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Should Christians eat less meat?

22 May 2020

The pandemic shows the ‘hard limits’ in our treatment of animals, says David Clough. Interview by Abigail Frymann Rouch

Dr Margaret B Adam

Meat only on request: David Clough with some neighbours

Meat only on request: David Clough with some neighbours

IMAGINE trying to get an issue on to the Church’s agenda, and finding that a disaster related to it suddenly dominates life the world over. Such has been the lot of David Clough, Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester and a Methodist lay preacher, who is pouring his energies into reforming industrialised animal agriculture and — with some success — encouraging Christians to eat less meat.

“We’ve got to the point where the combined mass of domesticated animals is 24 times that of all wild land animals. . . We’ve basically monopolised all of the earth’s productive capacities,” Professor Clough begins. One of the consequences, he says, is the greater possibility for diseases to pass from animals to humans, such as the coronavirus that has forced much of the world into lockdown. He refers to coronavirus as “the pandemic that we’ve created”.

Now is the time for helping the vulnerable, he says; but in time it will be necessary to scrutinise the part that industrialised animal agriculture has played in it.

Professor Clough explains: expanded animal agriculture has created large pools of animals who incubate diseases that can be transferred to humans, and has taken away habitat from wild animals, driving them into closer proximity to humans and facilitating the transmission of viruses from animals such as bats either directly or through an intermediary animal.

“While I wouldn’t want to see that as God’s judgement on us, I do think we’re beginning to recognise we’re running up against hard limits in the way we have been inattentively abusive of the more-than-human world. That’s bad in itself, but it’s also unsustainable in relation to the viability of human populations.”

The other consequences of industrialised animal agriculture which he speaks of are bad enough, but the sort that we have become too accustomed to ignoring: mass extinction of the rainforests’ populations; greenhouse-gas emissions (bovine flatulence), and a strain on food and water security as one third of the global grain harvest goes on feeding farmed animals rather than humans.

Animal agriculture has not been an obvious area for Christian campaigning — but it should be, he says; and the Church has got two things wrong. First, it “has sleepwalked into complicity with radically novel systems of animal agriculture, and not paid attention to what’s going on”. Post-war efforts to expand food production were widely accepted, but criticism was lacking when chickens began to be reared in windowless sheds and reach slaughter weight at 35 days, or calves were taken away from cows before they had had a chance to meet them.

Second, he says, the Church has read into scripture “our sense of our own self-importance”. “We prefer Psalm 8, that affirms our important place [in creation], but we don’t read so often Psalm 104, which pictures human beings as just one part of this magnificent creative project . . . or the closing chapters of Job, where God says to Job ‘You’re just this one insignificant creature among all the splendours and by the way I prefer Behemoth and Leviathan.’”

A more egalitarian view is on the page, he emphasises. “We’ve inherited scriptures that affirm God’s love and providence for all kinds of creaturely things.”

In recent years, understanding of animal sentience has increased. Research shows that crows and some fish can recognise themselves in a mirror and express preferences. “We haven’t really begun to realise what the implications of this new understanding of animal minds is for the ethics of what we’re doing to them.”

Professor Clough, a vegan, has two aims: to urge Christians to reduce their meat consumption, and lobby the farming industry to improve animal welfare standards. “Recognising all of these creatures as fellow creatures of God . . . is something as fundamental as monotheism,” he states.

Veganism is a tough sell; so, instead, he advocates eating less meat and dairy produce, and fewer eggs, and buying better-quality examples of each to ensure higher welfare standards. “We can both support the farmers who are doing a better job for the animals in their care, and go back to healthier eating practices, which would have been more like those of our grandparents.” He would like Christians to think about the origins of animal products “as frequently as they think about issues like fair trade”.

