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The Brink

The Food on Christian Tables and the Danger of Abstract Concern

What does the food on Christian tables say about our commitments to justice? How well do our dietary choices reflect the concerns we express for other animals, for the environment, and for one another?

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.” With food costs comprising more than 10% of the average household budget in America, our spending in this area says something about our moral commitments as Christians. Meals on tables testify; but do they tell a story of a benevolent God who cares deeply for the poor and vulnerable, or do they testify only to our own appetites and desires?

The Fall is symbolized by the choice of Adam and Eve to consume the wrong food—the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story of the first humans teaches that though hunger and desire are natural, morality demands restraint and reverence, even in Paradise. Today, perhaps more than ever, a moral reframing of our food choices is needed in order for humanity to enter into right relationship with God, with one another, and with the rest of Creation.

Twenty years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published a reflection on food, farmers, and farmworkers. In it, the bishops expressed several grave concerns with the direction of agribusiness in America. A drive through the countryside, past grazing cattle in spacious pastures, builds an illusion of farming as a bucolic, pastoral ideal. The reality is that the majority of America’s livestock cannot be glimpsed from the road. 99% of animals farmed in the United States today are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), confined behind corrugated steel in conditions the industry takes pains to conceal from the public. These animals will never step on grass. Most of them will never see the sky. Two decades on, the Church has done little to act on its expressed concerns.

Moral theologian John Berkman warns of what he calls a morality of abstract concern. Abstract concern acknowledges moral questions—about violence toward non-human animals or the crucial steps necessary to course-correct on climate change—but “fail(s) to engage in the kind of casuistry necessary to provide and implement the practical guidance necessary to actually impact our lives….” Ultimately, abstract concern remains rooted in an unwarranted concern for human wants and interests even while expressing concern for the more than human world. It is a passive defense of anthropocentrism. The USCCB’s statement falls into exactly this trap, all platitudes and no action.

Farming in America started down the road to industrialization with Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. This New Deal legislation—also called the Farm Relief Bill—aimed to offer immediate economic aid to farmers during the Great Depression. A quarter million small farms already having succumbed to bankruptcy and foreclosure, Roosevelt sought to readjust the balance between food prices and farmer profits. The Act offered farmers attractive subsidies in exchange for killing off excess livestock, particularly pigs and cows. By eliminating surpluses, the market value of food products rose.

The onset of World War II brought an increased demand for agricultural products at the same time that conscription was taking workers away from farmland. These competing economic forces incentivized the expansion of agricultural output, necessitating higher degrees of mechanization. The country needed to produce more food, faster, using fewer workers.

United States Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, drove a final push to industrialize American agriculture during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Putting an end to Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Butz’s message to farmers was “Get big, or get out!” Small farms were further destabilized as the agricultural policy of the 1970s shifted to favor large agribusiness corporations. Agricultural surplus was no longer an economic concern but an asset as Butz encouraged the overseas export of America’s excess.

By 1980, CAFOs had become an industry standard, the number of small family farms falling 90% since the 1950s. Unlike traditional farming methods, industrialized animal agriculture allows fewer farming operations to raise more animals more efficiently and, most importantly, more profitably. Today’s broiler hens eat half the feed and reach their ideal slaughtering weight in only a third of the time of hens in 1950. The use of antibiotics, hormones, and a diet of soy and corn allow cows to gain 500kg in only fourteen months rather than the five years once needed using conventional farming methods. Government subsidies keep prices low and demand high as industrial agribusiness ramps up its capacity to turn animal bodies into food for human mass consumption.

Humanity’s ability to manipulate the growth patterns of other animals for our own profit is incongruent with the commitment Catholics express to caring for God’s Creation and to maintaining a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Despite this incongruence, Christian discussion around food and eating tends to remain mired in abstract concern. The goods of humanity cannot be understood in an anthropocentric vacuum. The flourishing of our own species is inextricably linked with the flourishing of the other species and environment around us.

The USCCB wrote that “Catholic teaching about the stewardship of creation leads us to question certain farming practices, such as the operation of massive confined animal feeding operations. We believe that these operations should be carefully regulated and monitored so that environmental risks are minimized and animals are treated as creatures of God.” More than two decades later, CAFOs remain the industry standard for North American agribusiness and little has been done to address the ethical concerns raised by the bishops. Like so many theological reflections on humanity’s relationship with the more-than-human world, their words have failed to inspire more than abstract concern.

We ought not be surprised given the content of the document. Even while offering a “Catholic agenda for action,” the bishops remain resolutely non-committal in their condemnation of industry norms and vague in their recommendations for improvement. Missing is any reflection on the question of whether or how Christian belief in non-human animals as creatures of God is compatible with large-scale systems that commodify their bodies for exclusively human ends. Absent too are recommendations for how the faithful ought to respond to existing injustices in the industry. The bishops themselves have failed to move beyond abstract concern, suggesting even while they critique that, with improved oversight, industrial animal agriculture is potentially harmonious with a Catholic understanding of non-human Creation and its goods.

