The Bonds of Animal Agriculture

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Since biblical times, humanity has lived by an ancient contract: We the first party (animals) give you our wool, milk, hides and meat, draw your plows and carriages, guard your houses, control your vermin, and fertilize your fields.  We the second party (humans) promise to keep you safe from predators, bind up your wounds and treat your diseases, provide you shelter from the elements, feed you even in times of famine, and provide you with a quick and humane death.  Our own human relationship with God has long been expressed in similar terms. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Two years ago, my wife and I attended a meeting of the Friends World Committee for Consultation in Switzerland.  We took advantage of this trip to travel by train through the Po River Valley, which cuts a wide swath across northern Italy.  Miles of flat, alluvial plain are dotted with old stone farmsteads and fields that are small by U.S. standards, every farmstead holding a stone barn for the cows.  Looking out the train window at this ancient land that has been producing food to sustain cities for over 2,000 years felt like an epiphany.  I wondered what our Central Valley in California or our Willamette Valley in Oregon would look like in 2,000 years.

There are only a few civilizations that have managed to sustain urban and agricultural health over periods of time as long as we see in the Po River Valley. China, India, and northern Europe have all succeeded in this, at least until recent times.  One quality these civilizations have in common is a balance between horticultural and animal agriculture: rice and wheat with pigs and chickens in China, wheat and rice with cattle and buffalo in India, wheat and barley with cattle and sheep in northern Europe, and all of them including a legume in their field rotations as well.  Where civilizations have fallen (in north Africa, the Middle East, Mesoamerica), one central cause has often been an imbalance among these essential components of healthy agriculture, due to mono-cropping without adequate soil re-fertilization, due to over-grazing, or due to a combination of both. When the mutual dependence of human beings, domestic animals, and crop species falls out of equilibrium, we can lose whole civilizations and whole ecosystems as well.

Philosopher and animal ethicist Bernie Rollin notes that the word “husbandry” has at its root the words “house” and “bond.” It refers to the ancient contract between the human household and domestic animals.  It appears to many of us today that the art of husbandry has been forgotten, and our ancient contract with animals has been broken.  The monetization of agriculture (the drive for profits above all else) and the rapid proliferation of technological innovation have allowed humanity to produce vast monocultures of plants and animals in ways that may not be healthy or sustainable for any of the species involved.  People who readily identify with animals see this situation as horrific. As a result, many stop eating meat or they avoid all products made from animals.  However, removing animals from the complex balance of healthy human agricultural can be counter-productive. 

While it may seem more “humane” to remove animal products from our diets and hence from our farms, the result is often to force farmers to begin fertilizing their fields with chemicals instead of manure, a result that is neither sustainable nor healthy, nor is it respectful of God's creation.  In addition, millions of acres of grasslands and steep hillside are unsuitable for horticulture, yet they can become productive when used as rich environments for livestock. In many cases, lands that had been turned to dessert by mono-cropped factory farming have been restored to health by the introduction of livestock.

Furthermore, the ancient contract obliges humans to maintain animals, as they have maintained us for eons. The “house bond” between humans and working animals is strong.  As a large animal veterinarian, I have felt this bond directly, even though I find it hard to explain.  It is different from the “substitute child” relationship we sometimes form with our pets. It is a relationship of mutual dependence between a person and an entire herd or flock, or with a working animal that one may or may not have befriended.

As a small child on a family farm that raised crops and cattle and sheep, I have one searing memory that illustrates the depth of this contract.  I was too young to really know what was going on, but we were losing otherwise strong, healthy baby calves to a hitherto unknown disease, which had no treatment at the time. I saw my father, an otherwise austere businessman, leaning over a dead or dying calf, his face filled with a kind of despair and frustration I never saw before or since.  Surely the loss of the calves hurt our bottom line, but not enough to ruin us.  It was the fact that he was unable to hold up his end of the contract that pained him. And I witnessed similar scenes countless times during my career as a veterinarian: I’d be called out in the dead of night to help with the difficult deliver a calf when the bother and the misery and the cost could not be justified by the monetary value of the calf alone. It was just the right thing to do.  This contract to which we are bound is more than a business deal; it informs us of our place in the dance of life and death on this earth. 

