Coming Together To Move Beyond Animal-Based Food Systems
Due to a wide range of reasons — environmental, economic, social — a significant reduction in the production and consumption of animal-derived food, and a corresponding increase in plant-based eating, is a societal goal. Current food systems have to be transformed to mitigate climate change and global hunger, while ensuring good health. An effective reduction in animal-based foods is seen as a key lever to reach global development goals. Since such a change would involve the socio-economic system as a whole, requiring a systemic transformation, it can be seen as a societal grand challenge that we currently face.
An impressive scientific paper, co-authored by no fewer than 30 researchers, summarizes the outcomes of a multi- and interdisciplinary study, aimed at defining key research questions that need answering for us to progress towards a more plant-based global food system. An iterative approach was taken to narrow down and prioritize an initial list of 100 research questions generated by European social sciences and humanities researchers. This approach was used to build mutual understanding, research capacity, and impact in this emergent but still largely fragmented research field. Also, this allows for dialogue amongst scholars with very different opinions, ideological positions, and divergent methodological and epistemological commitments.
Research prioritization was carried out in six stages:
- online survey to gather information from the participating researchers;
- first workshop held in Nottingham, U.K.;
- further rewording of the priority questions and identification of research themes;
- second workshop held in Tampere, Finland;
- further refinement of the research questions;
- collaborative writing up.
Overall, the questions were divided into three broad themes: eating and consumption, food system transformation, and governance and politics. The participants made suggestions about the nature and scope of the research area, keeping in mind that the issue is politically and ethically charged and contentious — especially when it comes to the needs of stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on animals existing in the current food system. Yet, it is clear that this issue cannot be ignored and instead requires immediate further research, policy, and practical actions. This is especially true due to increased urgency, such as the reported particular vulnerabilities of meat processing employees to contract Covid-19. However, the researchers highlight that agricultural aspects have been relatively neglected within social science and humanities, where more attention is paid to questions of eating and consumption or innovations in the food industry (think development of novel proteins) instead.
The scope of the prioritized questions was considerable, ranging widely from individuals to communities and institutions, from histories to futures, and across multiple areas. At the end of the prioritization and refinement process, the researchers narrowed down to 15 significant research questions. They included such ventures as “How, where, and why is plant-based eating already being incorporated into daily food practices?“ and “How and why are farmers and other rural community members responding to the calls for reducing food from animals?” A set of themes was also identified that can host all of these specific questions:
- debating and visioning food from animals;
- transforming agricultural spaces;
- framing animals as food;
- eating practices and identities;
- governing transitions beyond animal-based food systems.
As many animal advocates can surely attest to, despite the manifold co-benefits to humans and non-humans alike, dietary change remains an extremely provocative and challenging approach for researchers, funders, practitioners, decision-makers, and, obviously, for consumers who still tend to enjoy eating animal-based foods. Tensions were felt even amongst the study participants, most notably regarding whether animals should continue to be used for food production but at a lower scale and intensity, or not at all. Some authors even philosophized that animals themselves should also be a part of future prioritization work, although how their representation can be realized is yet another question for further research.
For us advocates, this novel interdisciplinary take on the pressing issue of transitioning towards plant-based diets is uplifting. Not only will the framing of this upcoming research field be developed more thoroughly, but many international research partnerships will be formed that should spearhead any efforts towards the common goal – sustainable food systems that do not rely on non-human animals. Knowing that the very nature of such questions envelops environmental, social, economic, cultural, and ethical societal issues may very well suggest that a likewise broad and inclusive research effort will be necessary to enable meaningful and long-lasting change.