On 3rd January 2019, a new product hit the British high street. It sold out almost immediately, precipitating a nationwide launch and extensive media attention. The company was bakery giant, Greggs, and the product was the vegan sausage roll. Within weeks, Greggs’ sales had increased by almost ten percent, and annual sales broke through the £1 billion barrier for the first time.
That Greggs, famed for sausage rolls and cheese pasties, would launch a vegan product might have seemed impossible until recently and, while veganism may not (yet?) be entirely mainstream, it is rapidly becoming more acceptable. In 2018 the UK launched the highest number of new vegan food products in Europe, with one in six food products launched being vegan-friendly.
One in four household evening meals in the UK is meat free, and fifty-six per cent of consumers adopt vegan buying behaviours. This increased vegan activity highlights popular concern about animal welfare, the environment and what constitutes a healthy diet. How, therefore, might Christians best respond to this growing trend? Is eating animal products problematic to our faith? Might there be an ethical and theological case for the plant-based diet to be considered a legitimately Christian option?
Thus begins the latest Grove Ethics booklet, The Plant-based Diet: a Christian option? by Mia Smith, Chaplain at Hertford College, Oxford. The exploration begins with setting out the theological background to the ethical questions around plant-based diets.
The questions raised by veganism are essentially theological concerns, rising out of the human vocation: our God-given duty towards our fellow creatures, one another and the planet. Before we examine each concern, we need to explore our human vocation to understand why our diet is theologically significant.
The starting point is this: our species belongs to creation. We are not to God’s benefit, and we add nothing to his nature. We are creatures, having more in common with our non-human fellow creatures than we do with the creator. God’s loving purposes encompass the whole of creation, not just the human creature.
Creation is an act of grace on the part of the creator, both for creation’s sake, and so that creation may glorify God. Creation is theocentric, and no onecreature exists solely for the ourishing of another. Basil the Great stated that there were no creaturely degrees of being; everything created has the same ontological status. There is God, and there are creatures, and humanity is of the second kind, the ‘creaturekind.’12 The whole of creation, not just human- ity, is declared to be good by the creator, and creatures of all kinds depend on him and on the rest of creation (Gen 1.25)…
Animal suffering is therefore problematic to Christians, both because God loves and will redeem creation, and because cruelty diminishes God’s image in us. Animals belong to God, Karl Barth claimed, not to humans, and God requires an accounting of every animal killed for food (Gen 9.5). Barth recognized the ethical importance of animal welfare, stating that we must be ‘careful, considerate, friendly, and above all, understanding’ in our treatment of other creatures. The killing of animals for food should, Barth claims, only be done out of necessity, otherwise it is murder.
Once we begin to take seriously that God wants the whole of creation to thrive, then the need to respect our fellow creatures gains traction. How animals both live and die matters to God.
Christians should therefore avoid participating in food systems which prevent flourishing. There are strong arguments for following a vegan or vegetarian diet, as a protest and a prophetic choice. Christians may, of course, disagree about the elimination of animal-based products as a faith-based obligation. As David Clough argues, ‘The perfect seems to be the enemy of the better in this area of ethics.’ Others may prefer, instead, simply to buy products from farming systems which do not make us feel ashamed, especially by rejecting factory farming, or to consume less frequently, as a treat rather than as a staple. If we do make use of animals for food, then it must be uncontroversial to argue that we should ensure that our use of animal-based food respects their status as our fellow creatures of God.
Mia Smith then explores, in successive chapters, the ethical issues not only around animal welfare, but related to our own diet and health, before looking at issues of the environment and population growth.
The Bible indicates that care of our own health is important if we are to fulfil our human vocation, indicating that, as the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, God should be glorified in our bodies (1 Cor 6.19–20). We are permitted to eat all foods, but not all foods are beneficial (1 Cor 10.23), and whatever we eat or drink should be to the glory of God, as part of a life of worship (v 31).
Research by the Oxford Food Programme indicates that a broadly healthy global diet could save five million lives per year; a vegetarian diet, seven million; but a vegan diet would have the greatest impact, at about eight million. There is an increasingly strong body of evidence to support this:
- The World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a class–1 carcinogen, the same class as smoking, asbestos and radioactive barium. All red meats have been classified as class 2carcinogens, indicating that they are probably carcinogenic, based on evidence of links to colorectal cancer. More detailed studies are indicating that risks of certain cancers are significantly lower inthose who avoid animal products. These benefits are (generally)noticed where animal products are reduced to occasional con-sumption, but are greatest when they are eliminated; for example, specifically, veganism seems to protect against prostate cancer.
