Knowledge for better food systems

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Reflecting on livestock controversies: perspectives from civil society and researchers

September 22, 2020
Helen Breewood

This post is written by Helen Breewood, Research and Communications Officer at the FCRN. She also blogs about solving global sustainability issues at The Progress Motive. You can find her on Twitter.

Image: Meeeeting, England Cows Wall, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence

Debates on the future of livestock and other protein sources are often highly contentious and can be approached and understood in divergent ways by different groups of stakeholders. Earlier this year, the FCRN, Oxford’s Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) programme and the Eating Better alliance collaborated on a series of interviews and a workshop designed to understand how both civil society (i.e. NGOs - non-governmental organisations) and academic researchers think about research gaps in the debate on sustainable livestock and protein. In this blog post, we outline our findings and recommendations.

Over its 15 years of existence, the FCRN has engaged with a variety of stakeholders, particularly civil society. NGOs have a key role in shaping active debates and are highly alert to issues of emerging concern or contestation. We therefore wanted to know which debate topics civil society feels could be moved forward by the provision of new research or better communication of existing research. We analysed a series of interviews with senior civil society representatives (based mostly in the UK) to identify five clusters of questions where civil society felt more research is needed.

We then brought together civil society and academic researchers from the LEAP programme in an online workshop. The aim was for researchers to listen to and understand the concerns of civil society, gather ideas for how they can keep their future research societally relevant, and share their own reflections on the research gaps identified through the series of interviews.

The final five clusters of research questions, refined during the workshop by both researchers and civil society, were:

  1. Good protein, bad protein? What are the social, health, economic and environmental impacts of producing and consuming different sources of protein? Participants categorised different protein sources in several ways, including product type (red meat, white meat or plant proteins), degree of processing (processed meat and highly processed plant-based foods versus unprocessed meat and legumes) and type of production system (grass-fed versus feedlot livestock, and agroecological versus conventional crop systems).
  2. Measuring methane. Participants wanted to know more about the policy implications of using GWP* instead of GWP­100 to measure the climate impacts of short-lived greenhouse gases, with a focus on methane. Particular areas of concern were the climate impacts of ruminant agriculture and the importance of the GWP* debate relative to other factors such as land use change, animal welfare and livelihoods.
  3. Salvation by soils. Participants sought more information on the extent to which soils and “regenerative” farming practices offer a climate solution and how soils behave under different conditions. A particular area of uncertainty was whether soils can (in some circumstances) continually sequester carbon through an ongoing increase in soil depth, rather than reaching a saturation point beyond which no net carbon is added to the soil.
  4. Just transitions. Participants wanted to know more about the impacts of protein transitions on farmers and other workers throughout the food supply chain. This concern was not limited to livelihoods but also encompassed loss of culture, access to practical knowledge of new farming systems and global justice.
  5. Public attitudes and actions on protein shifts. Civil society felt there is a need for more understanding of how behaviour change happens or could happen in the context of polarisation around food topics, how the public understands research outputs and how opinions are influenced by values and beliefs.

These are by no means a comprehensive set of topics since our process was limited in several ways. For a start, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the workshop, which had originally been planned as a half-day physical workshop, was instead held as a two-hour Zoom event, which inevitably limited the depth and richness of the discussion possible. Moreover, the researchers we involved were all from the LEAP programme here at Oxford, and thus represented a limited subset of the research community. A more thorough approach would need to involve a far wider set of actors and would require a more detailed, structured (and time-consuming) process. That said, we feel that the five areas we have identified are important elements of today’s food debates. We would welcome your comments on this list of research priorities and of others that you feel should be added.

One thing that we noticed as we reflected on the process and began writing up our report, was that there are some broad differences in how civil society and researchers understand the debates and view the role of research.

We recognise that many variations in both perspectives and approaches exist within both civil society and academia and it would be both inaccurate and unhelpful to overgeneralise. Nevertheless, we think that the differences, such as there are, are useful to explore and articulate because a deeper mutual understanding of the different roles played by civil society and researchers can help both groups to work effectively. With these caveats, the main comparisons we noticed between the groups were:

  • Researchers were eager to identify researchable questions – not just topics of interest – that can be addressed by a suitably designed study. Civil society, in contrast, were often concerned that studies can be overly reductionist – as they see and define it – and that research results might be communicated by the media or certain interest groups in a way that does not do full justice to the complexity of their social context.
  • Several civil society representatives wanted researchers to reach a consensus and strongly communicate this consensus to policymakers. However, since researchers typically see their role as conducting research impartially, some may be uncomfortable with seeking a consensus between researchers if that would involve overlooking legitimate disagreements. They may argue that it is the role of policymakers, not researchers, to combine both research outputs and subjective values to reach a decision on which action to take.
  • Even where there is some degree of scientific consensus, people – including civil society representatives – may interpret or use the same evidence in different ways. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the GWP* debate, where some argue that GWP* “absolves” ruminant livestock of some responsibility for climate change, whereas others argue that GWP* makes clear that livestock are an effective target for climate mitigation.
  • There was some disagreement about who is responsible for preventing the misinterpretation of scientific evidence. Some in civil society wanted researchers to be more careful in how they communicate their results to different audiences, while some researchers felt too great a burden was being placed on researchers to avoid producing research that has the potential to be miscommunicated.

Further work could help civil society and researchers to better appreciate each other’s methods and approaches. Some possible approaches include:

  • Webinars given by individual researchers to several civil society members to explain their research on a specific topic and answer queries about the implications for policy and civil society’s work.
  • Webinars given by individual civil society representatives to several researchers to explain their field of work, concerns, theory of change and use of research.
  • Blog posts produced by researchers and civil society to explain their work, invite comment and prompt debates.

The forthcoming Table initiative – read more in Tara Garnett’s blog post RIP the FCRN – and long live Table – also plans to host dialogue between stakeholders with the aim of understanding how evidence, values, training and ideological mindsets influence people’s conclusions and decisions. We will trial different dialogue methods including interviews, workshops, a series of blogs and in-depth analysis of the state of debate on particular food systems topics.

We are very grateful to the Livestock, Environment and People programme (funded by the Wellcome Trust) for making this project possible through their financial and practical support. To read more about the interviews, workshop, research priorities identified and our reflections on the roles that civil society and researchers fulfil, read the full report here. To join the discussion or make suggestions for how researchers and civil society can engage with each other productively, send a message to our Google Group or use the comments form below.

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