Mini-Report of the Extinction and Livestock Conference 2017

We Need to Talk About Power

In early October, as part of my post-doctoral research on ethical tensions in UK food systems, I spent two days immersed in Compassion in World Farming’s (CIWF) ‘Extinction and Livestock’ conference in London (held in partnership with WWF-UK). CIWF Chief Executive Officer, Philip Lymbery, opened the event by declaring that the organisation’s intention is to put itself out of business by 2050 by putting an end to factory farming.

The aim of the conference was to make a unique causal connection between biodiversity loss and food production, and in particular, industrial food production and factory farming. It brought together a range of speakers and ‘thought leaders’ to discuss how we can move towards ‘a flourishing food system for wildlife, farm animals and us’. By joining these dots, CIWF hopes to better connect concerns about animal welfare and the environment at a time when these questions could not be more pressing.

CIWF’s advocacy mantra is ‘eat less, but better meat’. However, there was a kaleidoscopic range of attendees and speakers from all over the world: scientific experts; farmer, animal welfare, environmental, faith, development, nutrition, business and charitable organisations; plant-based and animal-based food entrepreneurs and processors; animal welfare and certification bodies; as well as relatively new actors on the scene, such as investor initiatives. Consequently, there was unsurprisingly much contestation over the question of whether, in fact, we should eat animals and products derived from them at all, what type of food system we should be striving for and how we ought to go about achieving it.

Debates and discussion raged about myriad issues, such as: reaching our planetary boundaries; the impact of livestock on the natural world and societies; sustainability; veganism; plant-based proteins; the viability of corporate and investor solutions; the politics and ethics of eating animals; what constitutes a healthy diet; contestation over the types of measurement and scientific evidence used to compare the impacts of plant-based versus animal-based foods; solutions that work for people, the planet and animals alike; and the policy dimensions of how we move towards and achieve a ‘flourishing food system’.

One key question raised, both in my mind, and often by attendees more than speakers, was the extent to which business-focused, corporate and technical fixes – such as plant-based entrepreneurialism – (often promoted as an alternative) can offer real change, as these ‘solutions’ tend to take place within established structures of power rather than challenging them. At the conference, these questions of power, were particularly flagged-up by Nourish Scotland, and by speakers – Tim Lang, Han Herren and Raj Patel. The resounding message of their interventions, was that we need to be having significantly more critical discussions about the nature of power, concentration, control and inequity in the current food system, and the imperative of increasing democratisation and participation in future food policy decision-making.

With this in mind, some of the presentations that resonated with me most, each touched, in distinctive ways on issues of power and justice in the political economy of food:

Han Herren – ‘SDGs: challenge or opportunity’
Katherine Richardson – ‘Livestock and the boundaries of our planet’
Tim Lang – ‘Our problematic food system’
Raj Patel – ‘Livestock production and human rights’
Carl Safina – ‘Beyond words: what animals think and feel’
Dave Goulson – ‘Bees versus robots’[1]

Another glaring issue raised by Jimmy Smith in his presentation on ‘the role of livestock in developing countries’, is the appropriateness of Western-centric policy messages for developing nations that need to eat more meat.

Despite contestation over whether or not we should eat meat, the character and consequences of corporate control in the food system, concentration of power, and global inequities, the resounding consensus at the conference was that our food system needs to change, and this must include a reduction in the amount of meat and animal products produced and eaten, along with the elimination of factory farming.

I hope to write more on this in the future, so watch this space!

[1] According to conference organisers, videos of all the presentations will soon be available on the CIWF website.

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