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The Gift of Food | Eating Meat

In this episode we explore ethics, the science, and the theology behind taking the lives of animals to become our food.


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Hamburger on cutting board

Photo by Colin Hoogerwerf

In this episode we explore ethics, the science, and the theology behind taking the lives of animals to become our food.

Description

As creatures that must eat to live, human life is dependent on taking the lives of other creatures. In this episode, we explore ethics, science, and theology behind taking the lives of animals who become our food. In the process, we meet some of the animals and some of the people who raise them. We end up with at least as many questions as when we started and yet we also find a richer appreciation for the ways in which we are connected to other creatures through eating. 

This is part four of a five part mini-series.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Northern Points, Tiny Music, High Street Music, Klaus Hergersheimer, Titan Sound, Mike Meehan, & Vesper Tapes courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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Transcript

Powell: 

Well yeah, those are fall calves from last year. 

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Powell:  

Lucas, Tye, Weston

Hoogerwerf: 

And I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. 

Powell: 

So Frank is a bull that we just sold. Polk would be a yearling that would be from last spring. [fade]

Stump: 

Today’s episode starts on a glorious spring day.

Hoogerwerf: 

At Oak Row Angus. A cattle farm in Central Michigan. 

Stump: 

Standing on the other side of a wire fence from a bunch of steers. 

Powell: 

They have incredibly different personalities. These are just like people. If you come up—so Wyatt is a little bit emotional in that sense, too. Frank, he’s just, he’s just a guy. Lenny is just one of those just gregarious kind of guys that have just come up. [fades]

Hoogerwerf: 

Our guide is Amanda Powell. 

Powell:

I am a contributor to Oak Row Angus cattle in Ionia, Michigan.

Stump: 

I guess those steers, whose names you’re hearing, will also be our guide. And they will eventually become food. Steak and short ribs and hamburger. 

Hoogerwerf: 

It strikes me as just a little bit weird to put the names of the cows so close to the names of the cuts of meat that they will become. I guess that’s what we’re here to talk about though. 

Stump: 

Right. This is an episode about the fact that many of us eat animals. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But we’ve got ahead of ourselves a little bit to start. We’re going to find our way to Oak Row Angus and Amanda and her cows, maybe even some that spring weather. The first thing we need to do is to lay some groundwork. When we first started this series I had this idea that food was a way into faith and science without any controversy. I guess I was thinking about a bunch of happy people sitting around a table eating cream puffs or something. And some of the topics we’ve explored can genuinely bring people together instead of dividing them. But this issue of eating meat can get pretty contentious.  

Stump: 

Yes. We’ll do our best here not to get people worked up, but there’s no getting around the fact that there are strong views.

Hoogerwerf: 

On both sides of the issue too. Meat eaters can be very passionate about eating meat. And vegetarians and vegans can be very passionate about the fact that they do not eat meat. That passion can also extend beyond one’s own food choices to other people’s food choices. 

Stump: 

So here’s where we’re going to make a bunch of disclaimers. 

Hoogerwerf: 

It seems like we’ve done a lot of that through this series.

Stump: 

We have. I guess that just goes to show how food really gets to the heart of a lot of really closely held beliefs. BioLogos has as one of our values, gracious dialogue. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everyone, but it does mean that regardless of how I feel about what another person believes, I’m going to be respectful, and maybe more than that, try to understand why they believe the way they do. Our goal here is not to try to find out whether eating meat is right or wrong for everyone in every circumstance

Hoogerwerf: 

We might even say that one of the goals of this episode is to leave everyone a little less decided than they were on this issue. Almost the opposite of coming to an answer. We want to spend this time being a little less sure of what we know and then see if anything new sticks when we’re finished.

Stump: 

And that’s not quite the same as leaving people confused. I hope. We’re hoping to take the listeners on some version of the journey we ourselves have been on. And I’m not sure it’s right to say that I’m more confused now, but there is less certainty, and a recognition that there are lots of factors at play here, and easy answers that apply to everyone everywhere are probably not going to be found. I guess I’d say this journey has made me more reflective about my food choices, and I’d be happy if that’s what our listeners get out of it too.

Hoogerwerf: 

A couple more pieces of context before we really get into it. It’s probably fair to mention that we do have some biases coming in. We both eat meat to some extent, at least currently. The fact that both the hosts eat meat I guess might be a little unfair to our vegetarian and vegan listeners. We’ll do our best to keep your voices in our ear. But it’s pretty hard to do an episode about eating animals without talking about what it takes for meat to get to your table so there will be talk of animals becoming food. 

Stump: 

There are some people who might say, “I just want to eat my bacon and steak without thinking about that.” One position we think we can take is that willful ignorance about where the meat that you eat comes from is probably not a very defensible position. We might not all agree on the answers to the questions, but not even listening to the questions seems problematic here.

Hoogerwerf: 

There are others who might have decided not to eat meat so that they don’t have to think about things like this. There may be some justification to that. But not eating meat doesn’t mean you’re completely free from having to consider all the things we’re going to consider in this episode. 

Stump: 

There are some proponents of vegetarianism and veganism that argue that way.

Wirzba: 

They think that if they just eat plants that somehow they’re off the moral hook. And there’s a kind of Gnosticism at play here, I feel, where people don’t want to deal with their entanglement with flesh. And I use that word deliberately. I mean, I think if you look at the history of humanity, people have long known that our bodies implicate us in the bodies of countless creatures seen and unseen. 