Later in life, I lived for many years on a small “hobby” farm in a rural community, where we kept a small flock of sheep.  For some years we just sold all the lambs, or we had the mobile butcher come take one away and then bring it back later, all wrapped up.  I finally decided that I needed to do this job myself, to kill and butcher our own.  It was certainly the most unpleasant task on the farm, worse by far than mucking out pens.  It was, however, an enormously important thing for me to do in working out my relation to God and to this vast and good creation. And there was some satisfaction in learning to do it well, with a prayer, with minimal stress to the animal. It enabled me to see that for me to live, something else must die. 

Every act of agriculture involves death: death of the then-native species we plow under; death of moles, ground squirrels, deer and rabbits that we displace; and death of countless insects and soil organisms that are killed by the fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides we use when we no longer follow the ancient customs of rotating crops and using animals for pest control and fertility. 

As human beings, “a little less than angels”, we are in a peculiar position on this earth, being endowed with at least some degree of consciousness, the ability to see into past and future, and to choose how we relate to and care for the rest of creation.  God's “command” to go forth and subdue the earth is as much a description of the human situation as it is a direction.  From the time of Jesus, followers of the Way have struggled with being a people set apart, trying to open the Kingdom of Heaven into the earth.  Our Quaker heritage has struggled with these same questions. We Quakers are called to engage in the world of policy and social change, and now we are called also to engage positively with our environment. We have a poor record of stewardship of the earth, and we have no excuse not to do our very best to right our past wrongs, to help heal our planet. 

Simplistic answers, such as eschewing all animal products, fail answer the serious needs of our biological world. Simple answers, however (instead of simplistic ones), may serve us well. Michael Pollan's deceptively simple maxim about eating says a lot: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.” Add to that advice a commitment to reduce the fossil fuel required to transport our food, and we have a kind of Occam's Razor for eating:  Given a choice of foods, the simplest and most accessible ones, the ones that require the fewest interventions or inputs, are probably the best.  A small amount of grass-fed meat from a ranch in the nearby foothills is more appropriate than tofu produced from beans grown in Brazil and processed in a plant in Indiana.

The vast majority of us reading this magazine are richer than 99% of the planet.  We have the means to choose what we eat.  Few others on this earth have the choices we do.  When we attended the World Conference of Friends in Kenya last year, we were served plenty of simple food, lovingly prepared by Friends working over wood stoves.  It consisted of a lot of ugali (thick corn meal mush) with a small amount of thoroughly cooked meat, some thoroughly cooked squash and greens, and a little delicious fruit.  The meals did not vary much, but they were more than sufficient.  At the end of the conference, some Kenyans said they would be sorry to go home, as they'd never eaten so well. At the same time, some Europeans and North Americans told us how glad they would be to get back home to some “real food.”

Choosing what and how we eat has repercussions for mending countless broken systems in our world – ecological, agricultural, and economic.  Elevating simplistic choices to the level of doctrine is not helpful.  As in politics and real estate, all dietary decisions should be local.  It makes no sense to ask a traditional Inuit woman north of the Arctic Circle to prepare vegan means for her family, nor to suggest that our Honduran friends give up the family goat and chickens to escape the sin of exploiting animals.  We who have the luxury to choose should do so wisely, prayerfully, and simply, always seeking to support the best mix of all the elements that make for restorative and sustainable agriculture.  The confusion caused by questions of availability, pricing, and deceptive advertising will mean that we can’t be perfect in this.  Nevertheless, every step that we take in the right direction, however halting, is a step toward the redemption of our stewardship of God's Creation.

To learn more about these topics, watch Allan Savory’s TED Talk, “How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change,” or read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. ~~~

Joe Snyder is a retired veterinarian and a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon.