The Ways In Which We Choose To Frame Animal Agriculture In A Social Context

Exploiting natural resources has become ingrained in our culture. With our ever growing population, animal agriculture has flourished. We continue to demand more from Earth and because of this, we are set to destroy all of our forests within 100 years if this pace continues. The enormity of the situation often serves only to highlight what seems to be our powerlessness to reverse what we put in motion at the beginning of the first industrial revolution. However, the power to help the environment is not only in the hands of world leaders and governments. As environmentally conscious individuals, a critical step is reducing our carbon footprint.

Agriculture, especially animal agriculture, is one of the most impactful industries on our planet. The livestock industry creates 14.5 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture contributes to 56 percent of all non-CO2 emissions globally as well as being responsible for 75 percent of global deforestation. These facts and many others all lead to one, ominous assertion -- this brand of consumption cannot be sustained any longer. There is no question that we must do something about our depleting natural resources, and we must do it quickly. Given the impact of agricultural industries on our environment, the future of our planet is intimately connected with the ways in which we choose to frame animal agriculture in a social context. William Cronon describes ‘frames’ as a way to propose a problem, thus forcing a discussion. Framing creates a narrative that allows people to talk about an issue and create a space to solve it. Unfortunately, through framing, we simplify and thus, “inevitably sanction[s] some voices while silencing others”. The way we frame issues is affected by our personal values, agendas, and other extrinsic motivators, especially money. Thus, certain facts are emphasized over others. Within the arena of environmental policy making, framing is an important tactic that either moves laws through or completely tables them. When faced with the issue of animal agriculture, we are confronted with two opposing frames.

The first frame views nature through a romanticized lens, valuing the beauty of nature and maintaining a perspective of conservation. The other dominant frame highlights human use and capitalism, believing we have the right triumph over nature and are entitled do so for capital gain. This assumes humans are the sole decision makers of our land, giving us the right to use it. In short, this frame asserts that humans are separate and superior to nature. Within the context of animal agriculture, the latter frame asserts that humans have a right to clear land for our cattle to graze on, while the former is deeply concerned with animal agriculture’s ability to destroy the planet.

Aldo Leopold, an early conservationist and a father of modern environmentalism, embodies the first frame. Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” highlights how our misunderstanding of nature can lead to its destruction. Thus, this frame explores animal agriculture from a different moral foundation and may draw upon animal rights to bolster their arguments. He explains that our distance from the natural world means people much more readily engage in activities that destroy our environment without thinking about the consequences. For example, “about 10 million square kilometres of land will be cleared by 2050 to meet food demand, leading to annual emissions of 3,000 million toes of CO2 equivalent”, but we will never witness the true consequences from our disconnected urban landscapes. Through this, Leopold attacks the second framework and asserts that in order to move towards widespread change, we must go back to the old outdoors, one untouched by the human hand. Leopold describes that, “In wildness is the salvation of the world”.

Thus, nature is our savior here and we should accept it for its natural beauty, instead of forcing unnatural practices on it. This posture is more radical in nature and used by non-governmental organizations and other social groups. Education and grassroots movements are heavily relied upon to expose the deleterious effects of animal agriculture to the public. The frame is further developed by politicians who refuse to fall to corporate greed, thus do not accept donations from “Big Ag” businesses. We can view this frame through the example of Senator Cory Booker. On March 22nd 2018, he introduced the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) Improvement Act. This was an attempt to make EQIP, an environmental conservation program embedded within the Farm Bill, more effective. Booker sought for federal funds to help farmers implement and maintain conservation practices. The EQIP Improvement Act reveals the key players in the animal agriculture debate; the farmers and politicians. Without politicians creating policy that represents a conservationist framework, farmers are unable to carry out sustainable practices. Unfortunately, business interests and money tend to win in policy debates, making this frame less dominant in terms of actionable policies. Perhaps the only way this romanticized frame can become common is through social action, instead of being played out in the courts. In July the shared workspace company, WeWork, announced that it was going vegetarian because of the environmental concerns associated with meat.

All major media outlets have now covered this story, bringing more attention to the frame that we must honor the earth. In the current information era, this framework is accessible to all. The plethora of data on animal agriculture is reliable and well documented on all forms of media, allowing the facts to be widely realized at this point in time. Information drives action, which is why social movement is so critical within the frame. Politicians, too, can fit within the frame if they stand up against the status quo and refuse to accept donations from large agriculture corporations. This lens re-conceptualizes the agriculture movement, which has existed for thousands of years. Overall, this framework is best achieved in many ways, ranging from socially prominent individuals and platforms to governmental intervention.

The second frame is much more prevalent and is guided by the assertion that humans should be valued above everything else. Thus, nature is inferior and must be controlled. The frame has roots in the bible as, “God said unto them… replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion… over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. If one believes that we have dominion over earth, the extensive land clearing and water use for cattle is of no issue to them. Within this lens, we seem to forget about the native peoples we have cleared out and the populations we have silenced. The extent of animal agriculture would not have been possible without the removal of indigenous people. While this framework recognizes this as an evil, they see it as a necessary evil to reach their capitalist goals. Many politicians, especially those hailing from the farm belt, subscribe to this framework. Agricultural businesses also submit to this framework as a way to maximize their profits. Big businesses consider their actions to be normal, because if they don’t utilize the land for their cattle, another company will seize the opportunity to do so. The corporate ladder is steep and companies must continue to expand in order to stay on top. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and philosopher, explains that conservatives tend to think in short term profit frames which assume that “greed is good” and weigh the economic “benefits vs. costs”.

This is in stark contrast to the personal responsibility stance we see in the first frame. This framework can be traced back to the Progressive era’s belief that we must dominate, construct, and use nature. This frame is dominant because companies in the animal agriculture sector tend to be oligopolies that have vast control and power over the market and policies. For example, over the past decade, Monsanto and Bayer (now one entity), spent a combined $120 million on lobbying. Thus, they have great influence on the regulatory bodies of our government, revealing that our governing system is both extremely similar to and deeply entrenched with the private sector. To understand this lens, we must follow the money as it reveals why certain policies and practices are allowed. Understanding is the key to everything. When we fail to understand, as individuals, as societies, or as a species, we are unable to find the empathy within ourselves to care.

We create frames as a way to understand problems and find ways to solve them. The two frameworks within animal agriculture are at odds with one another, which breeds hostility. Personal differences along with political and monetary motivations are getting in the way of understanding. Humankind’s strong will has brought us to this point of prosperity in the short time since the first Industrial Revolution, but it will just as soon destroy us and our planet if we allow it. At this critical moment in our history, we must form a mutual human understanding in order to unite the opposing frames in this and other issues in hopes to save our planet and our species.

13 January 2020
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