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Norman Wirzba. Who we’ve been hearing from throughout the series. 

Wirzba: 

And the desire to extricate ourselves is often one step away from denying the full reality of our existence, which is always entangled, which is always enmeshed, which is always enfleshed. And we think that if we go to the salad bar, we’re in the moral free zone. And the fact is, we’re not right. Plant flesh is not insignificant. And I think this is something that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that if we don’t eat meat, somehow, we don’t have to worry about life, that life is now convenient, or it’s not morally problematic. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I think this is a really interesting challenge that means that everyone, whether we eat meat or not, should think really hard about these issues and what it means to eat anything and the fact that eating means to be entangled in the world. But even if eating from the salad bar doesn’t clear you morally, there are still some pretty good reasons for why people choose not to eat meat. 

Stump: 

A recent Gallup poll shows that 4% of Americans identify as vegetarians and another 1% identify as vegans. That might sound like a small number, but that also doesn’t count people who have chosen to eat less meat or only eat certain kinds of meat. 

Hoogerwerf: 

The reasons that people cite for being vegetarian usually include health and environmental costs as some of the top reasons. On the health side of things, you can pretty quickly find convincing data and large health studies that show that vegetarian diets are the healthiest kind of diets. Meat eating is often linked to cardiovascular diseases and some cancers and some studies show higher mortality rates for meat-eaters than non-meat eaters, but there are a lot of problems with those studies and you can find a lot of other studies showing that eating meat offers health benefits you can’t get from an entirely plant-based diet. And remember our conversation about nutritional science from last episode. It’s the case that industries behind selling meat and more recently industries behind selling plant-based meat substitutes often fund these studies and you could usually guess what the findings would be based on who funded the research. 

Stump: 

On the environmental side, raising meat usually takes more energy than raising plants. In order to raise meat, you have to feed plants to the animals. If you just fed the plants to people, that would presumably be a lot more efficient.

McMullen: 

So just a matter of scale right now in the U.S. If you look at the total amount of farmland being used to grow plants, half of that farmland is being used to feed animals. 

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Steve McMullen

Steve McMullen: 

I teach economics at Hope College

Hoogerwerf: 

He’s also the author of a book called Animals and the Economy. 

Stump: 

So half of the land growing plants is going to animals. That’s a lot of land to produce food that’s not going directly to people. And that doesn’t count a lot of that land that’s used for grazing. The thing is it’s not as simple as just switching that over to grow plants for people.  

McMullen:  

Now some of that grazing land, we can’t just plant corn on it, because it’s not, there’s not enough water. But if we took the land that is currently growing corn and soybeans that are being used entirely to feed chickens, pigs, and cows, and we instead grow corn and soybeans, but also a wider variety, hopefully of plants to feed humans. We could feed the current population of the U.S. with far, far less land use. 

Stump: 

We’ll get back to the economics of food and hear more from Steve McMullen in our final episode, but the main point here is that eating plants is probably a more energy-efficient way to eat but also that it’s not as simple as just saying we’re going to switch all the land growing animals to growing plants. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Another significant reason people choose to stop eating meat has to do with animal suffering. It seems pretty clear that there is a great deal of animal suffering within the global production of meat. Factory farms and large-scale meat production holds most of the blame here. There has probably been a bit more attention to animal suffering in order to please consumers in recent years, but there is a long way to go, and the scale and speed of these operations is going to make it hard to ever pay a lot of attention to any individual animal and how much it suffers. But even the most attentive and caring farmer still has to kill an animal in order to eat it. There is no meat eating that is completely free of suffering, as long as you define death as a form of suffering. 

Stump: 

The question of animal suffering is one we’ll dwell on quite a bit throughout the episode. So we’re not leaving that completely. But we should mention that while there are some good reasons to not eat meat—though even there we’ve put up some quibbles—there are some arguments for why meat eating is ok. As we talked about in the last episode, our species has evolved with meat as a part of our diet. The switch to eating meat was probably an important evolutionary step toward putting energy into bigger brains and maybe even gets some credit for making us human. But just because our evolutionary ancestors did something, that doesn’t mean we should do that. They went around naked, for example.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, we’ve given a lot of context, probably most of it unsurprising for why people might or might not eat meat. But if we’re going to talk about eating meat, I think we should probably define “meat.” And that’s not as simple as it might first sound. 

Stump: 

For starters, pretty clearly most people would consider something like the flesh of a cow, meat. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Right. Or a chicken. A fish, probably? What about an insect? 

Stump: 

Maybe? It starts to depend on some extra context. Are you thinking about animal rights and do you care about how an insect is treated before eating it? For a lot of people that might not fall into the category of meat for those reasons. But if meat is just the flesh of an animal then an ant would fall into that category. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And in that definition of meat, then dust mites are meat too. We could start from the other end and say that there are pretty clearly things that are plants. Carrots for instance. Lettuce. But you can make this side more complicated too. People eat seaweed. Not as much in our country, but it’s not so uncommon in other countries. I would have put that in the plant category without much thought. But it turns out some seaweeds are actually classified as protists, which are neither plants nor animals. And many of them have animals called bryozoans that live in close symbiotic relationships. And really this is true of most things. No living thing is singular in the way we usually think. 

Al-Attas Bradford: 

In 2012, a landmark article was published by a collection of biologists essentially kind of throwing down the argument or kind of coming out and conclusively saying the biological community no longer believes that there is any such thing as an individual organism, that the unit of organism is actually not a thing, that there’s no such thing as just one pure life. 

