|hristians in North America who are concerned about responsible stewardship of the earth note that Adventists appear to be relative latecomers to the conversation. Awareness, though, is growing within the church of the escalating problem of bacteria resistance to antibiotics because of their use as growth enhancers in farm animals as well as the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms—in part because of Sigve K. Tonstad, a professor at Loma Linda University (LLU). Tonstad contests these contemporary trends with biblical principles and a call for Adventist Christians to gain a fuller understanding of the seventh-day Sabbath’s endorsement of responsible stewardship of all creation. In his most recent book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, published by Andrews University Press, Tonstad—as one reviewer wrote—“beckons readers to understand the seventh day as a celebration of God’s gracious work of creation and God’s faithful intent to restore and heal all that is broken.” Tonstad is an associate professor of religion and an assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University and also has the distinction of being a specialist in internal medicine. Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer recently talked with Tonstad in his LLU office about his fresh perspectives on these issues.—Editors.
Sandra Blackmer: What first stirred your interest in issues of ecology and the inhumane treatment of factory farm animals?
Sigve Tonstad: In 1979, when I graduated from medical school, I read a book written by Wendell Berry called The Unsettling of America. Berry was saying how this country was becoming unsettled because the time of the family farm had passed, and we were moving into the era of more corporate and factory farming. I was extremely impressed with his vision—seeing the whole picture, including a long tradition of Christianity in which we were not interested in caring for the body and the earth. That early schism is still playing out in various ways in our time, too.
I then became more aware of factory farming and realized that there are a lot of antibiotics used on factory farms as growth promoters for animals, especially in this country. You can make the animals grow faster at a lower cost because you don’t have to feed them as much. This is a really big issue in modern medicine. We’re facing the possibility that antibiotics needed to treat serious diseases in human beings may become ineffective because we have wasted their power on factory farming and on raising meat cheaply.
In a recent health summit here at LLU, you said, “Our generation may live to experience the end of the antibiotic era within 100 years of its beginning.” That’s what you’re referring to?
Yes. Even though some of our main antibiotics are found in nature, nature cannot produce antibiotic agents on the scale that people can. We are producing thousands and thousands of tons of antibiotics and putting them out into the ecosystem—largely through factory farm animals—and that puts a lot of pressure on the bacteria.
Scientists are continually manufacturing new nonresistant antibiotics. Can’t they just continue to do this?
That’s been the strategy from when bacteria first became resistant to penicillin. Researchers then discovered a more potent, or more “clever,” penicillin. But bacteria became resistant to that, and then we went one step further and found another one. But we can’t keep up. We have nearly exhausted that option.
Do you see factory farming and the undeterred development of antibiotic resistance as ethical issues?
Yes, I do. When we use antibiotics in human medicine we treat the person with high doses of antibiotics in order to kill bacteria, but in animal medicine we treat the herd and use antibiotics in subtherapeutic doses—which is the worst way from the point of view of resistance. But even if you were to stop all antibiotic use in animal medicine, the ethics of factory farming would be just as bad, because it’s the way we treat the animals that’s really the main thing. The use of antibiotics has enabled us to abuse and mistreat animals even more, but the mistreatment of the animals is intrinsic to factory farming, and that problem will not go away even if politicians and other regulatory agencies pluck up their courage and put an end to the antibiotic use. The problem of abuse will still remain.
Do you think that if North Americans realized what conditions are like for these animals it would make a difference?
I’m sure it would. If there were publicity and exposure to what happens on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, meat consumption would go down. I’m not sure why more media are not doing this, because exposure makes a difference.
How high does the U.S. rank on the meat-consumption scale?
Per capita, the use of meat is highest in the U.S. of any country in the world, although it’s high in Europe, too. The U.S. is also the leader in factory farming, especially when it comes to pig farming. In very populous countries such as India and Bangladesh, people consume about 10 pounds of meat per person per year. In the U.S. we consume 270 pounds of meat per person per year. That’s a huge difference. We should pray every day that these other countries don’t ever get the idea that they should eat meat the way we do. Imagine if that happened! The ecological consequences are staggering.
Describe these ecological issues.
Meat production in the United States is estimated to produce 130 times as much waste as human waste. Seven million pigs in North Carolina produce four times as much waste as the human population of 6.5 million people. What is produced by the animal world doesn’t go into the sewer system. It goes out—unprocessed—into the ecosystem.