- Animal products, including white meats such as chicken, take much of their energy from saturated fat, which is associated with heart disease. By contrast, those on a plant-based diet tend to have lower incidences of heart disease and hypertension. Plant sources of protein such as nuts and seeds have been shown to lower cholesterol.
- Non-organic meat and dairy products contain hormones and antibiotics, given to livestock to increase rates of weight gain and feed efficiency. These have been linked with detrimental health outcomes.
- Vegans have healthier gut profiles, with an increase in protective gut bacteria and a reduction in pathogenic types.
- Vegetables and fruits contain a variety of nutrients, such as anti-oxidants, polyphenols, fibre, vitamins and minerals. It is therefore no surprise that increased consumption is associated with a reduced overall mortality risk from any cause.
In relation to the environment, Smith looks carefully at issues of greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the arguments related to livestock are not as straightforward as sometimes claimed. But there are other important environmental issues at stake.
One of the most significant ways in which humanity affects the environment is through the cutting down of forests to create pasture and for arable land to meet the demand for animal feed. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cattle play a significant role, using eighty-six per cent of the energy from agricultural land, but producing only eight per cent of the food we consume. Over seventy per cent of the rainforest in South America has been cleared for ranching, and a further fourteen per cent for commercial crops, including soya for animal feed. The market in soya exports is now one of the largest and increasing international commodity flows, with over half of the soy in the UK livestock sector feeding poultry. The resultant overgrazing affects biodiversity.
Agriculture uses more water than any other human activity, with almost a third required for livestock. On average, beef uses more than three times as much water as chicken per kilogram of meat. This is mainly ‘green water,’ which falls directly onto the land. However, a significant proportion of water used is ‘blue water,’ from rivers and lakes, which competes directly with other needs, including that needed to maintain aquatic ecosystems. Water used to grow feed accounts for ninety-eight per cent of the total water footprint of livestock production.
[To summarise:] Evidence seems to indicate clearly that significantly reducing global meat and dairy consumption would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental pollutants, reduce deforestation and the overuse of land and enhance water security.
Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets. Adopting more plant-based ‘flexitarian’ diets globally could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the food system by more than half, and also reduce other environmental impacts, such as those from fertilizer application and the use of cropland and freshwater, by a tenth to a quarter. Dr Marco Springmann, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford
After exploring issues related to population growth, Mia Smith returns to scripture, and engages with possible counter-arguements, including the observation that meat-eating appears to be assumed as mostly unproblematic in the Bible.
Agriculture and farming in biblical times did not include the intensive raising of livestock. Ellen Davis argues that for the Levitical community, eating meat would not have been impersonal and private, as it is today. Meat eating was tied up with sacrifice, and was therefore personal and public. Eating meat in biblical times was ‘extraordinary, rather than ordinary.’ If we stick to the freedom to eat what we like argument, then we fail to take into consideration the ethical implications of changes in contemporary farming practices, and in dietary habits and cultural norms.
Until recent decades, ‘meat as a treat’ would have been a common approach. Given the proven extraordinary demands animal products make on animals, the environment, and on human health, a return to extraordinary consumption—as encapsulated in the flexitarian diet—would be a positive step. A more radical solution would be to eliminate animal products from our diets altogether.
David Clough summarizes:
I appreciate that it is a big step to come to see what we have become accustomed to see as the ordinary act of eating animals as extraordinary, and to recognize that consuming the animal products of intensive farming may be in conflict with fundamental Christian beliefs about God’s ways with creation. I submit, however, that careful consideration of Christian ethics in this area…requires nothing less.
The booklet contains extensive references in 80 footnotes—so all the arguments are very well sourced. (All the information mentioned above is sourced in footnotes.) Whatever your current approach to your own diet in relation to animal welfare, the environment, your own health, and our stewardship of God’s creation, Mia Smith offers some arguments that deserve serious consideration.
You can order the booklet post free for £3.95 in the UK, or as a PDF e-book, from the Grove website.
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