The Fellowship of Life
'Methodist Recorder' Debate
Animal Welfare: The Need for More Dialogue
Thank you for raising the urgent but complex question of animal welfare on two successive weeks, first through your review of "The Changing Farm" and then through your editorial of March 24.
As you say in your editorial 'the conservation lobby grows. The farmer who drains the wetlands becomes the villain of the piece.' Both statements are true – and that is part of the problem! If this trend continues to grow there will only be increased polarisation which will make an informed, theological debate impossible.
Farmers are very sensitive to the issues raised by the animal welfare lobby, but feel that they are being unfairly caricatured as ruthless exploiters concerned exclusively with economic gain at any price. They feel that much of the criticism of modern farming practice is ill-informed, selective and based on sentimental ideas of country life. We should be particularly careful about comparing traditional and modern farming practices.
The truth is that, to quote from "The Changing Farm:"
'Both systems place constraints on animals; it is the form, degree and nature of these constraints which has changed. In a traditional farming system, cows who calved without the benefit of modern veterinary and pharmaceutical practice; pigs in undrained paddocks where in winter the mud froze to their flanks; free-range poultry at the mercy of predators; horses working long hours at harvest time in great heat and with docked tails; – all these animals suffered.
'What has changed is that today, the suffering is of a different order, and animals in intensive units may be considered, in certain cases, to suffer from such problems as stress, boredom, and unnatural confinement, monotony of diet and mutilation. All farming methods impose some constraints on animals (if only by artificially shortening their natural lifespan). The question is what constraints are acceptable and what are not; and can our Christian understanding assist us at arriving at any guidelines.'
This is not, however, the place to get down to the details of the argument. My concern here is to encourage the true dialogue and understanding between those involved in the debate, and that should mean all of us. The farmers are engaged in an industry which is always under intense economic pressure to which the rest of us (by our demand for cheap food) contribute.
Many Christian farmers I know are agonising over the dilemma and they would welcome the chance to talk and discuss these matters, especially in a theological context. There is an urgent need for this dialogue to take place locally, and I recommend any rural circuit to set up farmer/consumer/animal welfare/conservation groups, but this will become increasingly difficult if the polarisation continues.
We also need to challenge our Christian theologians to look again at the doctrine of creation and apply it to these issues. What is the purpose of animals in the sight of God? Are they here merely to supply man's needs – or do they have an independent right to exist regardless of man? Do they not have their own integrity, which man must respect? Intensive animal husbandry gets the headlines, but intensive animal farming raises just as important issues. There is equal concern among farmers, for example, about the long term effects of mono-culture.
At the Arthur Rank Centre we are convinced that there are no simple answers. Vegetarianism, for example, would have enormous ecological effects in that there will be no farmed animals in this country at all – and no milk, butter or cheese ... or manure! There is also the international context, in which we still need to produce more food in a world where starvation is still a potential scourge.
Your editorial also reminds us that the debate is not only about farmed animals but about the use of animals for medical research, the cosmetic industry – and do not let us forget the domestic pet scene. It is indeed about man's stewardship of creation. We do really need a strong theological input – and hear Isaiah, speaking over the centuries, 'Come, let us reason together, says the Lord.'
Rev John E Clarke
See Editorial: Stewards of God's Creation
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