Q&A with Alasdair Cochrane on the ‘Animal Values and Sustainable Food Production’ workshop

In this Q&A, Merisa chats to Alasdair about his work on animal values and the ‘Animal Values and Sustainable Food Production’ workshop held at the Department of Politics, at the University of Sheffield, on the 31st January and 1st February 2017. The workshop was attended by 19 academics from the UK, Munich and Sydney. A full list of attendees and workshop schedule can be found here.

Q: Hi Alasdair! To start off can you tell us a bit about your work?

A: Hi! Yes, great, so most of my work has been within the fields of animal ethics, environmental ethics, and a bit of bio ethics and I guess what that reveals is that I’ve been really interested in asking questions about how we value things, particularly things that are non-human. I’m also a political philosopher, so I’m interested in connecting debates about valuing non-humans in animal ethics and environmental ethics to political debates, particularly debates about how we should shape our political structures, institutions and policies. So, most of my work is about connecting up questions about valuing non-humans to questions about politics, and how we should organise ourselves collectively.

Q: And why is it important to think about animal values?

A: Animal values have been much discussed within the field of animal ethics for 30/40 years. Peter Singer wrote animal liberation in the mid-70s and since then there’s been a huge volume of literature about how we ought to value them, but there’s been far less discussion until recently about what that means politically. Let’s say that animals count morally, what do we do about that? Peter Singer tells us that we ought to be vegetarian, that we ought to avoid certain products that are tested on animals, so he gives us certain recommendations in terms of personal moral obligations, but what he doesn’t do, because he’s not a political philosopher is tell us what we ought to do collectively, so if animals count morally, how does that effect how we shape our institutions for example? How does it affect how we do democratic politics? That’s the question I’ve been asking in the last few months. And it seems to mean quite a lot. If they count morally, if their interests matter, then surely their interests require representation in our political institutions; maybe we need advocates for animals within our legislatures, and within our other political organisations.

Now you could say that we already have that at the moment in liberal democracy, there are Ministers of Agriculture and there’s also a Minister in charge of animal welfare and so on, but we don’t have good representation of animal interests within liberal democracies because almost always the people in charge of animal welfare or animal interests are also the same people who are in charge of farming. That’s almost always the case and of course there’s a basic conflict of interests there. Farming is about using animal bodies to produce food. And animal interests maybe contrary to that. And they demand a reduction in, or cessation of, animal farming itself. So, my point is if animals count, and they count morally, that has a big political implication which is that their interests should be represented within our institutions and that would have some major policy implications too.

Q: How to this feed into questions of whether we should eat meat or reduce meat consumption?

A: So, I talked a bit about that in my research previously, about what animal interests are, and how they can be balanced against other human interests in consumption and having jobs in farming and so on, and at an ideal level, I do advocate ceasing the consumption of animals, there’s no doubt about that. But as well as working out what we should do at an ideal level we also have to work out what we should do here and now, as a pathway to get to the ideal, and there’s no doubt that moving to an immediate global veganism is going to have some big costs, for human livelihoods, for human health, and so on. And those costs need to be factored in and this is the trick of the global food justice project, it’s about how to balance all the various interests at stake, here and now.

Q: Are there any bodies working in this area at the moment in terms of providing political representation to animals outside of farming interests?

A: Yes, there are, legally there are some really interesting developments in Europe and Latin America, which have seen several states protect animal interests constitutionally, so recognising that animals are sentient beings and have value irrespective of their instrumental value towards humans, that they have intrinsic, independent value in and of themselves and that’s massively important symbolically, to say that animals are important as more than just resources. The effects of that, of those constitutional statements have been pretty poor for one reason or another, but still symbolically that’s an important new development and it may be the basis of future developments to come. Now on top of that there’s also a couple of examples of state’s putting something like an animal protection commission or an animal ombudsman within their political infrastructure. So, there are some ombudsman or animal protection commissions, Austria, Finland I think, but they are few and far between. One of the most interesting developments has since disappeared: there was a Canton in Switzerland which actually had a lawyer to defend animals and it was the job of that individual to prosecute those who are violating animal welfare standards, so there are small developments which represent this idea of embedding animal protection within our political system.

Q: Which EU and Latin American countries have recognised animals constitutionally?

A: In Europe – Switzerland, Germany, Austria – and France has introduced something last year, recognising that animals are more than property so giving them a kind of weird legal status between property and personhood, something like living property. In Latin America, Brazil most clearly, Argentina has recently had an interesting decision about the right of great apes, and then there’s Ecuador and Bolivia that have a kind of constitutional protection of nature more generally, which also includes animals, and of course, I should not forgot India has some of the most progressive statements in its constitution from some of its high court judges regarding our duty to protect animals. I think in the India constitution there is an obligation to protect the dignity of animals.

