One of the most important beliefs that Pagans hold is that life is cyclical. We are born, we live, we die, and are re-born. Death is not escapable. No one gets out of here alive. Mortality is part of existence, but all things return. Relationship is another aspect that defines Pagan attitudes. For Pagans, deity is immanent in the world. Every rock, every tree, everything that moves and breathes is sacred. Including what we eat. It is very common for Pagans to feel a deep kinship with both animals and plants. This creates an ethical dilemma that conflicts with the natural cycles of life and death, and is not easy to solve. How does one eat one’s brother? Industrial farming is repugnant to anyone who takes the time to look. But even more so to a Pagan who claims kinship to all living things.
Veganism – the practice of eating no animal products at all – has been one solution to the relationship problem, although, as with the general population, vegetarianism – not eating animal flesh, but consuming dairy and eggs – is more common. For physiological reasons, veganism is extremely difficult to maintain, and generally requires far more asceticism than is generally acceptable in Paganism. Vegan Pagans don’t get much sympathy in a religion where enjoying one’s food can include exclaiming over bacon and groaning over a chocolate confection. Although most Pagans still eat a standard American diet, vegetarianism is common. I have yet to go to a Pagan event that did not have some sort of vegetarian option for food.
Another aspect that defines Paganism is the sacred earth. Modern Paganism was deeply influenced by the environmental movement, and as a religion based on the seasonal cycles of nature, we honor the health of the planet. Sadly, modern methods of meat production are bad for every living being directly involved with, or anywhere near the process. A great deal has been written about these issues and it is not my intent to re-cap them here. Nor is it my intent to convince anyone to be a vegetarian. Our ancestors ate meat, and every culture seeks access to more if they do not have a ready supply. This is not a failing, it is part of being human.
Cattle, pigs, and chickens did not evolve in sheds, jammed one on top of the other. Cattle did not evolve eating grain but grass, and chickens are omnivorous. When these animals and other ruminants are fed on grass instead of being placed in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), they are more healthy, and happy. But this is not the only benefit.
It is possible for farming, when done in a way that mimics the cycles of nature, to heal and restore degraded grasslands, green up areas that have fallen to desertification, and balance overgrown forests, and tie up carbon. The thick layer of soil on the American prairies at the turn of the century was the result of patterns of movement by the bison. They gathered tightly together to protect against wolf predation. They left piles of manure and trampled ground behind them. A day or two later the birds came in and picked the larvae out of the muck and scattered the manure. The grass shed some root – which broke down into loam – and then re-grew, thicker than before. This pattern can be mimicked, which is the concept of biodynamic farming or permaculture. Not an ancient concept, but a new one that demands considerable conscious attention to the land. This is a vision of cattle, chickens, pigs and other domestic herd animals being raised and cared for with respect on small farms, and in a way that allows them to express their essential being: Ruminants eating grass, chickens eating bugs, pigs rooting in forest-lands. This supports the health of the planet, of food animals, of forests and grasslands, and last but not least, humans.
And yes, I advocate eating them. If humans did not eat them, they would, like kudzu, over-run the planet. Largely because they threw in their lot with humans, domesticated animals are terrifically successful, and they are not going to control their breeding if we stop eating them. Humans are population control for cows and chickens, as wolves are for elk and other deer. Culling is not just a part of nature that we in the industrialized world can ignore, it is inherent to it. All things eat, from humans to wolves to chickens to microbes to fungi. And in the end, we too will be consumed. To honor and acknowledge that which dies in order to nourish us, acknowledges the cycle of life and death in its entirety.
Our spiritual ancestors lived close to the land. They farmed, they hunted. They raised cattle and pigs and chickens and these too thrived (at least when there were not drought conditions) from what the earth grew. Manure and kitchen waste was returned to the soil because the plants grew better when nutrients were returned to it. This is the cycle of birth, life, death and renewal that we celebrate.