(I wrote a piece in 2020 for the site Romans One about stewardship of the Earth. Unfortunately, Romans One has closed, but the piece is a good one, so I’m reposting it here.)
“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:28
There it is in black and white: God commanding us to be stewards of the Earth. What are you going to do, argue with Him? Of course not. But what’s the nature of that stewardship? What’s good enough?
If we’re to rule over the fish and birds and livestock, it’s up to us to determine the character and nature of that rule, aided by the Bible. The Earth and all that live upon it belong to God. We’re rulers, we’re governors, we’re stewards, but as God says in Leviticus 25:23, “The land is mine.” So we’re to take good care of the Earth because it doesn’t belong to us. This care includes stewardship of both land and beast.
An old joke goes something like this: “There’s plenty of room for all God’s creatures…right next to the mashed potatoes.” We were no longer enjoined to live as vegetarians since the day Noah landed on Mount Ararat. Which is good, because animals from chickens to pigs to cows are really quite tasty, and they provide us with nutrients that can be otherwise difficult to acquire.
Currently, the way we produce the majority of livestock is through CAFO farms. CAFO stands for Controlled Animal Feeding Operation, and it’s as awful as it sounds. In a CAFO, animals are confined to tiny cages for much of their short, miserable lives; fed substances to artificially increase desirable qualities that have nothing to do with nutrition; pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from dying of illnesses contracted through standing all day in their own waste; and mutilated to prevent them from injuring themselves. Chickens, for example, will occasionally tear out their own feathers when under stress, so the CAFO solution is to de-beak them.
The amount of waste that CAFOs produce is enormous, and negatively impacts both air and water quality in surrounding areas. Effluvium sometimes pollutes nearby groundwater, causing illness in wildlife and human populations. Airborne pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, blow downwind from these farm-like industries.
What we feed our abused animals is not good for them, either, and most of it is corn. Monoculture corn that can only grow in chemically-fertilized fields lacks nutrients that food grown in properly composted soil can provide. So we feed our abused animals corn that makes them unhealthy, and then we eat these unhealthy animals to feed ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out.
Is that good stewardship? Did God mean for us to treat animals this way? And is this good for us?
It’s not all bad. We feed hundreds of millions of people through CAFOs. Our country has an obesity problem. So somehow we, for the most part, are eating, even if what we’re eating isn’t always nutritious. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do now is preferable to mass starvation.
As consumers, our alternative to the CAFO food-producing industry is buying humanely-raised animals and animal products, usually from local farms. Cows that eat grass are healthier to consume than corn-raised cattle. Chickens that have the freedom to run around and eat bugs, seeds, and the occasional bit of vegetation lay tastier, more nutritious eggs, and so forth. Good stuff in, good stuff out.
Buying pasture-raised livestock is, unfortunately, a luxury reserved for those of us who can afford it. When money’s tight, are you going to buy a dozen regular eggs for $1.19, or spring for the organic brown eggs from Birkenstock Farms for $5.99? There’s a convenience angle, too: maybe you don’t have a health food store like Whole Foods within reasonable driving distance. Or perhaps you just have a craving for homemade barbecue, and the Piggly Wiggly doesn’t stock organic pork ribs. Or organic anything. And what about eating out? You’re not going to be that person, are you? The one who asks the waitress, “Is the chicken in your bacon-guacamole pepperjack club sandwich humanely raised?” You’re embarrassing the kids. Cue the Sarah McLachlan music.
The answer is that you do the best you can and let your interpretation of good stewardship, as commanded by God, be your guide. If it’s important to you, you’ll find ways to fit it into your budget. Maybe not everything pasture-raised, but some. A little. Here and there. The kids’ yogurt may be Kraft brand, but we’re having sloppy joes for dinner tonight, and that’s from pasture-raised cows. Whatever works. Make the effort where possible, and stretch the definition of convenience to include your conscience.
Once you start doing that, spending more on quality food, you find yourself more reluctant to waste it. If it costs less to buy a carton of eggs than it does to pick up one of those delicious coffee treats from the progressive green mermaid, why not just chuck them in the trash once they’re a day past the expiration date? Did you do the float test? Do you know what the float test is? It’s different when the eggs cost a bit more. Then it’s frittata for breakfast and lunch.
Deciding to encompass good stewardship of the Earth as part of living Biblical principles is a difficult task, but nothing easy is worthwhile. It involves being more thoughtful about issues you’d rather just put on autopilot, like what’s for dinner, and spending more time acquiring and preparing what amoral advertisers have spent decades telling us should be instant, cheap, and convenient: food.
Or you could go vegetarian. Hope you like soy.