Q: That’s interesting because out of those in particular, Brazil and Argentina, are some of the largest beef producers and consumers in the world, and India, has a large veal export trade. How do they negotiate that?

A: Yes, I know. So, one of the talks we had at the animal values workshop was from Saskia Stucki (Max Planck Institute) and she was pointing out the German constitutional provision has had almost no effect on the farming industry and the consumption practices of ordinary Germans. She pointed out that there’s an interesting case that tried to use the constitution to ban the practice of grinding up male chicks in the poultry industry, because they are useless in terms of laying eggs, but it failed despite the constitutional provision.

Q: So, there are precedents but they are not always effective at the moment?

A: Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? I guess you could be really pessimistic about it and say, these advancements are just getting swallowed up by economic or cultural or business or political interests. And there’s obviously some truth to that, and yet political and legal change can sometimes be sticky, it’s hard to go back from, so if you can get a constitutional amendment or if you can get some kind of new political institution embodied within your structures, then that can be the basis for future developments, further down the line. That’s the optimistic view

Q: Yes, it could pave the way for future possibilities and new pathways of thinking. It’s interesting because in New Zealand recently a national park has been granted personhood, so legally speaking the land has the same rights as a person.

A: One of the most exciting ideas is from John Hadley an Australian philosopher who talks about giving animals land rights so one way we might conserve their populations is by literally granting them animal property rights over their habitats.

Q: Tell us about the animal values workshop and what your thinking was around that?

A: So, the N8 project has as one of its important strands a desire to look at sustainable diets, so what is a sustainable diet and how can we move towards them. There’s a huge debate about what a sustainable diet is but there is some consensus that the amount of animal products that we are producing and consuming is a barrier to moving towards more sustainable food production and consumption. There is a number of reasons for this, obviously clearing huge swathes of forests in order to put animal farms on, the amount of energy that animal agriculture uses, the carbon and water footprint of animal agriculture. This is all well-known stuff and there is some consensus that reducing animal production and consumption will help us move towards more sustainable food production and consumption. So, how do we actually achieve that reduction? The premise of the workshop was that we need to understand how we value animals, how different groups, different individuals, different actors involved in the production of animals value them. We need to understand how we value animals at present, which has led to the huge increase in their production and consumption and we need to imagine different ways of valuing them. So, it’s about understanding how we value them within the production system, but also how we value them culturally, politically, legally, even individually that allows them to be produced or consumed in that way. The workshop was to get experts in animal values, whether at the production or individual level, together to chat about their research and these ideas.

Q: And the workshop was very interdisciplinary. Why was that and what disciplines were represented?

A: It was important to get people from a variety of disciplines. There’s various obvious ways in which animals are valued: politically, so it was important to have some people with a political background; morally, so they need some philosophers; legally, so literally what is their legal status and it was important to have some lawyers there; how culturally, so important to have some people who understand the ways they are valued across different societies, how they are valued aesthetically, so we need some arts people to talk about how they are valued in that regard; economically, so we need some people who work in political economy and so on. Although, there weren’t too many economists there because how they are valued as resources in current production systems it quite clear, they are valued as economic commodities. The other thing is how the consumer values them, so we had a few different people talking about that. There was someone talking about general household attitudes towards animal welfare and whether people were willing to pay a price. But one of the things that I also found really interesting were people talking about vegan attitudes towards animals and also vegetarians valuing of animals and how they vary from other groups and also within the groups, one of the most interesting things was the vegetarians’ attitudes and how they place different values on different animals and how some animals were in and some animals were out, so there were people identifying as vegetarians who ate chicken and insects so they valued animals clearly in very different ways, even in that different group.

Q: So, for you, what came out the workshop? Were there any surprises, what were your takeaways?

A: One of the most interesting things relates to that last point, it was really interesting to see how different groups value animals; I was really interested in the stuff on the vegans and the vegetarians. It was fascinating, and also the farmers, Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter) spoke about how farmers valued animals and even they had different consumption patterns themselves, so will only eat animals that they’ve reared, there’s some really interesting research there, that was fascinating. I was surprised by that focus, how different groups value animals in very different ways. It also reminded me that if we take the project forward we have to engage very seriously with the religious, spiritual, and cultural dimension of valuing animals, how some animals are really prized and some animals are less so. And prized at particular times, even if that prizing may lead to its death, it may lead to millions of animals being slaughtered, even though it’s valued very highly. So, there are lots of contradictions there.

One thing that was less surprising, but important, was debates about what we mean by sustainability. I think at the heart of a lot of the discussions was disagreements about what sustainable food production and consumption would look like and for some it was very anthropocentric so it was about sustainability for humans, and others took for granted a more kind inter-species sustainability so sustainability must also mean sustainable resources, sustainable health, and so on, for animals too, and of course that can lead to very different implications depending on what model of sustainability you are using.