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Aminah Al Attas Bradford who we’ve heard from a few times throughout the series. I think this idea has far ranging complications for how we think about the world. It’s why I think Aminah’s work is so interesting. When it comes to eating it at least should give us some pause before we try to define what we are eating in the two simple categories we usually do: animal or not animal. 

Al-Attas Bradford: 

But they come along and say, actually, all there are are holobionts, whole collections of lives. And what is more, these whole collections of lives aren’t stable, but they’re always emerging. Microbes are migrating in and out. And so it raises all sorts of questions about identity, about the self, about agency, about what’s inside and what’s outside. Where’s the inside of me? And where’s the outside? And am I the environment? Am I the habitat?

Stump: 

This all seems pretty esoteric. Interesting, yes. But for the most part when people say meat, other people know what they usually mean: mammals or birds or maybe fish. 

Hoogerwerf: 

What about reptiles or amphibians? 

Stump: 

Ok, yes, I’ve eaten frog legs before, and maybe crocodile bites somewhere one time… 

Hoogerwerf: 

Maybe meat is one of those things we all just have a sense for what it means and most people know I’m not talking about seaweed or dust mites or holobionts. But I do have a hard time putting any kind of distinct line around that group that people generally know to be “meat”. It seems like it has something to do with how close the animals are to us on an evolutionary scale. What we call meat tends to be animals that are at least as close to us as fish. 

Stump: 

Yes, and for a while I was advocating to my family that we shouldn’t eat mammals, because they are more closely related to us. Then of course within the category of meat there are some things that we’ve deemed off-limits, culturally. Pigs for some religions, for example.

Hoogerwerf: 

Right, and on the evolutionary scale, if you get too closely related to humans, that starts to cause problems. Would you eat a chimpanzee?

Stump: 

Nope. And extend that further… any primate on my plate would give me pause.  The further away you get from humans on that evolutionary tree, the easier it gets. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Two other considerations you hear a lot are whether a creature can feel pain and its level of intelligence. 

Stump: 

It seems like the more intelligent a creature is—or the more intelligent we think a creature is—the harder it is to eat it. And if an animal feels pain, that can be a reason for some people to not eat it. 

Hoogerwerf: 

That’s an area where science can really wreak havoc on people’s boundaries, especially when science brings new understanding. It seems like we’re always finding out new things about animal’s sensory worlds and the evidence has only grown that a lot of creatures we used to think didn’t feel pain, probably do. And we’ve talked about animal intelligence on the show before a bit. Intelligence comes in a lot of forms. I think what happens with eating is that we tend to draw the line around animals who have an intelligence that looks more like human intelligence. 

Foster: 

So I think that we get into trouble if we make up our own dietary rules on the basis of for example, I’m not going to eat anything that has demonstrably sophisticated cognition. 

Stump: 

This is Charles Foster. 

Foster: 

Or I’m not going to eat anything, which is just a few rungs down a few branches down the evolutionary tree from me, it seems to me that you get into all sorts of ethical difficulties if you do that you start, for example, attributing moral value on the basis of cognitive ability.

Hoogerwerf: 

So I have a real life example of this. As some listeners might have picked up from some past series and episodes we’ve done, I’m really fascinated by cephalopods, octopuses and cuttlefish. Last year after having read Sy Montgomery’s book about Octopuses and watching the documentary My Octopus Teacher, I went to a fancy dinner where they served octopus. And I found that I just couldn’t eat it. I left it on the plate, and thinking back, I’m not sure if that was any better. It’s not like my not eating it stopped it from getting scooped out of the ocean. I’m really not sure what to do with this. The rule for not eating octopus doesn’t seem consistent with other rules I have set for what is ok to eat or not. 

Stump: 

Yeah so this is part of our becoming less certain about our eating habits. And I guess I’d say that an emotional response is a valid concern, and can even be a guide. But as we talked about in episode two, I’d be hesitant to develop these into iron-clad rules. We might want to think instead about building a heuristic here for what animals are ok to eat. Heuristic is one of those weasley philosopher words that gets you out of a tough spot… it’s not a law or a rule, but might be a set of principles that can guide us on decision making and allows for different people to end up in different places. There are other things to add here like for example, most of us try not to eat endangered species, so rareness might be another of those factors.

Hoogerwerf: 

And it seems like we have a harder time eating animals we’ve made some personal connection to. We don’t usually eat our pets. 

Stump: 

What becomes pretty clear is that any sort of eating—what was Norman’s word this?—it entangles us in the world. In order for us to live, things have to die.

Wirzba: 

And so the question is not how do we extricate ourselves from that eating entanglement? But how do we live into it honestly? And with the ability to then figure out what are the modes of care that are going to honor the life that we in fact, will eat?

Hoogerwerf: 

The Israelites of the Old Testament I think had a pretty good sense of how to do that, how to care for and honor the life that became their food. That probably came in part from the fact that there was more of a sense of food as a gift. It might also have come from the fact that most Isrealites would have been intimately involved in growing and raising their food.

Davis:

Israelites weren’t vegetarian. I mean, they were practicing vegetarians most of the time because meat was a luxury, but they weren’t on principle vegetarians. Meat was exactly that: a luxury. And they liked having it when they could get it. So creatures living amongst other creatures, observing limits, you can only eat these creatures. And it’s really just a very few. So the rest of them, keep your hands off them.

Stump: 

This is Ellen Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity whom we heard from in our second episode. 

Davis: 

Our life depends upon the life of other creatures in the most fundamental way, that’s not so obvious when you go to a meat counter and buy a steak in plastic. When you bring your animal and slaughter it and pour the blood onto the ground, and then put the animal on the altar. And you have raised this animal for a year or two years, and it’s the best you’ve got, then, you know, then that is making holy. It’s also important to realize that most sacrifice was not burnt up. Some of it was, and that was really a really serious sacrifice. But most of it was prepared for food. And so this is why eating meat was a rarity, and a holiday, a holy day. Because you didn’t do it very often. You couldn’t afford to do it very often and the world couldn’t afford for you to do it very often. So, you know, when I eat a meal, with Wendell and Tanya Berry, they’re eating meat. But it either comes from their animals or their neighbors animals, and they tell me so. And they know the cost of that. And the cost cannot, you know, they know the real cost of that, which is not $7.99 a pound or whatever.

[musical interlude]

Hoogerwerf: 

I think one of the first conversations we had when we started this whole food project was about whether if you eat meat you should play some part in taking the life of the animal you eat. 

Stump: 

Which started several conversations with people who raise animals for meat to see if anyone would allow us to experience this thing which so many of us now never see. [pig noises]

Hoogerwerf: 

And that led us to a small farm not too far from where you live. 

Stump: 

Before we reflect on this experience, let’s talk about this argument. 

Farm Conversation:

If you’re going to eat meat maybe you should be able to kill the animal yourself. 

Hoogerwerf: 

You should be able to kill the animal yourself. 

Stump: 

Yes, there are some people who argue that the only meat you eat, you should have to kill the animal yourself. And I think I was initially kind of attracted to this, but I’m not so sure it holds up under cross examination. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So what’s the argument for that position?

Stump: 

I suppose in its most general form, it’s something like, if you’re going to benefit from something, you ought to be involved. If you’re going to get the benefit, you ought to pay the cost.  

Hoogerwerf: 

So the cost here is the responsibility of taking a life? 

Farm Conversation:

And if you’re not able to kill it maybe you shouldn’t be getting someone else to do your dirty work for you.

Stump: 

Right. So when we don’t take part in the killing, what we’re doing is outsourcing that responsibility to other people, and then benefitting by getting the meat.

Hoogerwerf: 

And you said you’re not as convinced anymore? 

Stump: 

I think it all kind of depends on whether the killing is morally reprehensible or not. If it’s the case that killing an animal for food is morally reprehensible, then I think I agree with the argument that if you eat meat you should probably be involved in the taking of the life. I think there is something wrong with outsourcing morally reprehensible actions and benefiting from them. But if it’s not morally reprehensible to kill an animal for food, then that’s just job specialization. We do that all the time. There are jobs I don’t want to do, don’t know how to do, many of them dirty and dangerous, and I’ve decided that it’s ok to outsource those and still participate in the benefit I get from them being done by other people. I pay to have someone pick up my garbage, someone to fill the potholes on the highways.

Hoogerwerf:

Ok. So if this hinges around whether killing an animal is morally bad, then couldn’t you say that one way to know the answer to that is to take part in it? 

Stump:

 Maybe one way, yes. But the other reality is that even if someone is swayed by this argument that you should be involved in killing the animal you eat, it might not even be possible, definitely not easy, to find a way to do this. Someone could take up fishing or hunting, but that’s not always feasible, it costs money and takes some significant knowledge. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, in fact, I think I’m one of those people who has thought about this. I’ve often thought, well I should go hunting, but I don’t know anything about hunting. It’s not like you can just walk into the woods and kill a deer. And until recently I didn’t know anyone who slaughtered their own animals. And depending where you live, an opportunity like that could be pretty hard to come by. 

Stump: 

And it wasn’t easy for us, but we eventually did come by it. Through a friend at my church I learned about a couple of families who raise pigs and kill and butcher them right on site, and they invited us over to take part. 

[chatter and explanation of the process, fades]

Hoogerwerf: 

This part of the journey, for us, seemed important. It seemed like it was going to be really hard to explore what it means to put an animal on your plate without witnessing this part. And in just a few moments we’ll reflect on whether being there changed our ideas about this argument that if you eat meat you should take part in the killing it. But I also recognize that some people aren’t going to want to hear about it. This is your chance to skip ahead. But we’ll tread carefully and since this isn’t an opportunity that’s easy to come by, we’re hoping that maybe our sharing of it will function at least partially as a way for you to participate. 

Stump: 

So we drove out to the property and met up with the crew and walked up the hill to the pig pen.

[sounds of pigs and conversation about getting ready, fades]

Hoogerwerf: 

And there were three pigs running around, grunting and greeting us, eager for the food they must have known was coming. 

Stump: 

I haven’t spent a lot of time with pigs. These pigs looked to be all muscle. Not like the huge round images you see in children’s books. 

Hoogerwerf: 

They almost reminded me of pitbulls, with their low bodies and stocky builds. 

Stump: 

So it turned out that one of the guys that sometimes comes has a homily that he reads before they kill the pig. But he couldn’t make it that day so they didn’t do anything formal. There did seem to be a kind of solemn mood and also some quiet words of thanks to the pigs. [sounds from farm] But there was also a sense of a job to be done and people had their roles. It also seemed important for the pigs to be pigs to the fullest extent that they could and for as long as they could.  

