In the field of social sciences, there is a lack of research trying to understand how livestock farmers are conceptualizing the recent upward trend in veganism. According to statistics from the Vegan Society,[i] the UK plant-based market was worth £443m in 2018 and plant-based diets are increasingly popular. In addition, it is predicted that meat-eating will reach its peak in 2025, due to the rise of vegan protein sources and the increasing likelihood of lab-grown meat being available worldwide, starting in Singapore. This prediction is also due in part to the recency of the upward trend, though veganism has existed in different cultures for thousands of years.
To provide some more insight into the impact of the upward trend in veganism, I conducted research on how livestock farmers in the UK—and in particular, sheep farmers—are feeling increasingly under pressure from a lack of certainty about the future, distrust in governing bodies, and the vulnerability of their cultural capital; symbolic assets that promote their social mobility and social status within the food system. In the UK, and other urban areas in middle- and high-income countries, the majority of consumers procure their meat from supermarket conglomerates and have little, if any, interaction with livestock rearing or confronting the reality of their meat previously being a live animal, akin to a pet.[ii] Furthermore, by ‘othering’ livestock farmers and misunderstanding their empirical realities such as their own practices of care towards the animals, anti-meat narratives risk polarizing the debate further, despite the intent to contribute to a more ethical, inclusive, and ecologically sustainable planet. To confront these misunderstandings at the heart of this issue, I analyzed anti-meat narratives in a leading vegan lifestyle broadcaster. I used these findings to shape my interviews with farmers, to find out how they construct their feelings and opinions about the narratives which represent them and their livelihoods.
Identifying the vegan narratives
To identify the pertinent vegan narratives, I analyzed over forty articles from LiveKindly, a leading vegan lifestyle broadcaster, chosen between 2017 and 2021. I coded the articles for metaphors, comparisons, similes and rhetorical figures, meaning a way of phrasing a sentence to make it more persuasive. Taking this qualitive approach to a quantitative methodology led to an understanding of the meaning behind the words and created a deeper understanding of the affective and rational arguments being made. The conjuring of relationships and categories which legitimate certain kinds of political beliefs were examined, along with evidentialities such as ‘of course’ and ‘obviously’ that create a suggested tone of ontological realism, meaning that statements are presented as objective facts rather than subjective experiences. Below is a brief summary of the subthemes found through the analysis:
Growing global support was found to be the most common rhetorical figure. By pointing out global support in over half of the articles, it normalizes a vegan lifestyle and an ‘otherness’ of livestock-based lifestyles. The livestock farming is wrongful rhetoric argued that in today’s society, it is paradoxical to claim some animals as pets and others as livestock commodities. The veganism is savior rhetoric phrased the current shifts towards a plant-based diet as not only positive or morally advanced, but as a necessity. Veganism is civilized was the next most popular rhetoric, where individuals who disagreed with vegan ideals, whether it be on the basis of animal sentience or environmental issues, were framed as less well educated and enlightened about these issues. Ingroup doubts about the industry followed this same narrative, however focused on examples whereby farmers had experienced revelations about their practices and had subsequently changed their lifestyle, thus gaining cultural and moral capital in the eyes of LiveKindly writers. Lastly, national and global benefit suggested the continuation of livestock farming is contrary to sustainable development. However, there was no differentiation between different livestock rearing practices, meaning that practices such as regenerative silvopasture and intensive farming were placed into the same category, despite the ideological and pragmatic differences.
These rhetorical arguments highlight and value reciprocal relations of rights and responsibilities among individuals by including the importance of human, animal, and planetary welfare. In theory, it supports some of the key arguments for a new form of prosperity and a move towards moral economy, meaning an emphasis on altruistic, reciprocal relations of rights and responsibilities among members where sustainable development is about reconciling the gains of development with the prospective ecological outlays.[iii] However, this content analysis shows how, like any movement of social change, it can easily play into an oversimplification and villainization of participants in the food network system.
