The moral responsibility of a livestock farmer or slaughterman to the animals they raise and kill cannot be understated. From the beginning, you must embrace the idea of the end, and that end is not a responsibility that can be passed on to someone else. These sentiments were upheld during the Sacred Life, Sacred Death session at the SFT’s recent Harmony in Food and Farming conference. Halal butcher and slaughterman Muhsen Hassanin, and livestock farmers Ruth Tudor of Trealy Farm, Lutfi Radwan of Willowbrook Farm and Rosamund Young of Kites Nest Farm, all spoke from a place of compassion and personal experience about this responsibility and their role as farmers and slaughtermen.
Dealing so closely with life and death makes the realms of spirituality, morality and nature immediately tangible. As Muslims, both Muhsen and Lutfi spoke of the religious imperatives that govern their approach to farming – both produce ‘halal’ meat. According to Muhsen, human beings were given the responsibility by God to walk the earth gently. He comments that, “You have to be in a state of compassion wherever you go.”
Lutfi reiterated this responsibility, quoting the Qur’an, “He it is who has made you His stewards on earth, and whoever subverts this trust does so to the harm of his own soul.” Lutfi emphasised that this relationship is not one of dominion and that stewardship does not imply ownership; it is a responsibility that is entrusted to human beings.
These sentiments are clearly not exclusive to a Muslim perspective, but sit at the core of most religions, as well as being key secular principles. “If we reach back into the perennial wisdom of whichever faith we come from, we will find very similar concepts,” said Lutfi, “Ultimately we are saying something simple that is self-evident to all of us – respect the rest of creation, [take] responsibility for what we do.”
The ultimate aim of livestock farming is not just to kill an animal. It is to perpetuate a cycle of birth, life, death and birth again. Despite some misconceptions that livestock farming is geared towards killing, farmers do care deeply about their animals. Rosamund spoke of how she had both the privilege and pleasure in caring for her animals, and that farmers get out as much as they put in. She was so fascinated by the world of her animals that she wrote a book about it, The Secret Life of Cows, which gives an insight to the characteristics of her cows and the relationships they form with each other. While this apparent ‘sentimentality’ for her animals does not stop Rosamund from killing and eating them when the time comes, it highlights a different perspective on farming – that, ultimately, farmers are not in the business of killing animals, but are, rather, in the business of nurturing and caring for animals – of keeping them alive and well.
While livestock farmers confront death head on, as a visible and integral part of life, we, as consumers, mostly forget the reality of where our food comes from, creating a kind of dissociation from death and, ultimately, nature and its natural processes. Death is all around us, in all parts of the food chain, many of us have just found it easier to look the other way. Vegetarian and vegan diets are not as bloodless as they may seem – any disturbance of nature will create damage and bring death to the animals that depend on it. This is no truer than in palm oil plantations, where critical habitat is being fundamentally destroyed on a vast scale.
For Lutfi and Muhsen, there is no separation, no dominion of one over the other, between humans and the myriad species that we share the earth with. We are one with nature. Yet humans have power over animals, as Ruth Tudor pointed out. Ruth spoke of the need for us to be up front with ourselves about the fact that we have this power. We are making decisions about another creature’s life. If we have an ambivalent attitude towards the power we hold over animals, this can lead to abuse as we lose respect for the animals in our care and find ourselves becoming numb to their suffering.
The fact that we have this power over animals – that we rear them in order to kill and eat them – is a difficult issue, one many of us would prefer not to confront. It is easier to distance oneself from the act of slaughter and the reality of where our meat comes from, and not attend to or reflect on the life that we are taking. We become disconnected and lose respect and appreciation for the food we eat.
This dissociation with nature and food goes hand in hand with the industrialisation of food production and the proliferation of cheap meat, the loss of small abattoirs and the decline of traditional family farms.
In 1985 there were 1,000 abattoirs in the UK. By 2006 this number had fallen drastically to 285. As small abattoirs closed, bigger businesses expanded, and in 2006, the 10 largest companies slaughtered 57% of the cattle, 53% of the sheep and 75% of the pigs in the UK.
There has been a similar trend in the number of butcher shops, with 21,000 shops in 1985 falling to only 6,000 today. Traditionally, many smaller abattoirs were managed alongside butcher shops and supplied the shop directly, often run jointly as a family business.
The intensification and industrialisation of livestock slaughter has arguably created an alienation in the practice of killing that damages a deeper connection to nature and farming systems by decontextualising the role of slaughter from the wider system. Small-scale abattoirs are more deeply rooted in the community which allows the person doing the slaughtering to be directly connected with all parts of the food chain, from the farm where the animal was reared, to the shop where the meat is sold. This provides them with a wider perspective on their personal role in the process of food production and their place in the community.
This localisation and connection to the wider community and the food chain is lacking in large abattoirs, and as with many industrialised workplaces there may be issues of low pay, workers rights, racism or bullying. This generates a stressful atmosphere, for both humans and animals.
The decline of small abattoirs is an indicator of a more general shift being seen across rural Britain. Small-scale, traditional livelihoods are rapidly being lost in the face of a globalised food sector geared towards cutting costs and maximising profit. Soaring house and land prices, a lack of regulation of who can buy agricultural land and failure to prioritise affordable homes for rural people has created an almost insidious fragmentation of communities. Many villages have become commuter towns or picturesque retreats for the wealthy. And with the loss of rural Britain’s indigenous people, comes the loss of invaluable skills, knowledge and a cultural heritage stretching back hundreds of years.
If we do not reverse this decline, we are jeopardising our future food security and perpetuating a system which treats animal farming as a factory. If livestock farms and abattoirs are no longer rooted in their communities, the gulf between producer and consumer becomes wider. We no longer see ourselves as part of the food system, rooted in the natural world, and we turn away from things that are difficult to look at.
During his talk, Lutfi quoted from The Trial of the Animals, a book written in Baghdad in the 7th century, but profoundly prophetic. It told the story of how the animals called in a judge to hear their testimonies of abuse. The judge found in favour of the animals and in summing up, he said to the humans,
“Should you ere, animals will begin to disappear one by one forever from the face of the earth, and the air in your settlements and fortresses will become dangerous to breathe, the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end. The animals that you eat will bring sickness and death upon you and you will no longer rule the earth. This can be reversed, but humans have to realize the extent of their cruelty.”
Rearing animals, killing and eating them is something which gives us power, but it does not give us dominion. We are part of nature, a complex system of perpetual life, and forget this at our peril. Death, too, is part of nature, and in ignoring or avoiding it we deny the reality of the world and perhaps even our own mortality.
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