Hoogerwerf: 

No herding them into a trailer, no new smells or sights or sounds or anything else out of their normal routine. It all happened right in the pen where they had been rooting and sleeping and basking for the previous year. It was clearly a priority to make sure these animals could be as pig as pig can be. 

Stump: 

And because they were pigs and because they had lived a good pig life there wasn’t a deep sadness about the loss of the pig’s life from these men who had been feeding and raising the pigs. From their perspective, to weep over the pigs would have been to add something to the pig that wasn’t there, some quality of humanness that wouldn’t have been appropriate. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So the pigs were fed and they all gathered around the food and that brings us to the bit that is maybe the most unpleasant. 

Stump: 

This is a small operation. In large scale slaughterhouses, pigs are often knocked out with an electric shock or with carbon dioxide and then their throat is cut. In this case one of the men walked up to the pig with a pistol and shot it through the head. Then another man — a surgeon, in fact, slit its throat to let it bleed out.

Hoogerwerf: 

It went down right away after it was shot, but for some time it moved around quite a bit, kicking on the ground while it bled out. 

Stump: 

This wasn’t pretty. But it’s a fairly normal response. Probably everyone is familiar with the idea of chickens moving around after their heads are cut off and many people have seen fish flopping long after all of their vital organs are gone. There’s some science behind this, but I’m not sure how much the science can say about what it means. What I saw is that the line between living and not living, is not as distinct as we often think. There is more of a gradient here. Drawing any sort of line I think would end up being an arbitrary one.  

Hoogerwerf: 

After some time, the pig stopped moving and they lifted it up on the front of a skid steer and drove it over to an empty hoop house where the skinning and cleaning and butchering happens. That process took another couple hours and pretty soon the pig started to look more like food than like the creature it had been up until recently. So what do you think?

Stump: 

Well, I can’t say that I liked it. But I grew up in a family that hunted and fished. We even had chickens and rabbits, and I participated in the slaughter of all those as a kid. But I think this was the largest animal I ever witnessed dying. What is it about size that seems to confer some squeemishness about it’s death? Maybe it’s because we somehow correlate size with intelligence or feeling, or think that it’s more like us than when I simply swat a mosquito and don’t really feel bad at all. And I’ll say that I didn’t come away from that experience with some kind of definitive feeling like we shouldn’t be doing this. I had wondered going in whether this experience might drive me to vegetarianism, but it didn’t. I think more than anything, it made me more fully aware of the reality that our existence is only possible by the deaths of other things. And I felt that there are better and worse ways of doing that. And it seems to me that these guys did it in one of the better ways.

Hoogerwerf: 

For me, the thing that sticks out most was that watching the pig die sparked a bunch of thoughts of life and death for all creatures and about what it means to be given a time on this earth. If I were killing animals everyday, maybe I would get desensitized to this kind of thing. I think that’s what rituals of thanks around these kinds of events can be helpful for, for those who do them more often. But I wondered if occasionally being a part of this process might lead me to reflect on my own mortality more often. And it might turn eating anything into a more reflective time. For a while at least, when I eat meat, I might think about the miracle of living. Otherwise I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding whether killing animals is good or bad. I think I’m more convinced that if I eat animals, I’d like to know that they were allowed to be animals to the fullest extent possible. What can we say then about this general argument that people should be involved in the killing of their meat?

Stump: 

Well, for one thing, we stood next to the pen and watched. But neither of us had a finger on the trigger. I’m sure some ethicists could argue that we had some culpability just by being there, but I’m not sure how far that extends. And I now think it would be going too far to say that if a person eats meat they must also be willing to take part in killing it. On the other hand, I think doing something like we did or taking up fishing or hunting as a way to explore this question is commendable. To continue to ignore the fact that animals (and plants) have to die to get to your table, I think is a problem, but I think there are probably ways to reckon with that without personally witnessing or causing an animal to die.  

Hoogerwerf: 

Last summer, before this experience with the pig, while we were doing a lot of the interviews for this series, I decided I would do some fishing, see if I could catch some big fish and go through some of this experience myself. I was partly inspired by Charles Foster. In his book called Being Human, he goes out into the woods to try and live like paleolithic and neolithic person. Naturally a big part of that experience was eating. And he found that he had a hard time with the killing when they were hunting for small game and he mostly stopped eating animals. But he also brought his son along with him for parts of it and his son had a really different interaction with the creatures. 

Foster:

He had a far greater rapport with the animals in the woods than than I had, because children are naturally clairvoyant, so far as non-human animals are concerned that closer physically to them because they’re near the ground. But also, he had far less compunction than I have about killing these animals with which he had a greater report. It seemed to me that he was instinctively entering entering into this choreography about which we’ve talked with these with these Animals. And indeed, I found him at one point creeping off into the night to put little offerings of the meat on a sort of makeshift altar that he’d made, I didn’t tell him to do this, he is not a great student of anthropology, it was something that he felt, intuitively that it was right to do.

