Some Brief Thoughts On Changing Food Practices
Even without a sense of compassion or ethical duty toward other animals, these points inevitably put the spotlight on changing patterns of individual consumption, on reducing or eliminating meat and dairy consumption. This should not continue to be couched in individualistic terms where responsibility is solely placed on consumers to change. The responsibility to change dietary patterns also asks questions of the adaptability of governments and food corporations, not to mention the seriousness with which they do or do not take the issue of climate change.
By guest blogger Dr. Richard Twine.
One of the themes or indeed tensions within the book I wrote a few years back [Animals as Biotechnology – Ethics, Sustainability and Critical Animal Studies, 2010] pertained to modes of change in the face of the need for climate change mitigation. When researching the animal science profession it was not a surprise to discover that responses to the climate impacts of animal production were couched in predictable terms. This followed a particular approach to the farmed animal body as amenable to manipulation, already a well traversed path in terms of genetic selection for productivity. Therefore the problem of the climate impacts of animal production continues to be couched in terms of a problem of the animal body, one that can potentially be approached via traditional efficiency methods.
These are inclusive of genetic selection and feature, for example, attempts to breed animals that emit less methane. Importantly this technical attempt to solve some of the ecological damage of animal production preserves existing social practices and markets. It is also furthermore critical to note that such efficiency approaches, even if shown to be technically viable, offer no guarantee of overall climate change mitigation due to the lack of a correlation between increased efficiency and decreased consumption. Indeed as is well known rates of global animal consumption are forecast to increase considerably between now and 2050 (even if such forecasts themselves are beholden to some problematic assumptions around the naturalisation of a transition to greater meat consumption in ‘developing’ countries).
When ideas of changing consumption are framed almost solely in terms of changing individual behaviours they can appear just as hopeless as the aforementioned attempts to technically mitigate animal production. However I would argue that a multi-levelled approach to changing food infrastructures could fast track change in dietary practices.
This is not to gloss over obvious sources of inertia. For example, the considerable economic interests in turning animals into food and other products are not about to simply turn their back on their pre-existing economic power. Moreover animal advocates should probably probe a deeper question about inertia in the face of dietary change toward low or no meat (& dairy) diets. This is more of a cultural question, but also, in a sense, a psychological and affective one. Are people attached to meat consumption in ways in which they are not really fully conscious of? Clearly there is a lot of research that points to the intersection of animal consumption with dominant forms of socially constructed masculine identity – raising the possibility that feminist social change around gender relations could also improve human/animal relations – and vice versa. Furthermore, animal consumption could be integral to various forms of largely unreflected ways of being human. Eating other animals is so thoroughly normalised in most cultures it has become perhaps part of the taken for granted ‘nature’ of being human, part of social intelligibility between people (e.g. you eat meat therefore this is one way in which I recognise you to be a ‘normal’ member of society). If the case this would help explain the lack of intelligibility that the majority often subject vegetarians and vegans to. Being vegan is inescapably an incitement to a different mode of ‘being human’, performing the human on a new norm (ative) territory.
In spite of these considerable constraints the prospects of changing food practices need not be clouded in pessimism. Clearly in sub-cultural contexts such change is working very well for a small number of people. The majority meat eating culture keen to mitigate climate change should be looking at, for example, vegan sub-cultures to see what might be learned. Isn’t it rather too convenient to assume that social change is just too hard? Our high levels of meat and dairy consumption are recent historical facts, which suggests otherwise. Vegans, in offering their own version of ‘performing human’ make clear that we don’t actually need animal products to live, or even to thrive.
However a practice such as veganism runs the risk of being trapped in its own minority status. The Holy Grail for the animal advocacy movement must be to know more about the sociology of how to make more vegans. Being a minority practice means that new vegans face obstacles during their transition which make it less likely that they will stay the course. This might be anything from negative reaction from partners, families and friends to problems of provision as well as developing new cooking skill sets. Although the ease of vegan transitions are mediated by geographical location tipping points for the establishment and social acceptance of new practices are fragile.
And so sociologists and their ilk need to better understand reducers, vegetarians and vegans: How was their transition? What helped them change their diets? What are their underlying values? What helps them maintain their new diet? What benefits are they experiencing? What additional skills are required to eat sustainably? Contra the assumptions of many animal advocates the strategy of mass ethical conversion is probably unlikely to yield impressive results. Food practices cannot be reduced to a realm of rationalistic choice. Arguably it is better to look at the role of food as a conduit for sociability and shared pleasure and then to build vegan ethical infrastructure that can co-opt these roles. Creating new food routines, habits, norms and pleasures that usurp those that are presently animal based represents, I think, the best way to promote sustainable food practices. The intention is not to ignore ethical questions of what we as a culture presently do to other animals but to question the utility of using that as an initial battering ram which might, as a strategy, misunderstand the reasons people have for eating what they do.
Dr Richard Twine is a British sociologist. In 2013 he takes up a new role as a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow where his research will focus upon food and climate change. http://www.richardtwine.com