The Future Of Food: Where Do Animals Fit?
Imagining “the future of food” is no longer just a thought experiment. The human population is growing, farmed animal suffering is incalculable, the climate is shifting, and people are trying to wrap our heads around how to feed the world. Governments, NGOs, and businesses are trying to think ahead and position themselves to both avoid food crises and maintain operations. Many different actors “know and agree” that there is a problem – namely, trying to feed a growing number of people a broader range of foods on fewer and fewer resources. But there is no consensus regarding how to address the problem or even the root causes of the problem. “Our views about what drives a problem shape our assessment of what constitutes a solution,” say researchers, and solving the future of food is a big enough problem that we will need to work together to devise and implement solutions.
This report from the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University examines food scarcity and distribution problems and tries to envision a handful of plausible solutions that are worth considering. In particular, the report focuses on what the researchers call “the meat question.” This is defined as the “different and contested narratives of … how the costs of livestock weigh up against the various benefits they provide.” Although the researchers use the term “meat,” they actually consider a variety of different animal products. They examine several different scenarios regarding future meat consumption and discuss what they think successful food policies would look like in each case.
The first scenario, what the researchers call “calibrated carnivory,” is one in which people continue to eat more meat based on lobbying and social science that convinces policy-makers that “consumption patterns cannot and should not be moderated.” In a best-case version of this scenario, industry would adopt a “green growth” model to try to mitigate the many negative costs associated with meat production. A second scenario, “architected flesh,” is one in which lab-grown meat and animal products have gone mainstream and insect consumption increases exponentially. This scenario might happen if pleas to shift consumption towards plant-based diets either fail or falter and the best remaining solution to the meat problem is a technological one. The third scenario is dubbed “livestock on leftovers” and imagines a future where a “sizeable minority of people are exiting the cities and returning to farming and small-scale food provisioning.” The fourth scenario, “fruits of the earth,” looks at a future where governments have realized that environmental sustainability matters. While animals are still raised for meat in this scenario, there is active debate over what level of meat consumption is best and governments promote eating patterns that “are both healthy and sustainable.”
For animal advocates, the scenarios outlined in this report may seem unsatisfying on an ethical level. However, the full report (which is available at the link below) is worth reading, even though at times it feels like a speculative set of science fiction stories. Rather than presenting these scenarios as givens, however, the authors note how there may be crossovers: For example, “environmentalists who advocate a ‘fruits of the earth’ vision may also accept a role for livestock reared on the principle of ‘ecological leftovers.'” If we are able to agree that one or more of these scenarios is plausible, then part of our work will be trying to steer things in a more animal-friendly direction. “People are complicated, inconsistent and contradictory,” note the researchers and how animal advocates deal with these contradictions will determine how much we can truly help animals.