Stump: 

That’s really interesting. Again, as a kid I was in a hunting and fishing family, and I think there was an implicit understanding of the difference between just killing stuff, and killing things to eat them. One of the most memorable moments of my childhood — one I’m sure would come up in a psychiatrist’s office — was one day that I had my BB gun out in the backyard and pointed it up at a blackbird on the electric wire and fired. I hit the bird and it fell down at my feet and was flopping around. My dad saw the whole thing and came over and stomped on the bird, extinguishing its life, and said to me, “Why did you do that? We don’t kill things for fun.” I remember being a little confused and thinking (but not saying out loud), “But you think hunting and fishing is fun.” And my dad does think that, but he also eats the things he kills, and so it is part of this process in which he sees himself as part of nature. I went the other direction and stopped thinking that killing things was fun— whether I ate them or not. And I suppose by leaving hunting and fishing behind, my connection to meat became pretty artificial. So maybe my dad is closer to Foster’s son, where they don’t really feel bad about killing things, but neither is it just for fun, the way I killed the bird on the wire. There’s something different about what they do. Maybe it is respect? 

Hoogerwerf: 

That respect comes out in different ways. I’m guessing your dad doesn’t go leave altars in the woods. But this choreography that Foster talks about is really interesting to me. It feels like something important that we’ve lost. Maybe not just with meat, but with all the food we eat. And so with the killing of fish I wondered if I could recover any of this. 

Stump: 

What did you find?

Hoogerwerf: 

Well, to start with, I found that I’m a pretty lousy fisherman. It turns out my 5 year-old is quite a bit better and caught about the only fish big enough to eat all summer. On his first cast.  [Jim laughs]

Hoogerwerf: 

Well that worked out ok because I ended up cleaning the fish with my son and his cousin watching over, which I thought was a nice chance to talk about giving thanks and passing on some of this desired choreography that I had come to value. But as I was kneeling there with the knife in my hand, I realized I had nothing concrete, I had never learned any words, had been given no rituals to practice. I felt, at that moment, like I had been totally disconnected from something long and important in human history. 

Stump: 

Right, and I think after the blackbird killing episode, I walked away from that more implicit connection that some hunters and fishers have, and became disconnected from that process too. I guess that’s some of what I’m trying to regain in this episode.

Hoogerwerf: 

We’ve mentioned already that there are some seriously flawed ways of killing animals for food. In his book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer documents all kinds of horrific treatment of animals in large scale animal agriculture. Coming to terms with some of these practices is what led me to try and be much more intentional about where the meat I eat comes from. And the poor treatment throughout the life of the animals and questionable slaughtering methods I think should cause people to make some decisions about what that means about what they eat.. Maybe, especially Christians who are called to care for and be attentive to the creatureliness and well being of all earth’s creatures. But it might not mean you need to stop eating meat. 

Weston: 

My answer to the bad is not the none, my answer to the bad is the good. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Here’s Derrick Weston

Weston:

So we have people who are raising animals in horrific ways. And if we can divest from the people who are raising animals in horrible ways to invest in the people who are raising animals in loving, healthy ways, that is a small step towards shifting to a more healthy, holistic, just food system that is also considering our non human neighbors in the Justice part of it as well.

Hoogerwerf: 

And Charles Foster also gave a hypothetical argument for why we might want to invest in a version of raising animals for food in loving ways. 

Foster: 

Another ethical justification for killing things, would, I suppose, be a utilitarian one along the lines of: farm animals wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for the flesh of farm animals. Some farm animals kept under certain regimes have more pleasure in their lives than they have pain. If we didn’t raise animals for food, farm animals, or a lot of them, would be denied the chance to have lives which were on balance pleasurable, and therefore, the amount of pleasure which there was in the world will be reduced. Of course, that is a potent argument for compassionate, responsible farming practices.

Stump: 

This, finally, brings us back to Amanda and her cows at Oak Row Angus and a real life example of what compassionate loving farming actually looks like. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Amanda took us for a ride around the farm to see the cows out on the pasture, greeting them each by name as she saw them.  

[sound of utility vehicle driving]

Powell:

Hi Widget, how are you? But the cows can come up in here and kind of what they call loaf or lay in the afternoons and just chew their cud. About as natural as you can get. That’s, that’s a cow’s life right there. It’s kind of a perfect scenario. [fade out]

Stump: 

The farm was started and has been in the family since 1842. They vary between having 75 to 125 head of cattle, but they also have some horses and raising cattle also includes growing plants. Grass for grazing, but also corn and oats for occasional supplemental feed. They also grow soy and wheat and other crops. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But we were there primarily to see the cows.

Stump: 

And this wasn’t just a random farm we found. 

Hoogerwerf: 

No, I’ve actually been getting meat from Amanda for several years and she’s a friend of the family. In fact, as we’re recording this, I have some meat from one of the cows we saw in my freezer. Wyatt, to be exact. 

Stump: 

At one point Amanda brought us over to where several steers were hanging out right on the other side of a wire fence.  

Hoogerwerf: 

Steers, I learned, are male cows that have been castrated, as opposed to bulls. Steers usually are the ones to be turned into meat. 

Stump: 

So as we were standing there learning about how smart cows are and clearly hearing about how much she cares for these animals I didn’t beat around the bush too long before coming right out and saying how the more I learned about them, the worse I feel about killing and eating them. But it didn’t seem she felt the same way. 

Powell: 

I think the quality of life is way more important than the length. A fly lives for 21 days. But we all get worried about [voice breaks]—I get emotional talking about this—we all worry about them dying. I don’t want them to suffer. Ever. Super important to me. And you can see they’re not? 

Hoogerwerf: 

If animal suffering is a reason not to eat meat, then is animal happiness a reason to eat meat. This is a point the Norman Wirzba brought up too. 

