRACTICES and INCONVENIENT TRUTHS
Rather like Mt 7:3-5, we cannot simply point the finger at others, for our own intensive farming systems, by definition, also keep large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined spaces, where diseases easily spread and at times jump the human/non-human animal barrier. In order to keep infections low, it is common practice for farmers to use and overuse antibiotics. See the Compassion in World Farming website for details of how the misuse of antibiotics in the intensive farming industry has significantly contributed to the antibiotic resistant super-bugs now found in our societies. Such systems also cause immense suffering to animals, e.g. the numerous versions of amputations on a variety of species and without analgesia.
INTENSIVE FARMING AND ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE
The ever-increasing demand for cheap non-human animal food is also a considerable factor in Climate Change. Extensive deforestation has led to habitat loss and reductions in biodiversity. The sheer scale of the industry has also led to significant water, soil and air pollution, to levels that threaten human life on our planet. See my article in the International Journal of Orthodox Theology, 9:3 (2018) 144-172 and a short video on a this article was given at the International Orthodox Theological Association in Romania last year and is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H56_maAVdTk.
We must however, not overlook the fact that many non-intensive farming practices also cause significant suffering to animals and appear to be caused by the desire to increase profits, which in many cases is achieved by curtailing or ignoring animal welfare provision- see: ciwf.org, PETA and CEFAW: https://www1.chester.ac.uk/news/cefaw-policy-framework-consultation-underway.
It is clear that the Pastoral System and Organic farming methods are preferable to intensive practices but these cannot provide enough food for our country unless radical changes are made: to our methods of farming; the help given to farmers transitioning from animal to plant-based farming and increased encouragement to the public to significantly reduce their animal food consumption.
It is clear at this time of lock-down, that radical conditions are being imposed by governments and more importantly, accepted by society for the greater good. This is encouraging, for I would argue that it will never be more opportune than it is now, to formulate a radical rethink and approach to food provision in this country
CHRISTIAN ANIMAL GROUPS
By God’s grace, some churches have formed ‘animal protection’ societies such as the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, Catholic Concern for Animals and Pan Orthodox Concern for Animals. In order to make their voices stronger, these and other faith groups have established the Animal Interfaith Alliance. The AIA recently sent a letter to the UN Environment Secretary asking for the banning of ‘wet-markets’ and a basic standard of welfare for animals across the globe. The letter’s contents are far-reaching: A worldwide ban on wet markets; A worldwide ban on the wildlife trade; A worldwide ban on the use of animals in traditional medicine; A worldwide ban on factory farming – all farming should be practised to a minimum of RSPCA Assured/Freedom Food standards; A worldwide ban on the long distance transport of animals and the promotion of plant-based sources of nutrition, which in turn, will promote the health of the world’s population.
It is important to remember that this last request is part of proposals advocated by scientists around the globe, including the UNFAO & IPCC, in order to address Climate Change, which silently and almost unobserved, is pushing us further towards the cliff-edge.
The AIA also recommend that the United Nations works in association with organisations such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (the OIE), the International Coalition for Animal Welfare (ICFAW) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) to advise on animal welfare standards: https://animal-interfaith-alliance.com/2020/03/28/covid-19-when-will-we-heed-natures-warnings-2/
Most demands, if not all, will not be met but it is important that we try, for some things must change in order to reduce the risk of similar pan/epidemics in the future.
Other material is available from Christian magazines such as The Ark and Animal Watch, whilst other Christian groups focus on the wider yet interconnected issues of Climate Change, e.g. Green Christian. All of these endeavours are encouraging and blaze a path to a more enlightened view of the world and the creatures that live in it.
A ROLE FOR THE CHURCH
In most, if not all societies, animals are simply things not beings; merely resources to use as humans see fit. In the West, this originates from laws created at the time of Emperor Justinian (Roman Law) where only humans are defined as ‘persons’ and everything else as a ‘thing’ or ‘object’. Unfortunately for animals, Christianity also accepted the ancient Greek philosophical tripartite system of souls – Human, Animal, and Vegetable, resulting in the common teaching that only humans have eternal souls. If one is categorized as a soul-less ‘it’, it should not surprise us to find numerous examples of animal abuse in the rearing, selling and slaughtering of animals.
Yet, we can look to our sacred texts and find another, though less prominent tradition, which teaches us to care for animals in a variety of compassionate ways. This critical examination began with White’s article in 1967[i], which criticized Christianity’s anthropocentrism and ends (at present) with Nellist’s work in 2018/20, which found that compassion for animals is not new but found in the earliest teachings of the Christian church and offers an alternative and more inclusive view of the world.
The challenge for the Christian church is how to move from the flawed anthropocentric teachings of the past, to a position that incorporates compassionate teachings for the whole of God’s creation.
Two courses that encourage compassion for animals are available to use with parishioners and/or youth groups are: Clough’s ‘Creature Kind’, (developed and running) https://www.becreaturekind.org/ and Nellist’s ‘Creation Care: Christian Responsibility’. The latter encourages other denominations to adapt the course and is developing videos to accompany the texts, see: http://panorthodoxconcernforanimals.org/creation-care-christian-responsibility-course/ This course has just received accreditation in South Africa from the Association of Christian Religious Practitioners for their Continual Professional Development program.
Ultimately, our role as individual Christians is to examine our consciences and decide if we can continue to consume animal-food sourced from systems that cause immense suffering for animals and a major contributor to climate change: http://panorthodoxconcernforanimals.org/uncategorized/climate-change-food-calculator-whats-your-diets-carbon-footprint/.
Regardless of whether Covid 19 is the creation Dr Shi Zengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or from the ‘wet markets’ of Asia, what is clear is that world governments and institutions have failed to address the suffering of animals within food production systems. They have also failed to learn the lessons from previous epidemics. Had these lessons been learnt, the suffering of animals would have been greatly reduced and the current pandemic, which is destroying so many human and non-human lives and prompting widespread economic meltdown, could have been prevented.
As Image of God, we are called to care and love as Christ cares and loves us. This requires us at times to speak truth to power. At this most dangerous of times, I believe it is our Christian duty to call upon powerful organisations such as governments and the United Nations to do everything in their power to put measures in place that mitigate the risk of future pandemics from occurring. These measures must include increasing the welfare of animals in all forms of food production systems.
Dr. Christina Nellist is an Eastern Orthodox Theologian specializing in Animal Suffering and Human Soteriology. Her 2020 book Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering: Ancient Teachings in Modern Theology, is available from Cambridge Scholars Publishing. She is a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics; a former Visiting Fellow in the Department of Theology, Religion and Philosophy at the University of Winchester and Guest Lecturer on Veterinary Ethics at the Iberia America University Veterinary School, Santiago, Chile. She is a board member of the Animal Interfaith Alliance and Editor & co-founder of the Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals charity. She is a former Advisor and Consultant in the Sciences and Special Education both in the UK and abroad and a former Animal Protection Consultant to the Chief Veterinary Officers of Chile and The Seychelles on stray-dog control and public health education programs.
[i] Lynn White, jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (10 March 1967), 1206.