Gut feelings and possible tomorrows: (where) does animal farming fit?

Monday, May 11, 2015

This new FCRN think piece focuses on the future of livestock production - or rather on a range of different livestock futures.

It takes as its starting point the observation that while most of us may agree we have a food ‘problem’ there is less unanimity as to what the causes are, what or who is to blame and why. This matters because our views about what causes a problem shape our views on what a solution looks like. One particular issue exemplifies both the complexities of the problem and the discord it engenders. This is the ‘meat question.’

It is now largely undisputed that the rearing of animals uses a great deal of our finite land and resources, and contributes to many environmental problems. What is much more in dispute though, is whether these problems are tractable, how the costs of livestock weigh up against the various benefits they provide, how beneficial these benefits truly are and – on the basis of all this – what kinds of solutions are necessary, desirable, inevitable or possible. Different interest groups have different views, based on their particular underpinning ideologies and beliefs.

This paper takes a closer look at who the stakeholders are in the debate around livestock, the different narratives that they construct about the livestock problem - and the solutions they propose.  It does this by constructing four scenarios, each of which imagines a different livestock ‘solution,’ and explores the values that underpin them. What might happen if the world were really like this? How is success defined in these futures, what sort of dynamic tensions might start to manifest themselves, and what new problems might emerge?

Of course, having drafted a set of scenarios, the obvious question that arises is ‘so what?’ Visions of the future are ten a penny.  The final part of the paper focuses on this ‘so what?’ question and makes the case for more self-critical, exploratory approaches to research, policy and advocacy.


John Forster's picture

I much enjoyed this think piece on the future of livestock production. It captures many of the conflicts and contradictions that seem to be part of the politics of food production today and it is very well written. Well done.


I am an advocate for aquaculture and especially for seaweed aquaculture. You make only one mention of seaweed in the paper when you mention a 'small aquaculture industry' (P 21). As another scenario I wonder why it has to be small? 70% of Earth is covered by sea, providing 70% of Earth's photosynthetic potential. Yet today we obtain <1.5% of our food from all this space. It is a huge untapped resource that offers us a way out of the jam we are in - if we can figure out how best to farm it and resolve the conflicts that use of such space provokes.


 Large scale farming of seaweeds seems to be the most plausible possibility; 23 million metric tons/yr already being farmed worldwide, almost all of it in Asia. These farms use CO2 and nutrients that otherwise contribute to ocean acidification and coastal 'dead zones', do not require freshwater and are probably less vulnerable than terrestrial agriculture to atmospheric temperature fluctuations.  They provide a nutritionally beneficial a source of vegetable matter for direct human consumption or for animal feed, given your emphasis is on livestock production.


The point being that while we may have pushed much of our terrestrial habitat to its limits, we have hardly begun to use the vast photosynthetic production potential of the sea. I offer three references for your readers who would like to learn more:  This is a conference on 'Harnessing Marine Bioresources for Innovations in the Food Industry' to be held in Dublin at the end of June. This is a new book on Seaweed Sustainability to be published later this year. This is a presentation on 'The potential of seaweed culture to provide useful products and ecosystem services'.


Hanna Tuomisto's picture

This is an excellent piece of work that everybody should read. Thanks a lot Tara for writing and publishing this!

Just one thing that I would like to point out is that we may not need to wait for cultured milk (i.e. artificial milk) very long as a startup company named Muufri is already developing the technology.  

Xavier Poux's picture

A very interesting paper indeed, and well written - enjoyable, with a strong sense of humour. Thank you.

However (of course), further comments from a consultant involved in (too) many scenario exercises:

I think that we should go a bit further on the "so what" discussion. Indeed, making the effort of writing stories is useful in order to better know what we want and to better understand the others. But this being said, this just moves the "so what" a step further…

I understand your conclusion as: "some care about the poor people; other about the animals; other about the planet; other about freedom for individual choice"… it takes all kinds to make a world and every vision should be respected; no one can be right alone.


But this does not necessarily makes a sustainable world. The tricky issue is that "right/wrong; good/bad" is a mixture of values, ideologies that have consequences on the way we make use of natural resources. And while our values are incredibly flexible, it seems that we have come to a time when the processes behind these natural resources are altered. You rightly point the role of technologies in your scenarios, but they should be seen not only as embodiment of values but also as media between a society and the environment. My point is that we might think that something is good (from a social perspective) while it is wrong (from an environmental perspective). One must say it is only a question of social value, but I find it difficult to say that climate change and biodiversity loss, just to name the most documented trends, are just social facts (although it is clear that the way to talk about those "natural facts" are a social construct).

This approach has an implication in the writing of narratives: your point to put the light on guts feelings is absolutely necessary. Too many scenarios are unclear about the motivations behind them. But relevant narratives should also consider policies, technologies and environmental dynamics (and not only social judgements on people who care about nature). In this perspective, the value of a scenario is to propose a combination of social and technical, "hard" stories, in order to better anticipate what our societies might become in a changing and constraining environment (those who neglict this point are telling stories I am afraid).

Most scenarios do not take into consideration neither the guts, nor the natural facts. It is a necessity to go into this direction (humour welcome!). Guts, environment. But also logic and rigour. A good story - in this domain - must have internal rationale. It is not so easy to be logical, to tell things that "hold" altogether.

In this perspective, the "what for" of a scenario is not only to better understand who we are and who are the others, but also to play a role in order to address the problem your paper starts from. You rightly point the existence of dominant narratives and power behind them. It is worth telling stories if we believe they can change a dominant trend which seems scary. It's a matter of convincing other actors, whom we think they could change from hearing our stories. After all, we all believe in stories (Harari's Sapiens shows how money - that makes the world go round, right? - is probably the supreme story we unbelievably believe in), and they make us act in a physical world. It is worth a try telling a very good one. Well designed, fancy. All the more if we don't believe in other stories, not only with our guts, but with our brain. We have different values, but logical lines of argumentations can make our values change.