Wirzba: 

I think of the example of my grandfather, who, from Spring till fall, would at lunchtime, go out with a bucket and scythe and would cut grass. And he would bring it to the chickens and throw it in the air and chickens would come running. And they would gobble up that grass. And they were smiling, I could have sworn they were smiling. Because this was my grandfather’s offering to the chickens, because he believed that if he’s going to eat them, which he did, you have to make sure that you have in their life made what you can to contribute to their happiness.

Stump: 

It’s no question that Amanda agrees. 

Powell: 

Do they look happy? They do. And I think they tell you if they’re not. I have this thing about clean. And I have no tolerance for a lack of quality existence, maybe that’s the best way to put it. And we go to great strides to make sure that they look like this. I mean, there’s no poop on them. They’re in an open area where they can be a cow. And live a quality life. That’s important.

Hoogerwerf: 

It is probably important to realize that cow happiness is different than chicken happiness which is different from human happiness. This idea has come up before, in the episode we did about horseshoe crabs and our episode about trees, that there is a kind of glory in a creature being the best version of its kind. A happy cow is outside in the open air, eating grass, among other cows. 

Wirzba: 

Cattle are ruminants they have a quadrant to eat grass. And yet, what do we do, we take so many cattle off of pasture, put them in pens, and then feed them a diet that we know is unhealthy for them in terms of gastrointestinal well being, but we love it to have them inside because then we can feed them more quickly and get them to slaughter weight more quickly. All of these are small, but sometimes not small violations of the integrity, and then even more broadly the happiness of our fellow creatures. 

Stump: 

Even Amanda, who so obviously cares about the happiness of the creatures she tends has made mistakes in thinking that something that would make her happy would also make a cow happy. 

Powell: 

I had a cow, her name was Telly. And she was really special to me. I had her for 23 years. And it was one of those deals where I’m going to just give her a retirement home. Cows do not age well. And that wasn’t fair to her. And it was very selfish on my part. And I decided I would never do that again. I would rather have their life ended quickly and have them move on to whatever  happens versus—that was suffering. By being kind in my mind and letting her just retire. And it wasn’t fair. I won’t do that again.

Hoogerwerf: 

And when it comes time to bring the cows to the slaughtering facility, this is not something that Amanda ignores or tries to pretend doesn’t happen. 

Powell: 

I have led my favorite cows into the kill pen and stood there while that happened. I will not tolerate anything other than that so I know where they go. And you can tell it’s important to me.

Stump: 

This was really powerful and moving to hear her talk about this. I suppose I had come into this experience thinking that killing something must be fairly closely aligned with having an attitude of hate toward it. But I don’t think that anymore. I’m not sure that the guys we watched kill the pig loved that pig; but they sure didn’t hate it. And being with Amanda showed me that you can love something and kill it and eat it. She certainly had that attitude.

Hoogerwerf: 

And here we are back at the idea of food as a gift, where love becomes an essential part of the relationship between the giver of a gift and the receiver of a gift. 

Wirzba: 

So what I’m arguing for is that when you think about food, and therefore think about land, plants, and animals, because they’re all involved implicated in any of the eating we do, if you make as your first principle honoring their life, you have to then commit to nurturing them because they nurture you. And that becomes the means by which we can say it’s permissible to eat them because you’ve done what you can to contribute to their happiness and well being.

[musical interlude]

Hoogerwerf: 

Spending part of a day at Amanda’s farm was pretty convincing to me that raising animals in this way is an addition of love and well being in the world. It may not convince everyone to eat meat. In fact, I imagine that some people visiting the farm and meeting the cows might be even more convinced not to eat meat. But another idea came to me and it’s one I haven’t heard a lot, which is that if everyone were to stop eating cows, as a hypothetical example, it would not mean that all cows would live happy lives, it would probably mean that there would be no such thing as cows. Cows are not wild animals. If we stopped eating them it’s not like we could just open the gates and let them go wander free. Cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats—they’ve all been selectively bred for thousands of years to become the kind of animals that they are. They are creatures that humans have created to be food products. Does that complicate our ethics a bit? Does it give us better justification to kill them and eat them because we created them?  

Stump: 

Yes, it’s complicated… I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the argument that it’s the humane thing to do to raise animals well… until you kill them and eat them. And I’m not sure how to score the ethics of whether it is better for something never to exist than only to exist as a food source for us.

Hoogerwerf: 

There’s another way that people have devised to get away from the killing of animals and still have their meat. Make your meat in a lab. Either from plants or grow it from the cells of animals. 

Stump: 

Alternative protein has come a long way in a very short time. Impossible Burgers and other plant based meat really do a pretty good job of matching the flavor and mouthfeel of real meat. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And lab grown meat is not available to consumers yet but it was recently approved for production and sale in the United States and we will be seeing it soon. On the face of it, either plant-based or lab grown meat seems like a pretty good solution to get away from the moral questions about raising and killing animals and probably more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than real meat. I think it’s worth critiquing both of these methods. For a while I was not eating any meat and during that time my family did start purchasing some plant based meats. But what I realized was that with the plant based burgers I had no idea what I was eating. I had no idea what it was made from, how it was made, or where it came from. And that disconnection from the food really bothered me. 

Stump: 

Lab grown meat is made in factories from the cells of actual animals. It really is meat though it didn’t come from the body of a creature that had any life. And there is an energy input to grow meat in a factory that’s not insignificant. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I think that both plant based and lab grown meat are being touted as the perfect solution to the problems of eating meat. But we know that a lot of that is coming from companies who are out to make money and it’s worth at least a cautious approach. Here are two notes of caution, first from Derrick Weston and then from Charles Foster.