I’m not necessarily saying that everyone should stop eating meat. Let people eat meat, but it should cost a lot more, perhaps $25 to buy a pound of beef or pork. If we factored in the ecological costs and other costs that belong to this, that’s what the price might be. The price would go up significantly if antibiotic use were prohibited. Second, there’s the enormous contribution of meat production to greenhouse gases and global warming; more, for instance, than household use of energy or automobile emissions. There should be a price tag on this form of environmental degradation. Third, from the viewpoint of the treatment of animals, the cost would go up if we were to end the practice of factory farming, the chief enabler of cheap meat.
You seem to focus more on the living conditions of pigs than other factory farm animals. Why?
Because, among sentient beings, they are the worst treated. Even though I believe the potential to experience suffering is certainly felt even by a chicken, there should be no doubt in our minds that pigs are sentient beings with a fairly high level of ability to experience suffering. The industrialized methods of factory farming are also in use in the enormous feedlots of the cattle and dairy industries. On the short list of most-abused animals you can include all the animals we like to eat.
The number of pork-producing farms has fallen from 650,000 in 1979 to some 65,000 in 2008. How does this shift affect ecological issues?
The trend—or the economics of it—is to produce meat in large quantities at as low a price as possible. So the cost to the consumer has become much lower than it ought to be, ecologically speaking. Who pays the price for that? The animal does.
Factory farming started with the chicken industry. The chickens have no space, no access to outdoors. There’s no connection between what that sort of animal would do in a natural state as compared to what we are actually subjecting them to. Then other farmers decided, “This is a great idea! We ought to try this on bigger animals. Let’s try it on pigs.” So in a mere 25 years the number of pork-producing farms has shrunk dramatically. That’s because in the past pigs were raised on family farms, but now they are raised on large factory farms. They are not outdoors. They do not wallow in the mud. They are very closely confined. They are subjected to stress that can only be imagined. And it’s all industrial. There’s no human contact.
Are you saying that there are appropriate and humane ways of raising animals for meat consumption?
Yes. The issue is not so much that the animal has to die, but that it hasn’t had a chance to live a normal life in any way.
Matthew Scully, in his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, describes factory farming well. He writes, “Genetically designed by machines, inseminated by machines, fed by machines, monitored, herded, electrocuted, stabbed, cleaned, cut, and packaged by machines—themselves treated like machines ‘from birth to bacon’—these creatures, when eaten, have hardly ever been touched by human hands” (p. 29).
And have we seen it? No—most of us haven’t seen it because factory farmers don’t invite the public in to see how they are treating their animals. They hate publicity. The few people who have written books about this have had to negotiate all kinds of difficulties to gain access to these places.
Visual coverage of factory farms is usually done undercover. ABC World News recently showed graphic videos of animal cruelty and horrendous living conditions of dairy cows taken undercover on a factory farm in New York.* Unfortunately, this type of media coverage is rare.
Some people would say that God created animals to benefit humans and that, practically speaking, factory farming is necessary to sustain human life.
Factory farming is certainly not necessary to sustain life. You can sustain life in 100 other ways. Factory farming is a different beast. It’s something that has never been done before in civilized societies. It’s a twenty-first-century phenomenon.
If we go back to the Creation story, there is no evidence that animals were intended to be used for food. That was a permission that came later, and probably should be seen as a concession.
On the fifth day of Creation God created birds and some sea animals, and then, as it says in Genesis 1:21 in the Good News Bible, “God created the great sea monsters, all kinds of creatures that live in the water, and all kinds of birds. And God was pleased with what he saw. He blessed them all and told the creatures that live in the water to reproduce and to fill the sea.” So the first blessing ever was a blessing on nonhuman creation. On the sixth day of Creation there is a blessing on human creation. Then on the seventh day there’s a blessing on all creation. But the blessings on the sixth and seventh days of Creation follow the wording of God’s blessing on nonhuman creation. And what does it mean to be under God’s blessing? It means you have legitimacy. The notion that nonhuman creatures are to live only at the mercy of human beings is not good Creation theology. It does say that human beings should have dominion, but the idea that because we have dominion we can abuse animals and exploit them and do whatever we want to them is an atrocious interpretation of the Creation story.
