Bishop John Arnold: Introduction to Animal Rights from a Faith Perspective

Bishop John Arnold of Salford, Bishops’ Conference lead for England and Wales on the environment, spoke on 21 March at a webinar, ‘Introduction to Animal Rights from a Faith Perspective: New Insights into Animal Agriculture.’ He reminded of the urgent importance of prayer, discussion and action by everyone, to tackle environmental crises. Nearly 70 people attended the webinar, organised by Catholic Action for Animals, in collaboration with the Diocese of Salford and the Laudato Si’ Action Platform. The text of his talk follows:

I must preface everything that I say with an acknowledgment that I am not an eco-scientist and I cannot speak in the technical terminology of the experts. Perhaps it is actually a good thing that we speak in non-technical terminology and use a language that everyone can understand? Having said that, I stand in amazement that so many people still seem not to be able to accept the overwhelming evidence that we are damaging the environment, destroying the biodiversity of our world, and exploiting Nature – which God has entrusted to us, as stewards.

I feel very indebted to Pope Francis for his global understanding of the dangers which face our world and his insistence that “everything is connected”. Our care for the environment, which for the moment remains alarmingly ignored by politicians and industrialists, cannot just be about melting ice-caps, wildfires, droughts and floods elsewhere. We need, urgently, to see that Nature is a global and complex unity and is made up of a great variety of elements all having a uniquely important part to play in maintaining a harmony of well-being. We intrude on the balance of Nature in so many ways. There is an urgent challenge to make the working of our complex world sustainable for future generations, not only repairing the damage that we have done but enhancing the gift of creation for those who will follow us.

The human race has never managed to live in harmony with our world. From the hunter-gatherers, to the farming generations, humanity has not replaced loss or repaired damage, but it has never been on such a scale as at present. For centuries, human actions did not have any dangerous impact. But in the last two centuries in particular, humanity has become ruthless in its exploitation of our world, particularly in the industrialized nations. To a certain extent, we might be able to accept that much of the original damage was done in ignorance. The mining of coal, and its use, may not have been understood as affecting the atmosphere, though the smog which enveloped our industrial cities, and its impact on health, might have given at least some clue. The use of fossil fuels, and their impact, was first studied some seventy years ago but the preliminary findings about their causing global warming were concealed.

We are now benefiting so much from the amassing of knowledge about how our world works and how all creatures have a role to play in its flourishing. Although we still have a long way to go, we are coming to a much clearer understanding, for example, that the warming of the oceans has a direct impact on marine life and the flourishing of fish and the marine food chain. We are measuring the impact of deforestation, the melting of ice-caps, and the damage done by waste, particularly in contaminating our water. We are learning so much more about biodiversity and the complexity to Nature, in which millions of species have their part to play – and how easy it is for us to blunder in and disrupt that balance.

I appreciate that this webinar is about Animal Agriculture, but as I turn my comments more directly to the care of animals I only wish to do so in the context that animals are an intrinsic and essential element in the much wider complex of Nature.

I stand firmly against the exploitation of animals and the cruelty that so many of them endure. I believe that every creature has an innate dignity, and I am further concerned that we have not even come close to acknowledging the sensory nature of many animals who can “feel” the cruelty of deprivation of liberty and endure suffering. While I sympathise with those who would wish to ban all animal agriculture and consumption, I feel that there is a middle path which needs to be urgently pursued.

But there are other, equally compelling reasons not to cultivate the consumption of meat. I recently read a well-researched book by Hannah Ritchie, entitled “Not the End of the World: How can we be the First Generation to build a sustainable planet?” The frightening fact is that over one third of all agricultural land is used for the grazing of cattle, sheep and pigs. Their grazing requires the ever-increasing deforestation of our world but the return of the meat they provide is small in comparison to the protein and energy provided by a plant-based diet.

As a Christian, I see that creation is a delicate balance and it is entrusted to us, as stewards, to accommodate and maintain that balance. This is something that many indigenous peoples have so wisely maintained in their life-style, over many centuries, without injury or harm to the environment in which they live. We have much to learn from them. Many indigenous people see some animals as available for food but they respect the animals which are either cared for domestically in a dignified way, or left in the wild until they are needed for food.

Meat has become an industry and the source of enormous profit. We have lost the sense of balance and, in our greed, we have seen animal agriculture as a factory process which often ignores the well-being of the animals, requires deforestation, and increases carbon and methane emissions contributing to global warming. We produce meat which is excessive to the needs of people, and even unhealthy to them, while seeing animals as merely a commodity at our disposal, to be exploited. The statistics make no sense and are shocking. For instance, “for every 100 calories we feed a cow, we get just 3 calories of meat back in return”. 97 calories are effectively wasted. For lamb, it is about 4 calories. Pork would render 10 calories and chicken only 13 calories. In parallel, can you imagine buying a loaf of bread, taking one slice and then throwing the rest away? Livestock are also poor providers of protein. For pork, lamb and beef, more than 90% of the protein they eat from animal feed is lost.

Agriculture is the largest driver of deforestation and habitat loss. The impact on biodiversity is increasing.

Our greed for meat means that many people go hungry as 70 kilos of grain is used to provide just 1 kilo of meat. We can provide enough food for the world’s population but not if we insist on consuming so much meat. Moderation would transform supply and we need to recognise that the amount of food produced will not provide food security as climate change impacts on seasons and agriculture.

Whether on land or in the ocean, species are hunted by predators. I must acknowledge that – throughout the cycles of Nature, animals, sea creatures and insects are all part of one another’s diet. Even the greatest creatures, such as whales and elephants, are consumed by smaller species when they die. It is the complex web of life.

The human race has the unique privilege of recognising the dignity of every creature. From a Christian perspective, I see nothing in the scriptures which would suggest that the consumption of meat is sinful. However, there is nothing which requires the consumption of meat. I must also acknowledge that, when the scriptures were written, there was no danger concerning meat consumption and its impact on climate change and environment. What is very clear, throughout the scriptures, is the need to care for the wonders of creation and the common home entrusted to us, as stewards.

There remains the importance of how we measure our consumption against the cost to the environment and our provision of sufficient food for the world’s population. When I first heard the appeal that we should eat less meat, I decided that I did not need to eat any meat and I have not missed it. I limit the amount of fish and dairy products, too. I think going vegan might be a step too far for me, at least for the moment. But reduction in the consumption of meat is not difficult for anyone and it would make a big impact.

Climate change is a global challenge and there are many, even small ways, in which, as Pope Francis says, “each and every one of us has our part to play”. Eating less meat, particularly beef and lamb, will make a considerable difference. Using our cars less and relying on walking or public transport will have an impact. Avoiding waste – whether food, electricity or water – all counts. Recycling when we can. It is also important that we voice our concerns to our politicians who can require radical change. And we must lead by personal example.

Recording of webinar, including Bishop John Arnold’s input:

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