Eating and the Culture of Death

Article excerpt

All our-religious traditions agree that animals must be treated humanely and their suffering minimized. All our traditions agree as well that human workers must be treated fairly, justly and humanely.

One out of every six people in the world works to provide the food we eat -- in the fields and in food processing and transport, in restaurants, and in food stores. We affirm their right to decent incomes, working conditions, and to organize themselves.

Eating is thus a moral act.

In particular, the way we humans treat animals has moral significance. In theological words used by the late Pope John Paul II, the institutionalized and industrialized mode of treating animals that ignores their being creatures of God can be considered "a structure of sin."

The bishops of Ohio last year published a statement in support of industrialized animal production in that state -- specifically in support of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) -- and recommended that Ohioans vote yes in last November's state election for Referendum Issue 2, which created the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board animal welfare committee. The Humane Society of America described this measure as an empty one, devised by the state's agribusinesses to block real reform of factory farming of animals.

The bishops stated that their recommendation involved a prudential judgment on which people of goodwill can differ. I argue that the overwhelming weight of Catholic thinking suggests that to vote no on that issue was more appropriate.

The research staff of the Ohio bishops had not done its homework on the issue of CAFOs. These factory farms are part of a culture of abuse, not a culture of life. The operators, workers, the environment and the animals are all abused. The problem is not just that of specific farms or the good intention of operators, the problem is the entire system: It is not sustainable. An adequate definition of sustainability includes the way the animals are treated.

Ohio experts on agriculture, such as rural sociologist Linda Lobao of Ohio State University, have written eloquently about these animal factory farms. Her conclusion is that they hurt communities and animals significantly

There is Catholic literature on the subject as well.

In 1998, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, the leading national Catholic voice on rural life since 1923, called for a moratorium on CAFO construction. In 1999, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said that CAFOs are not family farms, but factories. "At some point in time we crossed the line and some of these facilities became factories, not farms as we once knew them," he said.

The contract labor that is involved in the CAFO system is morally suspect.

Those who manage these so-called confined animal feeding operations are appropriately called "operators." The operators do not have freedom of choice in their management practices, which is why contracts have been criticized as unjust and why the U.S. Catholic bishops, as well as the Rural Life Conference, have worked with broad coalitions for contract reform as part of their advocacy.

The workers on these operations are frequently in unhealthy environments filled with dust and ammonia and other pathogens. Workers are subject to ongoing respiratory problems.

These matters have been raised by the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, and other similar organizations. They have also identified the serious issue of the recurrent use of antibiotics meant for human use in animal feed. The use of antibiotics in this fashion endangers human health and puts the health of future generations at risk with the loss of effective antibiotics.

CAFOs abuse the environment. This is recognized by the U.S. bishops in "For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food," in which they wrote, "Catholic teaching about the stewardship of creation leads us to question certain farming practices, such as the operation of massive confined animal feeding operations. …