Review: Livestock: Food, Fiber, and Friends

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Nicole Welk-Joerger

Erin McKenna. Livestock: Food, Fiber, and Friends. The University of Georgia Press, 2018. 234 pp.

Of the many conversations about food preferences today, whether one chooses to eat meat or not remains a polarizing debate. Historically, humans have relied on animals as important sources of protein. The present-day industrialized livestock system in the United States is the product of decades of effort to produce more food in the quickest, most efficient ways. However, in our current moment of looming antibiotic resistance and climate change, present day meat production proves unsustainable. So how do we move forward? Occupying a critical middle ground to these discussions, philosopher Erin McKenna provides a fresh, honest approach to this long-standing debate about eating animals in her reflective text, Livestock: Food, Fiber, and Friends.

Using grounded examples from surveys, interviews with farmers, and visits to farms across the US west coast, McKenna proposes “pragmatist ecofeminism” as an exploratory framework to help better diagnose and define the current issues plaguing U.S. industrialized animal agriculture. Influenced significantly by John Dewey’s concept of the “transactive relationship,” McKenna focuses on the biological realities of working with animals, and how these relationships have changed based on the social, political, and economic circumstances that have affected how humans live, work with, and use livestock.

Testing her framework, McKenna examines the six dimensions of pragmatism through her farm-based cases: naturalism, pluralism, developmentalism, experimentalism, fallibilism, and amelioration (39). The resulting ten chapters are roughly divided by species. Each chapter provides a distinct take on an animal, its history, the commodities humans gain from them, and how a given farmer’s relationship with said animal reinforces or challenges prior theoretical engagements about food, nature, and welfare. McKenna’s interventions into the literature speak particularly to how farmers’ attitudes toward the nonhuman world can impact their practice. She illustrates how different attitudes can exist about a given animal based on interconnected circumstances (pluralism), and presents examples for when farmers reevaluate their practices based on past mistakes (fallibilism), to improve livestock living conditions (amelioration). Melding points from pragmatism with ecofeminism, McKenna attempts to demonstrate through these farm examples that theory and practice are inseparable, and that moderate views concerning livestock are necessary because all views are partial, and all people are fallible.

Chapters 6 and 7 best illustrate McKenna’s follow-through of the pragmatist ecofeminist approach, as she interrogates familiar scholarship and clearly outlines how gender and sex valuation affects food producing animals. In chapter 6, McKenna critically analyzes Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver, two authors who inspired some of the farmers she interviewed. She provides crisp attention to Berry and Kingsolver’s blame of the women’s movement for the prevalence of the processed food, and carefully points out the privileges of these writers, among others, who do not have to regularly perform physically demanding farm labor (136). In chapter 7, McKenna describes the intricacies of lactating dairy animals. She notes the importance of Val Plumwood’s call for “contextual eating” while acknowledging Carol Adams’ argument that livestock operations inherently reinforce female exploitation, with pregnancy and lactation cycles controlled by dairy farmers. McKenna complicates this literature by placing it in conversation with the Five Freedoms assessment for animal welfare, a framework used by one of her informants (150). The result is a thoughtful chapter illustrating tangible possibilities for respecting livestock.

Although the book attends primarily to questions of nonhuman respect, McKenna also touches on the consequences of industrialized livestock production for humans.  In chapter 10, McKenna adds the perspective of human workers, addressing the physical and mental dangers of working in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. The second half of the chapter attends to the various “alternative” proposals to food animal production, from diversifying livestock to lab-grown meat, and challenges their human-centric, absolutist framework. McKenna succeeds at moderating the minutiae of problems and solutions to food animal systems throughout the book, including attention to human inequity and the role of colonization, racism, and classism. However, some readers may be left wanting more examples in this vein or more time devoted to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) scholarship (albeit brief, McKenna does cite black theorist, A. Breeze Harper).

Scholars designing syllabi touching on issues of animal agriculture in food studies, animal studies, philosophy, and ecofeminism will find Livestock useful to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the foundational and popular texts addressing animal welfare. McKenna has a gift for distilling complex philosophical theories and skillfully placing them in conversation with one another. Through this, McKenna highlights the strengths and pitfalls of these many arguments by tapping into her empirical examples, which aid to complicate the assumptions and generalizations inherent in many of these philosophical discussions. 

Although McKenna weaves together an essential conversation between scholars concerned with livestock welfare, her overall emphasis on philosophical and popular scholarship limits the historical sections of the book. McKenna argues that understanding the long-standing historical relationships between humans and animals, evolutionary and cultural, is crucial for successfully executing an empathetic pragmatist inquiry. However, important historians who have engaged with similar concerns and questions are left out of the conversation, including Edmund Russell[1] (evolutionary history), William Cronon[2] (defining wilderness), and Susan Nance[3] (animal biology in history). Scholarly attention to animals expands widely across disciplines and genres, making the literature vast and impossible to comprehensively address. Although McKenna does make crucial nods to histories of science and animals, including works by Donna Haraway and Virginia Anderson, interrogating other historians would have made her argument for historical contingency stronger.

Despite its omissions and limitations, Livestock provides an important “middle-view” to the polarizing ethical debates about rearing and eating animals. The book’s strengths come from McKenna’s numerous farm visits and interviews with farmers, which demonstrate that there is not (and cannot be) a one-size-fits-all approach to caring for fish, ruminants, pigs, or chickens. Although these examples are geographically restricted to the western coast of the US, they demonstrate the many ways different types of farmers wrestle with the physical and emotional realities of farm life. In addition to successfully demonstrating how livestock are intrinsically entangled with humans, regardless of consumer choices, McKenna reveals that empathy and human-animal friendship can help combat current “factory” models.


Nicole Welk-Joerger is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her current research focuses on human-animal relations in food production.

[1] Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[2] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28.

[3] Susan Nance, Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).