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22 February 2013

Mad cows and crazy horses

Mad cows and crazy horses

As another food crisis hits the UK and Europe, animals are once again thrust into the headlines. Hapless consumers chewing blissfully on processed beef products woke up to the realisation they may have bitten into one of Black Beauty's relatives. And the UK is not noted for eating its pets. Somebody somewhere has switched the labels but the unseemly haste by the food industry to deny responsibility has left a bad taste. Like one of those all day breakfasts you shouldn't have eaten.

It's all strangely reminiscent of the mad cow drama that gripped the nation back in the early 1990s. Yet again the problem came to light in burgers. Up until that point the public had assumed that if it tastes, feels and smells like beef then surely it must be so. How wrong we were. Underneath the flavouring and packing lay a casserole of infected offal, diseased spinal cords and off cuts of very sick cows. In a memorable press conference, agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer MP posed in front of TV cameras while eating a hamburger with his nine-year-old daughter. Although he was clearly trying to help the beleaguered UK meat industry, it represented another example of bad taste.

And who could forget the acid in fizzy drinks debate. According to a report published by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, representing every medical doctor in the UK, over half the adult population will be obese by 2050 - largely due to burgers and carbonated, sugary drinks. Such is their concern they are calling for a 20 per cent fizzy drink tax. Once again the food industry is denying the problem and resisting their demand, leaving that familiar sour aftertaste.

These crises all throw up (pardon the unseemly pun) well-rehearsed arguments. The need for better labelling, greater regulation and more transparent ethical standards. But there are also more troubling questions: What is our relationship with other animals? With what species do we draw the line? Are they all there to be exploited and consumed for our pleasure? If so, shouldn't we just carry on as we are and be less squeamish about our choices? Plenty of biblical literalists have pored over Genesis 1:26 and concluded that mankind has liberty to slaughter the fattened calf, pollute the planet and farm the earth to death - and all in the name of dominion.  But there's something amiss here. According to the Genesis narratives, vegetarianism was actually God's initial plan for humanity. Meat-eating is only mentioned after Noah's flood. Less a sign of blessing and more like accommodation to our appetites on God's part. I ought to declare that I am a lifelong carnivore although increasingly flexitarian (a person whose diet is mostly vegetarian but sometimes includes meat, fish, or poultry).

Too often we live as if our right to dominate and subdue the planet is our crowning glory - that God doesn't care that much about the world as it will eventually be binned and replaced by something shinier. Eat, drink and be merry for he's coming again soon. Not so. He has an interest in a renewed creation and His gaze is on our stewardship of His resources. What we eat and how we manage His garden matters. 

Accepting that animals may occasionally need to be killed for our consumption, Professor Andrew Linzey comments: "The biblical case for vegetarianism does not rest on the view that killing may never be allowable in the eyes of God, rather on the view that killing is always a grave matter. When we have to kill to live we may do so, but when we do not, we should live otherwise." Now chew on that.

Gethin Russell-Jones, Media relations adviser Evangelical Alliance Wales

    Photo credit: jarekst