Over the past fifty years the scale of animal farming has increased and livestock farming has intensified. At the same time, Western societies has become more urbanized and fewer people have close family members involved in farming. As a result most citizens have little knowledge or direct experience of what farming entails. These developments are leading to changes in public attitudes towards animal farming in Western society, with more people expressing concern over issues such as farm animal welfare. This has led to more public demand for more sustainable ways of animal farming.
Sustainable development is a contested concept and has been defined in numerous ways, which have been widely debated and discussed. A central concept of sustainability is that ‘future generations should not be harmed’. Many studies refer to three pillars of sustainability; the economic, the environmental and the social. To date, little research has been carried out on the social pillar of sustainable animal farming. The aim of this thesis is therefore to gain insights into the socio-cultural sustainable development of animal farming systems. Socio-cultural sustainable development is defined by public perceptions: which include the concerns about, and underlying meanings of, animal farming held by the general public. These are socially constructed and stem from specific socio-cultural contexts. This thesis focuses on social perceptions of animal farming, to gain insights in the socio-cultural aspects of sustainable animal farming.
This thesis starts by identifying aspects of dairy farming systems which are of concern to the general public – i.e. socio-cultural issues. It explains the background of these issues, the underlying collective meanings of animal farming. It also seeks to understand the factors that influence people’s (individual) perceptions of animal farming. People’s perceptions of animal farming depend on their frame of reference. This study focuses on four factors (which together form a frame of reference) which could influence perceptions of animal farming; values, convictions, knowledge and experiences. In summary, the thesis addresses the following three research questions:
1) What aspects of present day animal farming systems are citizens concerned about?
2) What collective meanings are attached to animal farming?
3) What factors influence people’s perceptions of animal farming?
Methodology: a two-pronged approach
The study focuses on social attitudes in the Netherlands and Norway towards dairy farming. The Netherlands is very densely populated, agriculture and the countryside are under considerable pressure and the boundaries between urban and rural areas are becoming less clear. Norway was chosen as the comparison country, as it is less urbanized, has a lower population density and less intensive agriculture than the Netherlands. The study focused on dairy farming because it is less intensive compared to other livestock sectors (such as pig or poultry farming) and people are likely to have fewer prejudices or fixed concerns towards dairy farming. The thesis seeks to explore people’s attitudes towards a range of issues and it was expected that dairy farming would give more opportunity of exploring different issues, whereas in more intensive farming systems people would be more likely to focus solely on the issue of animal welfare. In addition many people associate animal farming with grazing cows and dairy farming is embedded in the landscape, as it accounts for a high proportion of land use. This embeddedness in the rural landscape was also seen as likely to influence people’s perceptions of animal farming.
To address the research questions, the thesis followed two avenues: a qualitative one (the first avenue) and a quantitative one (the second avenue). The first avenue involved setting up dairy farm visits by citizen panels and explored what people perceived and how they reacted to these perceptions. This exercise provided insights to research questions one and two. The farm visits were intended to show people what farming actually entails, so they could address the issues on the basis of a real life experience with the material aspects of farming. A real life experience stimulates all the senses simultaneously. During the visits people were asked about their sensory experiences - smell, hearing, sight and feeling - and handed out a digital camera so they could record aspects of the dairy farm that they thought were valuable. Sensory perceptions provided an appropriate way to draw out spontaneously expressed reactions about animal farming systems. The visits took place in three regions of the Netherlands (Friesland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant) and one in Norway (Vestfold).Time and financial restrictions meant it was not possible to include more regions in Norway.
The second avenue sought to discover the factors that influence people’s perceptions of animal farming. This was done by way of two surveys in the Netherlands: one about animal welfare and one about dairy farming in general. The former was based on an existing dataset of people’s perceptions of animal welfare, collected by the Rathenau Institute, and the latter survey was designed on the basis of the qualitative Dutch findings from this research. People’s frames of reference were used as the basis for discovering explanatory factors. A frame of reference can be described as the whole set of values, norms, convictions, knowledge and experiences which provide the basis on which a person perceives, judges and acts. Factual knowledge and direct experiences refer to the amount and quality of factual knowledge that people have of (animal) farming and their experiences with it. Convictions are firmly held beliefs or opinions and values are the core of culture. Values function as ‘criteria’ or standards on which evaluations are made. Moreover, they are relatively ‘stable’ and are neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but set personal preferences. In addition, values are implicit, and therefore difficult to measure. Value-orientations are frequently used to gain insights into people’s values. A value-orientation is a set of the most important values held by a group of people. This thesis made use of the Dutch WIN-model (Waardenoriëntaties in Nederland, Value-orientations in the Netherlands), which discerns eight value-orientations in Dutch society: socially minded, caring and faithful, conservative, hedonist, materialist, professional, broad-minded and balanced.
In addressing the first research question a list of the valuable aspects of the farms identified by the Dutch respondents was drawn up (chapter five). This list was divided into a number of ‘socio-cultural issues’, that reflect concerns about different themes including: the way food is produced, the living environment and handling of farm animals, the preservation of the rural landscape, services for society and the preservation of farming culture and national identity. The variety of issues identified as important by the panel members shows that people are concerned about many aspects of dairy farming, rather than purely focused on animal welfare.