The Church teaches, however, that without commutative justice—the virtue that regulates our reciprocal duties to one another—no other justice is possible. The USCCB has asserted that commutative justice requires that employers “treat their employees as persons, paying them fair wages in exchange for the work done and establishing conditions and patterns of work that are truly human.” Human labor in American CAFOs and meat and poultry processing facilities, however, falls well short of this standard. Not unlike the non-human animals they work with, the lives of people working in the trenches of American agribusiness are often filled with fear, injury, disease, and injustice.

Figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics testify to the particular dangers of work in meat and poultry processing. Rates of workplace injury and illness in these fields significantly exceeds those of any other manufacturing sector. The likelihood that a worker will be injured or killed in animal agriculture is higher even than in policework and sawmills—more than twice the national average for private sector workers. Subcontracting of labor to outside providers artificially deflates these numbers, with the chemically hazardous cleaning and sanitation work—necessary in a field involving consistent exposure to bloodborne pathogens—reported separately. Last month Packers Sanitation Services, a meatpacking sanitation company, was fined $1.5 million in penalties after they were found to be employing children as young as 13 to work overnight shifts in plants owned by food processing leaders including Tyson Foods, JBS, and Maple Leaf Farms. These underage workers were tasked with handling hazardous industrial chemicals to clean dangerous equipment such as guillotine cutters and headsplitters, machinery used to behead and break open the skulls of slaughtered animals.

Though the rate of non-fatal injuries has been falling over the years, the slaughter and rendering of non-human animals is necessarily dangerous work. In other manufacturing fields, parts make their orderly way down an assembly line, inert and uniform. But animals are not inert. Barring equipment malfunction, automotive panels, pumps, and spindles are the same size and shape all day, every day. They do not move, they do not protest as they are manipulated by workers. Animals, by contrast, resist their own dismemberment. They peck and kick and look for escape. Even in death, their parts are not the uniform objects of machine moulding but reflect the individuality of the being to whom they, moments before, belonged.

While the fragmentation of labor in industrial animal agriculture means that each worker may specialize in only a few highly specific tasks, these tasks are made more perilous by the coupling of their employer’s demand for speed and efficiency and the animals’ resistance to it. A worker using a knife to remove blood clots, bruises, and other imperfections from the skinned shoulders of cows may, at first glance, be doing standardized work but the size, shape, and condition of each shoulder to pass their station varies. The pressure to convert speed into profit does not.

This high-risk work falls disproportionately to undocumented workers who, by some estimates, make up at least 30-50% of the workforce in CAFOs and rendering plants. The precarious immigration status of these workers makes them unlikely to seek medical treatment for work-related injuries or to file for worker’s compensation. Foreign-born, Spanish-speaking workers from Latin America are overrepresented in U.S. animal slaughtering and processing with white, American-born workers a rarity outside of management positions. Language and literacy barriers compound concerns about discovery and deportation, leaving many workers in these industries without access to accurate information about the risks of the position, without proper compensation, and without legal recourse against workplace injustices. Infringement upon the dignity of work and the rights of workers in industrial animal agriculture is not the result of rare lapses in judgment. It is the systematic exploitation of a workforce made up almost entirely of society’s poorest and most vulnerable laborers. Christian concern for their plight cannot remain an abstraction.

The adverse effects of these methods of food production are not borne only by those working within the industry. Environmental racism sees CAFOs and processing plants disproportionately placed within low-income communities of color. The diminished political influence of these locales keeps them from effectively taking action against the siting of facilities that drive down property values and negatively impact the health of residents.

Pollution from industrial animal agriculture has been linked to respiratory distress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. CAFOs and related facilities cause quality of life in the surrounding community to nosedive, exposing residents to groundwater pollution, pathogen spread, and persistent foul odors among other environmental hazards. Data from 2020 and early 2021 alone found that 90% of American meat processing plants saw unusually severe outbreaks of COVID-19, with over 59,000 infections and 269 deaths amongst workers in under a year.

Where the food on Christian tables comes from has implications for both our political and our spiritual practice. More often than not though, Christian reflection on food and diet does not extend beyond vague musings on hospitality and fellowship. The dishes that line the tables at parish potlucks have the potential to bear powerful witness to our concern for the key themes of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church is not limited to expressions of abstract concern for the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, about a Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable, about the Call to Family, Community, and Participation, and about Care for God’s Creation.

There exists tremendous potential to view Christian fellowship as not only an act of welcome but as an act of Solidarity—with animals, with the planet, and with the poorest and most vulnerable of humanity. A move beyond abstract concern for the marginalized—human and non-human alike—requires action. Church leadership must not be afraid to call the faithful to abstain from food that is the product of injustice. As Pope Francis writes, “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few.”

The Food on Christian Tables and the Danger of Abstract Concern

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