Thesis Spotlights – Food that Matters: Sustainability and the Material-Discursive Boundaries of Carnist and Vegan Food Practices

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

Steffen Hirth, PhD, United Kingdom

Email: steffen.hirth [at] manchester.ac.uk
Institution: Sustainable Consumption Institute and School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester, UK
Time: September 2015 to March 2019, date of defence: 24th June 2019
Supervisors: Prof. Alan Warde, Dr. Josephine Mylan, Prof. David Evans
Funding: 3-year studentship awarded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute

Acting upon Livestock’s Long Shadow to mitigate climate change, mass extinction, and other social-ecological crises requires fundamental changes in food practices. Labelled as ‘ethical consumers’, vegans, vegetarians and meat-reducing carnists already attract considerable attention. However, food practices on the production side, which are just as much an ethical issue, also require reconfiguration in order to achieve sustainable development. In a critical assessment of tendencies that depict consumer demand as the only legitimate means of change and that depoliticise absolute reductions of animal-sourced foods, this thesis extends the locus of vegan food practices to various productive processes drawing on cases such as stock-based and stockfree farms, retailers, and food-related advocacy networks. By exploring these foodscapes, I examine how the material-discursive boundaries between vegan and carnist food practices are drawn, particularly in response to animal agriculture as a sustainability challenge.

Inspired by practice and materialist turns, my research builds on debates on ethical consumption, responsibility, and sustainability within sociological and geographical food studies. Relational and posthumanist approaches are drawn upon to conceptualise practices and conduct material-discursive analyses. Qualitative methods are applied to outline relations within and between agricultural and retailing foodscapes in Greater Manchester, Derbyshire, and South West England, involving a mix of participant observation (incl. field notes and photography), in-depth interviews with stakeholders on site, and an interpretative examination of their sustainability-related websites and reports.

The findings revolve around the marginal but emerging agricultural and culinary paradigm of ‘vegan organic’ production. It excludes the use of manure, bone meal, or other animal derivatives for the replenishment of soil fertility and relies instead on nutrient-fixing plants and practices such as composting or mulching. Thus, veganism, rather than being a dietary identity, becomes a relationally grounded approach to how vegans and plant foods come into being performatively through material-discursive practices. Conventionally, however, the term ‘vegan’ as applied in both food regulations and everyday life, is merely a label either for people who abjure from animal products or for vegetal products. This dematerialised consumption-based mainstream conception of veganism personalises food practices, confines ethics to a sentimental care for domesticated animals, and depoliticises social-ecological reasons for veganism.

In order to maintain a safe operating space for all life on Earth, I suggest that performing vegan food practices as much as possible is an undogmatic responsibility of ethical producers and consumers alike, regardless of their personal identities as vegans, vegetarians or ‘meat eaters’ (carnists).

Access to full thesis (PDF) on the website of the University of Manchester.

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