Q: As a political theorist and philosopher how would you deal with disagreements over these meanings?

A: Well one of the good things about political philosophy is defining the terms and having clear definitions. So, I think it’s going to be important to have a clear sense of what sustainability means, and that’s really tricky because there’s been so many debates about sustainability for the last 30 years or so, it’s tempting to say let’s just forget about them and move on, but I don’t think we can, because you can see in the workshop that it has huge policy implications, so some people are advocating certain things and saying it’s quite simple, sustainability means this, therefore we should do that, as a sort of practical real question. Whereas other people were like no sustainability means something broader, it’s not so obvious at all what the implications are so I don’t think we can avoid those really hard questions about those definitional questions.

Q: And how do we feed those difficulties and tensions into political debates if the ultimate goal is to move towards representing animals in political debates? Is there a clear path to that?

A: There’s not a clear path, but I also don’t think it’s as difficult or as fantastical as it might seem. I think there is broad agreement, I think it is revealing how many states have put the value of animals in their constitutions, it shows that there is a broad appetite to acknowledge that animals have value. And once you recognise that animals have value, the idea that they also need to be represented also seems fairly straightforward. I think there’s almost a cultural/societal appetite for that. When I’ve presented that idea very few people think that it’s crazy. People think it’s sensible, if you called it something like the Ministry for Animal Interests or something, most people would say that does seem to be reasonable or fair. But, the problem is structural change within a political system and how to achieve that and usually that takes an enormous amount of political will and there isn’t that political will amongst our electorate at the moment, Brexit is their main concern and other priorities. So it needs a huge amount of political will that isn’t there at the moment, or it takes some kind of crisis, some kind of conflict and then a reimagining of what our structures are, and unfortunately, I think the latter is more likely to lead to developments in animal representation than the former. What I mean is, if you look at avian flu epidemics at the moment and anti-bacterial resistance and so on, which is related to antibiotics in food animals, there’s a clear relationship between animal agriculture and human health. And it wouldn’t surprise me if that leads to some crisis, hopefully, it won’t be anything horrific, but some kind of crisis that leads us to rethink animal agriculture, which also allows us to bring some of our moral beliefs, which I think are already there back into our political processes and systems, so my guess is that that may be the way in which those kind of changes occur.

Q: How do you see the animal values working fitting into broader global food justice work? And what does global food justice mean to you?

A: Global food justice involves balancing a range of different interests which are at stake in the production and consumption of food and there are classic interests which are always there when we’re talking about food sovereignty, food security and food justice too – they’re health, sustainability, livelihoods, and animals – and animals welfare is there sometimes but very rarely which is just a real shame in my view, because most of us think that animals matter in some regard, therefore they also should be there in those debates, so it’s important to have animal values in those debates about what food justice is.

And what food justice is I guess, is the fairest and best way of balancing all the various interests at stake of all the various stakeholders. Now there are a huge number of interests and there are a huge number of stakeholders and for me the stakeholders are enormous because I include animals and I also include future generations. That makes it really tough. So, global food justice is the best, the fairest way of balancing all the various interests at stake. I don’t know what the answer is in terms of the best and fairest balance, that’s the whole point of the project. That’s what makes it exciting and it’s incredibly tough, but I don’t think that should make us walk away from it because balancing interests in relation to these complex policy issues is precisely what we ought to be doing, we’ve got to balance all the interests at stake when it comes to issues of migration or healthcare or the distribution of resources in a society. That’s precisely what you do. There are various stakeholders and various interests at stake and you try to work out what the fairest and best way of balancing them is. In terms of food there are lots of interests and stakeholders, but we should confront it and try to resolve that.

Q: Have you been ruminating on anything in particular since the workshop? And what are the next steps?

A: The workshop was great because we got this huge spectrum of views and research about how we value animals and how we might value them differently, and there was a will amongst the participants and amongst the people who organised it in Sheffield to get a bit more focused. So, it’s really great now to have this taxonomy of animal values, which we’ve got now, and it’s massive. And now we need to move on a little bit and say let’s nail down the cultural value of animals, let’s talk a little more about how animals are valued culturally, have a whole workshop on that. Maybe two days just on that, then two days on the legal valuing of animals, because that’s really interesting, we only skimmed the surface of those, of what’s been going on in Germany and Switzerland, and as you’ve just pointed out, it would be really interesting to look at those beef producers in Argentina and Brazil and think about how their constitutional protection plays out. That’s not to say you can’t do a project on animal values in isolation, from one single discipline, but I think it’s time to get a bit more precise about the different ways of valuing animals and then to think about where to go from there.

Q: Great, thanks Alasdair! We look forward to hearing more about animal values as the project progresses, and will continue to report on developments on this blog.

This workshop was funded by the N8 Agri-food Programme.


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