The shifting position of animals in our food system

How can alternative voices about the position of animals in the agri-food system be highlighted, countering and reframing dominant narratives about human-animal and human-environment relationships? In her master thesis, Marie Oltmer looks into three Dutch food initiatives’ construction of alternative discourses about animals in the agri-food system.
The transformation of the global food system towards a more sustainable and just system concerns all of us. Everyone needs food. Access, availability and affordability of food, as well as food choice are connected to freedom, democratic processes and aspects of cultural identity, as much as to processes of exclusion, exploitation and oppression manifested in asymmetric power dynamics. With the human population steadily growing on the global level, also the production and consumption of food originating from animals, such as meat, fish, eggs or dairy products, is rising.[1] This has severe implications for the planet and people, however, most directly for the animals. In the animal-based food sector, the power imbalance between humans and animals is particularly striking. Although many studies critically research the food system, no systematic attention is drawn to the perspectives of animals.
For analysing the role of alternative discourses in shifting the position of animals in the agri-food system, three Dutch initiatives and their way of constructing such discourses were examined as case studies. These initiatives are (1) the Party for the Animals (PvdD) – a political party that stands up for the legal representation of animals, (2) the Better Life label (beter leven keurmerk) – an instrument for the improvement of animal welfare in the current farming system and (3) the Herenboeren (Farming Communities) – a concept, practice and movement promoting and implementing a method for a more sustainable and community-oriented production of food. In my thesis I used insights from the fields of anthropology, sustainability transitions research and discourse studies.
Positive Discourse Analysis
The way we use language plays a crucial role in the transformation of dominant understandings about human-animal and human-environment relationships. In my thesis, I focused on discursive practices of resistance to and emancipation from prevailing forms of social domination, instead of merely concentrating on power abuse. As Nelson Mandela said:
“If discourse analysts are serious about wanting to use their work to enact social change, then they will have to broaden their coverage to include discourse of this kind — discourse that inspires, encourages, heartens; discourse we like, that cheers us along.”[2]
Discourse describes complex relationships between language and society, presenting “an important form of social practice which both reproduces and changes knowledge, identities and social relations including power relations”[3]. As Fairclough acknowledges, on the one hand discursive practice reproduces discursive structures, but on the other hand it also challenges it by using words that are positioned outside of such structures. In my thesis, I used Positive Discourse Analysis (PDA) to analyse how the three initiatives construct alternative discourses on the position of animals in our food system. PDA proved to be particularly helpful here, due to its exploration of emancipatory discourses. Through PDA we can analyse the discursive strategies through which marginal discourses get propelled into the mainstream and how dominant frames get contested.
Three initiatives – many approaches
All three initiatives follow different approaches to shift the position of animals in the agri-food system, involving very different actors and operating in different institutional logics. Whereas the PvdD mainly uses discursive strategies for criticising existing structures of social domination and drawing attention to the ‘wrongs’, the Herenboeren take up the role of discursively and practically creating an alternative to existing structures. These two approaches can be said to be rather complementary, with similar values being propelled through different discourses. The Better Life label takes a very market-oriented approach, mainly operating within the discursive logic of the market and putting particular emphasis on the perspective of farmers. It has to be acknowledged that there is not one way to shift the position of the animal in the farming system, making it more sustainable and just, but many ways to do so.
A more humane and less human approach
According to the advocate of animal equality Peter Singer, humans and animals share the capacity to suffer as much as the capacity to enjoy their lives.[4] Animals have always played a significant role in humans’ lives. As provider of companionship they become our friends, as war instruments they boosted us to power, as supplier for clothing they keep us warm, and as source of food they become the steak on our plate. In the global food system, it seems that animals rather hold the position of a commodity, a thing, than that of an actual living being with our relation to animals being rather schizophrenic. I see a potential in drawing more attention to the perspectives of animals in the transformation of the current farming industry. More and more initiatives are sprouting up, speaking out for changing relations between humans, animals and nature, the re-thinking of such socially-constructed categorisations, as well as the de-commodification of food. How do we justify the treatment of nonhuman animals, such as keeping them for food production, and how do alternative discourses about the position of animals in our food system transform the way we treat and relate to animals and the environment? 
As the philosopher Richard David Precht said, we (human animals) can only imagine how it is to be an animal through human perspective (Vermenschlichung).[5] Humans might never be able to really understand what it entails and how it feels to be an animal. The acknowledgement of this limitation of human perception and knowledge calls for a less human-centric perspective on the concept of animal welfare and human-animal relationships. Consequently, a more humane approach to animal welfare, must be a less human one. Moreover, we need a more critical, integrative and interdisciplinary perspective for the study of the position of animals in our food system.
Are you interested in learning more about the topic? Read Marie’s thesis here.
[1] Fourat, E., & Lepiller, O. (2017). Forms of Food Transition: Sociocultural Factors Limiting the Diets’ Animalisation in France and India. Sociologia Ruralis, 57(1), 41–63.

[2] Hughes, J. (2018). Progressing Positive Discourse Analysis and/in Critical Discourse Studies: Reconstructing resistance through progressive discourse analysis. Review of Communication, 18(3), 193-211.

[3] Jørgensen, M., & Phillips, L. J. (2011). Critical Discourse Analysis. In Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method (pp. 60–92). London: SAGE Publications.

[4] Leuven, J. (2017). The theory and practice of contemporary animal rights activism. Krisis: Journal for contemporary philosophy, 2, 1-12.

[5] Precht, R.D. (2016). Tiere denken: Vom Recht der Tiere und den Grenzen des Menschen. Goldmann Verlag.



October 14, 2019