Sustainable food: balancing values including and transcending human and animal

H.J. Nijland, M.N.C. Aarts, C.M.J. van Woerkum

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


Of the biomass of all vertebrates on land, nearly two thirds consists of farm animals, approximately one third are human beings, and only a small percentage are animals in the wild. This shows that, in the relationship between humans, animals and earth, food is by far the most important element: we eat animals for food, claim the habitat of wild animals, often to then use it to grow food for farm animals. This and many other disturbing signals related to the current food system raise the urgent question: how long can this continue - is it sustainable? Sustainability’s familiar motto 'people, planet and profit' has become an empty concept to many, and its emphasis on economics has led to a dangerously skewed situation worldwide. The elements of sustainability are much more diverse, including and transcending the human and the animal, and seeing the whole complex picture inevitably comes with changes and challenges. In this paper presentation I will disentangle the values and perspectives that need to be integrated to reach a sustainable global food system, and to that end introduce an alternative approach to the sustainability concept. Firstly, I will focus on what arguably is one of the, if not the greatest, impediment to sustainability: the tendency of partners in debates about (aspects of) sustainability to have a self-referential attitude (Morgan, 1986). I will use examples from scientific research on sustainable farming systems to illustrate that self-referentially regarding the ontological and epistemological values -or paradigms- from which this research is conducted, has led to an emphasis on the 'objectively provable' in debates about sustainability, dismissing the 'ethical' and the 'aesthetic' as sentimental. I will then deconstruct the values inherent to aspects of sustainability-thinking, using the concept of moral circles (Callicott, 1988; Wenz, 1988) and data from a large study into how people in different contexts construct the acceptability -or non-acceptability- of farming animals for food (Nijland, forthcoming). Conducting and analysing 50 in-depth interviews in the Netherlands and Turkey, showed that the comparative relational distance respondents ascribed between themselves, loved ones, humans and animals in general and nature, corresponds with pronounced values regarding food production and consumption, and with behaviour in favourable/supportive contextual settings. These values encompass, but also go beyond our relation to animals, including our attitudes towards nature, life and death. Behaviours range from consuming meat from any or specific animal species and origins, to flexitarianism and veg(etari)anism. I will conclude with showing that the more comprehensive the moral circles become, the more values get to play a role, and the more complete, balanced, and -unavoidably- complex the dialogue on sustainability becomes. I will illustrate the contemporary lack of non-self-referential integration of all value-perspectives needed to reach sustainability and give recommendations for action, using examples from policy and practice regarding consumption, production, trade and regulations on food. In constructive dialogues, distance is taken from right/wrong-schemes and dilemmas and ambiguity are accepted (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). To reach sustainability, in every arising situation we need to choose to balance values and action, accepting that trade-offs have to be made, while being wary of self-referentiality.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventMinding Animals 2012 -
Duration: 3 Jul 20126 Jul 2012


ConferenceMinding Animals 2012

Cite this

Nijland, H. J., Aarts, M. N. C., & van Woerkum, C. M. J. (2012). Sustainable food: balancing values including and transcending human and animal. Abstract from Minding Animals 2012, .