THE current Brexit negotiations risk lowering standards for the welfare of farmed animals. In a House of Commons debate on the Agriculture Bill last month, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, repeated aspirations that Brexit would facilitate an improvement in farmed-animal welfare.
Other MPs expressed concerns that new trade deals after Brexit would force the UK to reduce animal-welfare standards and accept cheap imports of chlorinated chicken, beef pumped with hormones, and growth-promoter-injected pigs. These changes would threaten smaller family farms, and human and farmed animal health.
The debate made no reference to Christian faith or churches, beyond one reference to a Harvest Festival’s appreciation of local farmers. The debate gave no sense that churches or Christian faith had anything to do with the issue. This is not surprising: farmed animals are infrequently considered in church teaching and preaching.
But Christians have ample reasons to speak up. Witness the early 19th-century Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce, who joined other Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Quakers, and one prominent Jew to lobby for the first legislation against cruelty towards animals. Their success led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Later in the century, Christians led campaigns to prohibit vivisection, then widely conducted without anaesthetic. In 1964, the Quaker Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines prompted wide public debate about the cruelties inflicted on animals in new factory-farming systems.
CHRISTIANS have particular faith-based reasons for being concerned about the plight of animals. Animals are God’s creatures. Humans are directed to care for them, not subject them to unnecessary suffering.
Biblical texts celebrate God as the creator and sustainer of every creature within an incomprehensibly great and diverse universe. Animal creatures warrant particular respect: sabbath-holiness law explicitly prohibits humans and domestic animals from working. God’s love for the whole creaturely cosmos sends Jesus, who teaches that not a single sparrow is forgotten by God. The letters to the Colossians and Ephesians insist that all things in heaven and earth are embraced by the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. Revelation envisions “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” singing praises to the Lamb in their midst.
Even the early theologians recognised animal sentience, and an abundance of compassion for animals marks the holiness of many Christian saints. The early 15th-century English commentary on the Ten Commandments Dives and Pauper expresses a broad consensus: we “should have compassion on beast and bird and not harm them without cause and have regard for the fact that they are God’s creatures”, and those who do not “sin very grievously”.
Today, Christian scripture, tradition, and historical activism provide strong grounds to consider farmed animal welfare with the closely related topics of human and environmental health. Between 1900 and 2000, we nearly quadrupled the biomass of domesticated animals, so that, by 2000, it exceeded that of all wild land mammals by 24 times. In the same period, we depleted ocean fish stocks by 90 per cent.
This human monopolisation of the earth’s resources is causing a devastating global mass extinction among wild plants and animals, at the same time as denying billions of intensively farmed animals the chance to thrive at any point in their lives. Raising animals on land that could be used for crops wastes resources and contributes to human food and water insecurity. Intensive farming threatens human health through antibiotic resistance, the risk of new pandemics, and poor health from over-consumption of animal products. We need to reduce dramatically the consumption of farmed animals, to prevent catastrophic climate change.
CHRISTIANS eat. They work on farms. They sell and buy farmed-animal products. They share in the economic, health, and environmental effects of changing farming practices and changing regulations. They profess to care for the well-being of their neighbours and all creatures. Christians have every reason to speak up about their faith and its ramifications for human and animal bodies.
Renegotiation of welfare standards in the context of Brexit makes this a great time for UK Churches to recall their honourable history of concern for fellow creatures, and re-engage with crucial debates about farmed-animal welfare.
Dr David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester, author of On Animals, Vol. II: Theological ethics (forthcoming in December), founder of CreatureKind (becreaturekind.org), and leads the AHRC-funded Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare Project (www1.chester.ac.uk/cefaw).