Professor Clough devised a scheme, Default Veg, under which canteens offer vegetarian or vegan meals but meat or fish dishes are available only on request. This year, it has been adopted by the UK’s Vegetarian Society (as Eat to Beat Climate Change) and by the Better Food Foundation in the US. It has proved attractive, because it nudges people towards meat-free options instead of insisting on change. St Mellitus College North West, based in Liverpool, and various university departments have has adopted this approach.

He has also founded CreatureKind, an organisation aimed at encouraging lay people, church leaders, and Christian educational institutions to engage with animal welfare. It offers a six-week course for small church groups, a longer course for students, and a pledge to eat less meat and to source meat and fish responsibly. Professor Clough is also working on engagement with 16 heads of Churches in the US, where welfare standards are lower.

He believes that individual consumers’ choices will not be enough to raise standards, but that food is the place to start: “The eucharist and other kinds of eating together have been crucial for Christian formation,” he observes. By eating responsibly, he says, Christians can lobby the farming industry without charges of hypocrisy, and campaign, for example, on animal-welfare standards during Britain’s post-Brexit trade talks with the US.


AT THE University of Chester, Professor Clough is overseeing Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare (CEFAW), a three-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its aim is to help Christian institutions tackle the issue, and partners in it include the Church of England, the Church in Wales, and the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals; the Methodists; the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church; the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales; and Orthodox and Quaker animal-welfare charities.

One goal is a policy framework to guide churches on food provision and church schools on teaching and catering. The ecumenical Church Investors Group, which has combined assets of more than £17 billion, is also involved.

Professor Clough’s concern for animal welfare was sparked when, as a teenager, he heard a classmate’s talk about experimentation on animals. “It took me a little while to make a connection between my sensibility towards the wrongness of that and my Christian commitments,” he recalls. But he was encouraged to learn that John Wesley had been concerned about animal cruelty, too.

The “right thing” isn’t always obvious; but Professor Clough, who is sympathetic to the Extinction Rebellion protests, does want people to wheel their shopping trolley through the moral labyrinth. “If we’ve got a choice between a leather product and a non-leather product that doesn’t require and subsidise the killing of animals, then it seems to me we’ve got a reason for choosing the alternative,” he says; but textile production can rely heavily on fossil fuels. “It’s probably preferable to be buying a second-hand leather jacket from an Oxfam shop rather than going out and buying a new polyester thing.”

Animal ethics is “not as lonely a place as it was a decade ago”, he says, as other Christian moral theologians have entered the field.

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer blames Christians for giving ideological support to animal exploitation by their understanding of “dominion” in Genesis 1, and has also argued in favour of allowing euthanasia for disabled babies up to 14 days after birth. “All of that stuff that sets up animals versus vulnerable humans is a big problem,” Professor Clough says, “but there’s no doubt he’s been part of what’s enabled more attention to animal ethics since he published Animal Liberation in the mid-’70s.”

They first met at a conference in Oxford, where Professor Clough took issue with his accusations against Christians. So he suggested that utilitarians and concerned Christians make common cause. As a result, Professor Singer gave the first of his two-volume monograph On Animals (on which CreatureKind was based) an endorsement that illustrated the gulf between their views: “I am neither a Christian nor a theologian, but anyone concerned about human mistreatment of animals will hope that Clough’s view prevails among Christians.”

Canon Andrew Davison, Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, is more generous in his praise, especially of Default Veg and his work in the US. “He has brought the topic of animals into the mainstream of theological study,” Canon Davison says. “His work is both rigorously scholarly and enormously effective. It has the sort of impact on public policy and human behaviour that academics can usually only dream of.”

If Professor Clough has his way, it won’t be enough that church tea and coffee (once congregations are allowed to gather again) are Fairtrade; food for church socials will be plant-based or sustainably sourced, and the Church will lobby with animal-rights activists to keep US-style chlorinated chicken out of Britain. Not every abuse of animals creates a global catastrophe for human beings, but the pandemic may bring about a more receptive attitude to his way of thinking.


Next week: Clergy who eschew meat

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