Taking Stock of the Food Industry: The Whole vs. the Part
In the interest of convenience and profit, we have distanced ourselves from agriculture and thereby from nature itself. As usual, the consequences are spiritual as well as physical. But before considering the realm of the immaterial, I shall briefly address the latter, and less grave, effects.
By the time the typical chicken reaches your grocery shelf, it is in a sorry state. Commercial farms crowd chickens into indoor cages, a practice unfortunate for several reasons. First, the Creator provided chickens with beaks in order that they might peck the ground in search of insects, seeds, etc. When you stack chickens in cages with concrete floors, they cannot make proper use of their beaks. This leads to unhappy chickens, who must be debeaked lest they kill one another. Furthermore, in these close quarters, diseases breed wildly, necessitating heavy use of antibiotics. Naturally, these unreasonably "cooped up" chickens, eating pesticide-ridden grains instead of their proper food, require growth hormones in order reach a satisfactory size. I am not an animal rights activist, but I do believe in the Christian stewardship of creation. You can read about its violation here.*
The above reference leads me into my second consideration, that creation points us toward the Creator. By distancing ourselves from the farmer and his animals, by associating meat with cellophane wrapped packages in our flourescent grocery aisles, we distance ourselves from He Who is the ultimate source of life. In his lovely essay The Pleasures of Eating, Wendell Berry points out the spiritual value of knowing your food: "Some, I know, will think it bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude." As he makes clear, this gratitude toward the creature draws one's gaze even higher, to offer gratitude to God as well.
*I realize that conservatives will naturally regard with some measure of skepticism an organization which designates itself United Poultry Concerns. Truly, that title sounds more like a parody than the name of a serious group. Nevertheless, their account of industrial farming corresponds with the tales I have heard from other and more respectable sources. In any case, their immoderate concern for animals does not negate the gruesome validity of the facts. You need not regard animals as "persons" with "rights" in order to recognize their current treatment as a shameful and repulsive abuse.
The Pleasures of Eating
The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature