The First Step: Re-thinking Factory Farming

By JubileeCentre 28 Jul 2016

By Tim Lornie

28th July 2016.


‘There is no bad odour, no sound, no monstrosity, to which man cannot become so accustomed that he ceases to remark what would strike a man unaccustomed to it.’ – Leo Tolstoy, ‘The First Step’, 1892

In his moving and challenging essay 'The First Step', Leo Tolstoy tells the harrowing story of his visit to a slaughterhouse. It is 1892, and the era of ‘factory’ farming has just begun. Appalled by the violence and impassivity of ‘modern’ slaughtering methods, Tolstoy calls his readers away from cruelty and to a renewed ethic of life.

Today’s animal industry operates on a scale beyond Tolstoy’s wildest imagination. Every year, 70 billion land animals are killed for human consumption[1]. A staggering 60 million animals are killed every hour[2].

Even the staunchest meat-eater will baulk at these statistics. However, the greatest horror is not in the scale of the animal industry, but in its form.

Factory Farming – ‘A Living Nightmare’?

Globally, 2/3 of agricultural animals are ‘factory farmed’[3]. They live in tight, cramped conditions, with little or no access to the outside. Many are subject to painful ‘mutilations’ like beak-clipping and tail-docking, often without anaesthetic[4]. These mutilations are only necessary due to the cramped conditions the animals are kept in.

Animals frequently become painfully lame or go mad, biting metal grates (and each other) in frustration and confusion[5]. One EU body speculates that tightly confined sows ‘may well be depressed in a clinical sense’[6]. The following are all common practice in the EU[7]:

  • Keeping 17 chickens per m2 ([8])
  • 6 million EU veal calves - ‘the vast majority’ in confined, strawless cages
  • 40 million male chicks are shredded alive in Britain each year[9]
  • 50% of European dairy cows go lame in any one year, due to overfeeding and lack of exercise

Farming practices do vary hugely. Many farmers are deeply compassionate people, equally aghast at the world of industrial agriculture. And as campaigning groups like Animal Aid admit, some factory farms are better than others[10].

However, even ‘high animal welfare’ labels (eg. RSPCA ‘Freedom Food’) permit systems where animals do not go outside[11], and are not always effectively enforced[12]. At their best, factory farms confine animals in oppressive ways and prevent them from fulfilling simple natural desires like exercise, play and nesting[13]. At worst, they are filthy, violent and stressful places where ill-trained staff perform painful mutilations and leave sick animals to die in agony with no medical attention. This may sound drastic, but it happens[14].

A Pressing Issue

Animal ethics is a defining issue of our time. Hidden-camera investigations, coupled with the rise of social media, are enabling animal advocates to reach millions of people with graphic footage of factory farm conditions. Vegetarianism has gone mainstream, and there are now over half a million Vegans in the UK, following 350% growth over the past decade[15]. This formerly ‘extreme’ option is becoming increasingly ‘normal’, particularly among young people.

Animals are on the agenda - how can Christians respond?

A Long Tradition of Concern for Animals

Spurgeon, Wesley, CS Lewis – all giants of evangelical history, and all passionate about animals. Wilberforce and Broome founded the RSPCA as an outworking of their Christian faith; Lord Shaftesbury chaired the Anti-Vivisection Society. Indeed, 18th Century evangelicals were known for their particular kindness to animals, and concern for animal wellbeing was seen as a mark of ‘true conversion’[16]. This video shares some fascinating stories from this period.

Andrew Linzey writes of animal advocates from every walk of Christianity – ‘saints and seers, theologians and poets, mystics and writers’ - Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian, Rosetti, Hardy and ‘countless others’[17]. Today, many are discovering afresh the God who ‘has compassion on all that he has made’ (Ps 145:9), and raising their voice against industrial agriculture. God loves animals: so does his church.

