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Christian Ethics: Are They Found Wanting With Regard to Factory Farming?

15/04/2013 13:50 BST | Updated 13/06/2013 10:12 BST

Two new leaders of the first and third largest Christian churches: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. As spiritual leaders they are the upholders of Christian values: humanity, compassion and kindness, or in other words, Christian ethics. But does - or should - Christian teaching address animal welfare?

With regard to farm animals cruelty is nothing new. But what has changed is the scale and intensity of that cruelty. In the last century the mass production of animals began. Now veterinary practices have perfected artificial insemination and embryo transfer to make production more efficient still. Meanwhile scientists are pushing the boundaries of genetic manipulation and designing animals that grow ever bigger and ever faster. (Once chickens grew at about the same rate as potatoes: 70 - 100 days. Now intensive chickens reach their slaughter date in 45). Many of the new breeds of animals - the double-muscled cattle and sheep; the butterball turkeys; the hairless pigs - are devised to withstand intensive conditions and have become so unlike their natural counterparts that even in a normal environment they would be unable to thrive. Kept alive with antibiotics and densely packed in vast numbers the reality of factory farming is the displacement of nature. That its end-products are sentient beings makes a travesty of any kind of humanity since mass production makes it impossible to practice any meaningful welfare.

And yet, it seems, the Christian churches do nothing. What seems striking is the stark contradiction between the idea that Christians are guided to show kindness and compassion to the weak and helpless of their own kind and yet have a God-given entitlement to make use of animals as they wish.

The new Pope has chosen his name in honour of St Francis, the patron saint of animals. St Francis called all creatures 'brothers and sisters'. If only Pope Francis would follow his namesake's example: advocate that animals be treated with sympathy and draw attention to the plight of factory farmed animals that are forced to live lives of abject misery in systems that are violent, unjust, cruel and unfeeling.

The Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey (a leading Christian writer on the ethics of the way we treat animals) feels sure that if the Roman Catholic catechisms were fully accepted the Roman Church would avoid anything that brings unnecessary suffering to animals.

And there are Christian groups who campaign for the welfare of fellow creatures but, it seems, they do not represent mainstream Christian thought. Two are the UK's Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA) and its sister organisation in the US, the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare. They are composed of laity and clergy and their mission statement declares that animals deserve basic compassion and humane treatment and for this reason should be included in the church's ministry

With wealth increasing in many parts of the world - most notably in India and China - meat-based diets are on the rise as western eating habits are adopted by more and more people. The number of animals reared in factory farms every year is predicted to double from today's 60 billion by 2025.

At the same time one eighth of the world's population does not have enough to eat. In the next 12 years the world population - now 7 billion - is predicted to reach 8 billion. Meanwhile 85% of the world's soya and 36% of the global fish catch are processed into meal for farm animals. And (according to a study from the US's Cornell University) grain grown to feed the US's livestock could instead feed 800 million people. Meanwhile much of the water to irrigate these crops is being drilled from 'fossil' aquifers that will take thousands of years to replenish.

The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are spiritual leaders of billions of the world's citizens. With regard to the plight of factory farmed animals the message these two Christian leaders could send is simple. Advocate eating animal-based products on special occasions only. Propose buying meat, eggs and milk-based food from real farmers who rear their livestock with compassion and whose animals are free to feel the sun on their backs and the earth beneath their feet. The 'Meat Free Monday' route could make a good start towards reducing the number of intensively farmed animals that are subjected to a lifetime of total misery and a terrifying end. It would also be a big step towards feeding the world's hungry.

It is not realistic to expect all people to forego eating food derived from animals.

But when it comes to the animals that are reared on factory farms surely the Christian churches are found wanting when it comes to administering kindness and compassion?