Weston: 

I can see where there could be some benefits and yet what I think we’ve done is create a technological solution to a technological problem of our own creation. That, instead of fixing the problem by going backwards, like a lot of regenerative farmers are, we have decided that we can fix the problem in a lab. And I actually think that fixing the problem away from land, you’re actually, in some ways, giving more of a blank check to do more harm to the land. And if we can produce food in a way that doesn’t need land, then what’s to keep us from continually polluting, developing, building on destroying, eroding, you know, all doing all those things to the land.

Foster: 

Food is not just about getting the necessary number of calories into us, because we are beings embroiled in the same web that generated the cows and its ancestors. And to eat a cow, which has actually been raised on the field, is acknowledging our part in that web. If we don’t acknowledge it, lots of things quite a long way both geographically and metaphorically from the field get broken, too.

[musical interlude]

Stump: 

Well, this has all been very interesting and worthwhile… I’m not sure I’m any closer to resolving some of the dilemmas I feel. In fact I might feel them more deeply.

Hoogerwerf: 

What’s for dinner tonight?

Stump: 

I think I might be fasting.

Hoogerwerf: 

Then let’s let a few of our guests have the last words. First Charles Foster. 

Foster: 

Eating anything, just as those hunter-gatherers agreed, demands strenuous moral justification. Eating is, for us as it was for them, a morally significant event. And eating keeps us alive, but at the expense of other living organisms. And to justify killing them, whether we’re killing mammals or birds or plants, the energy that we get from their bodies or their stems or whatever needs to be used by us to make the world a better place.

Stump: 

And Norman Wirzba: 

Wirzba: 

One of the things that we’ve learned from both indigenous and traditional agricultural peoples is that it’s through the eating of others, that we learn how to love them. Because if you’re taking care of the livestock, you’re coming to appreciate their lives in a way that someone who simply shops for food really has no understanding about, right? It’s about creating a moral relationship with the animals that you’re actually going to eat. And that just sounds bizarre to people who only you know, shop for food on Amazon.

Hoogerwerf: 

And finally, Amanda Powell

Powell:

It takes a lot of personal effort to make this look like this. And it’s Ryan and I and Doug. And most people—is it a balanced life for us? It is. But we don’t take many vacations. Matter of fact, I don’t even know what that word means. And yet I don’t work, we just get a lot of exercise. You know, I’m saying it’s a different philosophy.

Stump: 

Well, it’s a beautiful place. 

Powell: 

Well it is. It’s heaven. Come on Max. Max thinks so anyway? We haven’t even seen the good stuff yet.

Credits

BioLogos: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

Amanda Powell

Amanda Powell is a contributor to Oak Row Angus Farm in Ionia, Michigan.

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Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.
Steven McMullen Headshot

Steven McMullen

Steven McMullen is a professor of economics at Hope College, executive editor of the journal Faith & Economics, fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and associate fellow at the Kirby Liang Centre for Public Theology. He is the author or co-author of three books: Animals and the Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools (Eerdmans, 2020), and Should Wealth be Redistributed? A Debate (Routledge, 2023). He has published book chapters and journal articles about education policy, animal ethics, environmental ethics, economic justice, and Christian theology.
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Aminah Al-Attas Bradford

Dr. Bradford is an Arab-American theologian and research scholar at NCSU where she works in the department of Applied Ecology's Public Science Lab for Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity of Humans and Food, blending issues of science and religion and hosting cross-disciplinary conversations. She is currently writing her book on a theology of the microbiome. Dr. Bradford has worked in higher education for eighteen years and in Chaplain’s offices for more than eleven years. She is a fellow at the Berggruen Institute where she serves as an ethics and religion consultant on projects related to the future of humanity and non-anthropocentric ways of governing. In her spare time Dr. Bradford loves to walk in the woods, work in her ceramics studio, best her husband and two daughters in Farkle Championships, and start reading books, which lately include Thích Nhất Hạnh’s How to Sit, Sandor Ellix Katz’s Fermentation as Metaphor, Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. She will not finish any of these…but she will try.
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Charles Foster

Charles Foster is an author and a Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. His books include the New York Times Bestseller, Being a Beast, and many others - many of which have won or been short- or long-listed for various literary prizes. He won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2016. He lives in Oxford and a remote part of the Peloponnese.
Ellen F. Davis Headshot

Ellen F. Davis

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. The author of eleven books and many articles, her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the ecological crisis and interfaith relations. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship and Ministry (Westminster John Knox, 2014), explores the prophetic role and word across both Testaments of the Christian Bible. Her most recent books are Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, 2016), a collection of her sermons and essays, and Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2019), a comprehensive theological reading of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. A lay Episcopalian, she has long been active as a theological consultant and teacher within the Anglican Communion, especially in East Africa. Her current work explores various arts – music, dance, poetry, visual arts, and translation –  as modes of interpreting Psalms.
Derrick Weston Headshot

Derrick Weston

Derrick Weston is the theological education and training coordinator for Creation Justice Ministries, an ecumenical organization equipping Christians to live in right relationship with God's creation. He is the co-author of the recently released book "The Just Kitchen: Invitations to Sustainability, Cooking, Conection, and Celebration" and co-hosts the Food and Faith podcast. He, his wife, and four children live outside of Baltimore, Maryland.