‘Stifling all compassion’

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan speaks of the human tendency to overlook injustice, and calls us to an ethic of costly compassion - compassion that refuses to ‘walk on by’. For many of us – myself included – this is the real challenge with animal ethics. We must simply choose to look.

I began to ‘look’ about a year ago, when a friend challenged me on my views on animals. God’s Spirit began to change me, and I came to realise the preciousness of the animals we share this world with. I read about pigs’ complex social lives; watched videos of mother cows wailing as their young calves were taken away; faced up to the reality of the slaughterhouse. I began to realise that something is deeply wrong. The machine-like violence, cruelty and indifference of modern agriculture has nothing to do with the love, mercy and justice of God[18].  We humans, made in the image of the Prince of Peace, are better than this.

As we look, we will be moved to rethink our lifestyles - to eat less meat, perhaps, or to campaign against factory farming. We may give up animal products altogether[19]. However, the first job is to look, to truly perceive the nature of our modern food system.

Tolstoy ends his essay with the following words. They are a stark reminder that we must keep our hearts open to suffering and injustice of all kinds.

‘We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist.’

Let us heed his words, and allow our compassion to flow.


Tim Lornie is studying for a BA in Geography at Downing College and is co-chair of the student society Just Love Cambridge. He wrote this article during a one month internship with Jubilee Centre.


Some Useful Links

Every Living Thing - - Evangelical declaration on animal welfare, launched 2015

Sarx - - UK-based Christian animal welfare organisation – discussion of the key issues from a range of perspectives

Compassion in World Farming, Strategic Plan, 2013-7: For Kinder, Fairer Farming Worldwide - - some basic information on factory farming from a highly respected organisation

What Cody Saw’ - Mercy for Animals, 2016 - - a short and very relatable account of an undercover investigator in US factory farms



[1] The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW), 2014 Report, page 42, (16:59, 12/07/16);

[2] Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), Strategic Plan, 2013-7: For Kinder, Fairer Farming Worldwide, p2 (16:43, 07/07/16)

[3] ibid.

[4] BBFAW, 2014 Report, page 42, (16:59, 12/07/16)

[5] eg. Animal Equality, 2014, ‘New investigation reveals horrific truth within free-range egg industry’, (12:44, 13/07/16)

[6] Pye-Smith, C. (2003), Batteries Not Included, for the Soil Association, (17:12, 12/07/16)

[7] CIWF, Strategic Plan, 2013-7: For Kinder, Fairer Farming Worldwide; Pye-Smith, C. (2003), Batteries Not Included;

[8] de Castella, T., ‘Do people know where their chicken comes from?’, BBC [Online], 23/10/14, (15:49, 28/07/16)

[9] Gray, L., ’40 million chicks on ‘conveyor belt to death’’, 04/11/10, Telegraph [Online], (15:41, 28/07/16)

[10] Animal Aid, 2011, ‘The Trouble with Animal Farming’,, (13:02, 13/07/16)

[11] Pye-Smith, C. (2003), Batteries Not Included (for the Soil Association)

[12] Animal Equality, 2014, ‘New investigation reveals horrific truth within free-range egg industry’, (12:44, 13/07/16) ; Animal Aid, ‘What’s wrong with high animal welfare products?’ (12:58, 13/07/16)

[13] Pye-Smith, C. (2003), Batteries Not Included (for the Soil Association)

[14] Mercy for Animals, 2016, (12:41, 13/07/16)

[15] Moss, R., ‘Number Of Vegans In Britain Soars In Past Decade, Here’s Why’, Huffington Post [Online], 18/05/2016 10:58 (07/07/16)

[16] Sampson, P. (2015) (16:11, 28/07/16)

[17] Linzey, A. (2004) Animal Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press

[18] For an excellent piece on this, see ‘Eating and Drinking for the Glory of God’, by Josh Parikh of Just Love Oxford - (12:53, 13/07/16)

[19] This is easier than it sounds, and perfectly healthy – here are some useful websites where you can find out more! ; ;

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