In your writings you use the unusual term ecotheology. What does that term mean?
It’s an attempt to reset the clock and start over again, to put ecology under the umbrella of theology.
For a long time Protestant theology has been concerned only about human beings and human salvation, and that kind of theological priority has now come to grief because we’re seeing an ecological crisis, we’re seeing things happening in the environment, and people are asking, “What went wrong?” They are looking to the Bible, to Christian theology, to see if something has been said about the earth and the body. From an Adventist point of view, we should really welcome this, and we should say, “I wish we had been more vigorous in this field.” The cornerstone of ecotheology is a theology of creation, and this is also a Sabbatarian theology because we have the blessing of the seventh day, a blessing that belongs to all creation.
The motivation today for “going green” is basically self-concern—if we don’t change our ways, we and our chil-dren will suffer. Do you see this as the primary reason for Christians to become better stewards of our earthly home? I like that question because the problem is Why are we not interested in ecology? and Why are we not concerned about factory farming? Are we now becoming concerned only because of the consequences to ourselves?
In the biblical story human beings, the earth, and nonhuman creation belong to one another. We are interdependent. That story should be what guides us—not the consequences, not the ecological crisis. Even though we are living in the era of consequences, we must retrace our steps and reconnect with that story. The Sabbatarian anchoring of that story should be very meaningful to Adventists and should provide a rationale for living and behaving and relating to each other and the earth and nonhuman creation that is informed by a narrative and not by headlines in newspapers.
Ellen White advocates a vegetarian diet for health reasons, but does she give any counsel regarding the treatment of animals?
Ellen White wrote a letter to a doctor and his wife in 1896 in which she described a time that a Catholic woman knelt at her feet weeping and told her what a terrible thing it was to eat animals to gratify a perverted appetite. Ellen White then made a resolution to abandon meat eating. This is an ethical and ecotheology reason for not eating meat; this is not a health reason. It’s a call for mercy. Ellen White wrote:
“When the selfishness of taking the lives of animals to gratify a perverted appetite, was presented to me by a Catholic woman, kneeling at my feet, I felt ashamed and distressed; I saw it in a new light, and I said, ‘I will no longer patronize the butchers; I will not have the flesh of corpses on my table’” [Testimony Studies on Diet and Foods, p. 67].
The Victorian diction notwithstanding, we recognize that the founding mother of Loma Linda University came to see the motivating power of ecotheology as well as the health benefits of not eating meat.
What do you hope to accomplish through your newly released book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day?
I want to show, biblically speaking, that you cannot look at the Sabbath apart from what I call its portfolio of meanings: the story, the values, and the message of the institution. The Sabbath has been deprived—even by those who affirm it—of some of its portfolios of meanings. So I wrote the book not about the loss of the seventh day but about the lost meaning of the seventh day. We have talked about the lost voice of the earth, but the book also explores the various other essential meanings of the Sabbath. I’ve written about the Sabbath narrative from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and with a broader historical picture that will enhance our respect for the Sabbath—and much more important, for God.
What should Adventists do to make a difference in the lives of factory farm animals and the environment?
We should expand the emphasis from an interest in personal health to include an interest in ecology and of ethics and ecotheology. We should give additional reasons for our food choices, raise the prominence of the issue, and get more serious about advocacy for change. We cannot afford to have just this nice, private piety that is interested only in what we put on our tables. We have to hear the plea of nonhuman creation, be sensitive to the abuse that is happening.
I wish our universities would provide an education for people interested in careers in advocacy and public policy. If we did that, we would find many allies and would become more involved in dialogue with other sensitized communities that ponder these questions with convictions and sensitivities that are sometimes lacking in the Christian world.
Notes: • In October 2009 Michigan became the seventh U.S. state to ban gestation crates, the fifth to ban veal crates, and the second to ban battery cages. Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, and Oregon previously passed similar measures.
• For suggested reading material on this topic, go to www.adventistreview.org/factoryfarms. To read a review of Sigve K. Tonstad’s book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, go to page 29 in this issue.
SIGVE K. TONSTAD, originally from Norway, was reared in the only Adventist family living in his village. He holds graduate degrees from both Andrews and Loma Linda universities. He also has a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Tonstad’s wife, Serena, is a specialist in preventive medicine and a professor at LLU’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. The couple has two grown daughters. This article was published March 17, 2010.