I queried the farmers about what they thought of the rights of animals, a sensitive topic as it is the main front on which they are villainized. However instead of simply highlighting how different both groups and narratives are, these interviews displayed some of the values shared between the farmers and anti-meat advocates. This is exemplified in the quote below:
I believe animals should be treated with great respect and even love, I think you know that’s our relationship to the natural world; should be one of respect and love but you know love can involve management and that can involve killing but killing should be done again with respect so that’s where I stand on that. Climate change issues I think it is much more complicated I mean I think that the vegans have been a little disingenuous in the way they’ve taken that debate and turned it into a big debate, but I understand why they do that. And the carbon footprint of animal products is greater than most it’s kind of incontrovertible, but I think there are more subtle arguments that have to be deployed and one of them is that in different animal products and different farming systems there are different environment impacts and grass-fed beef in the West of England is on a lower carbon footprint than that importing stuff from North America from feedlots.
Furthermore, some of the interviewees were highly aware of the risks of polarization and expressed their own mistrust of our food network.
The last 50 years has represented an aberration in our attitudes and consumption levels of meat, we are overconsuming massively because meat’s become cheap and animals lives become cheap, I don’t agree with any of that. There are a lot of reasons why people go to becoming vegan. But just from the one perspective, which is that you’re doing that because you’re very uneasy about the ethics and morality of eating meat, then I have a lot of sympathy with that as a livestock farmer because we’ve lost our ethics and morality over the last 50 years where we increase efficiency in farming.
While this farmer felt misrepresented by anti-meat narratives, she believed in the importance of not polarizing the debate. She did not approve of those in the farming community who mock vegans or of vegans who accuse all farmers of being barbaric. She believed meat production needs to be pulled back to more niche agriculture without mass production or unsustainable levels of consumption. She talked about the need to sponsor the farming community, not in an economic way but in a social sense. She believed that the government would have to start this by incorporating ethics into policy instead of focusing on trade deals with countries holding different standards. This social change heightened some of the interviewees’ “double consciousness”,[v] an inner conflict about their interpretation of their ontology due to negative narratives constructed around them. This ‘othering’ may risk polarizing the debate further leading to increased marginalization and misrepresentation.
While it is important to highlight how participants’ ontology is questioned by anti-meat narratives, it is also important to note livestock farmers and vegans do not always share completely opposite views. For example, while discussing his view of the fast-food and ready meal culture in Britain another farmer asserted, “People don’t even want to cook, they want ready meals don’t they (…) We try to do our best and it ends up within the industry, in the supermarket and they just rip it apart and chuck it out as cheap as they can.”
Generally speaking, both groups studied in this project believe that we overconsume meat in an unsustainable manner and both desire improvements. Though I do not consume meat myself, history has taught us what happens when polarization and ‘otherness’ is normalised. One of the more worrisome potential effects of this type of marginalization, is that when farmers start to raise the alarm bells that a large proportion of meat sold on supermarket shelves comes from other countries, which has the effect of exporting our responsibility towards the safety of the animals and the related emissions, people may be less willing to listen. Understanding that the mockery of veganism and the villainization of livestock farmers goes hand-in-hand with creating a disjointed plan on how to tackle these global challenges may lead to further cooperation instead.
[i] “Statistics,” The Vegan Society, accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.vegansociety.com/ news/media/statistics.
[iv] George Cusworth, “Falling Short of Being the ‘Good Farmer’: Losses of Social and Cultural Capital Incurred through Environmental Mismanagement, and the Long-term Impacts Agri-environment Scheme Participation,” Journal of Rural Studies 75 (April 2020): 164-73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2020.01.021.
Alina McGregor is a Masters student at the University of Exeter on the MSc Global Sustainability Solutions program. She has a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of Exeter. Alina’s research interests reside in environmental sociology with a focus on economic practices and narrative analysis. For her BA dissertation, she researched the future of lowland sheep farming roles in the face of Brexit and increasing veganism, and the paradoxes that agents in the food network are experiencing. It examined how the growing public awareness of the immediacy of the climate crisis placed pressure on the UK Government to be a leading administration in the redefinition and application of prosperity in a more ecologically sustainable framework.