Sustainability issues are context-dependent and culturally defined. In order to better understand the context-dependency, this thesis compares how these issues were perceived and constructed in the two countries. The motivations and explanations of Dutch and Norwegian respondents were explored to gain insights into the underlying collective meanings of animal farming (second research question, chapter six). These collective meanings of animal farming are based on general ideas about what is considered characteristic of animal farming and what are considered to be good and bad practices. This set of collective meanings of animal farming describes animal farming as a social construction. The social construction of animal farming consists of social images and expectations of animal farming that are based on general ideas about how animal farming looks, how it should look and why it should look like that.
The social construction of animal farming can be seen as having two layers. The first layer concerned the four general themes which people noticed at the farm: animals and their products, farming practices, the rural landscape and the farmer. The second layer describes the underlying meanings attached to those aspects and to animal farming as a whole. It gives insights in how people evaluate what they see and which collective evaluative or normative schemes for animal farming they use as reference point. When panel members explained why they appreciated specific aspects of a farm, they used arguments that related to three angles of vision: modernity, traditions and ‘naturality’. Modernity in farming refers to a continuing process of rationalization, searching for the most productive and efficient farming systems by making use of high levels of technology. Tradition refers to customary ways of doing things, such as the involvement of family members in the farm. ‘Naturality’ in farming refers to interactions with nature (including animals). People experienced dilemmas between these three angles of vision and their wishes were sometimes contradictory, as they were trying to reconcile the three; they wanted farms to be simultaneously modern, traditional and natural. The three angles of vision cover the perspectives from which people look at dairy farming and also shape the tensions in people’s appreciation. These tensions took different forms between the four themes, with people perceiving different concerns and dilemmas for each theme.
In addition, people’s appreciation of the angles of vision varied. People perceived the angle of vision positively or negatively, according to the theme being addressed. As such, each angle of vision appeared to have two faces. The positive face of modernity is seen in the successful process of agricultural modernization through pursuing the values of progression, efficiency and prosperity. Whereas its negative face can be described as a threat to natural and traditional values, reflected in issues such as the loss of nature, depletion of resources, pollution of the environment, negative effects on animal welfare, loss of culture and a decrease in the diversity of landscapes and food products. The positive aspects of tradition in animal farming are romantic, idyllic, nostalgic, and refer to a situation where humans and animals live in harmony. But, on the negative side it can be dull, backward, old-fashioned and static. Naturality also has two faces; one represents wilderness, which needs to be conquered and dominated. Agriculture is a clear example of humans’ success in dominating and cultivating nature for human progress. But naturality also represents the benign and Arcadian aspects of wilderness, which should be free from human intervention and damage.
These faces and dilemmas differ (in some respects) between the two countries. The most striking difference between Norway and the Netherlands was the different conceptualization of ‘nature’: Norwegian respondents perceived the rural area as a transition area between natural and urban areas, while Dutch respondents experienced the rural area as part of the ‘green area’ and nature. Consequently, Norwegian respondents perceived farm animals as part of the ‘intermediate’ areas, whereas Dutch respondents considered farm animals as part of nature. As such, Norwegians perceived a dilemma between farm specialization and the preservation of diversity and variety in farm production (a modernity-tradition dilemma with regard to farm animals), whereas Dutch citizens were more concerned about the tensions between modernity and farm animals’ naturality.
This analysis showed a number of tensions in people’s views about animal farming and showed that collective meanings of animal farming are characterized by multiple ambivalences – and are polyvalent. As such, people’s ideas about animal farming are not so black and white as sometimes is suggested: Respondents did not condemn modern animal farming and long merely for a rural idyll. Instead, people simultaneously appreciated different aspects of modernity, traditions and naturality and were aware of the tensions and dilemmas between these three angles of vision. People considered farmers to be at the centre of all of the dilemmas they perceived and expected them to manage these dilemmas, resolve the conflicts and maintain the desired balance between modernity, tradition and naturality. People were also aware that their wishes were difficult to put into practice and were willing to consider compromises.
The two quantitative surveys revealed the factors that influence people’s perceptions of animal farming (research question three, chapters four and seven). The findings showed that people with more experience with farming found it more acceptable to trade off animals’ naturality against modernity. In addition, people with a connection to agriculture were more positive about farmers’ image and the quality of life of farm animals. Providing people with more information (in the form of a leaflet) about animal farming had a very limited effect and a large majority of respondents was not interested in receiving information about animal farming, which suggests that this method of increasing people’s knowledge about animal farming would not be very effective.
The findings showed that people’s value-orientation influences their opinion about animal farming. The findings also revealed that value-orientations indicate the direction in which people search for compromises. In general progressive people believe that technological solutions can improve the quality of life of farm animals, whereas conservative people preferred a more traditional and natural farm. The latter group is less attracted to modernity and is less likely to be convinced by solutions that rely upon technological innovations.
Convictions also played a role in people’s perceptions of animal farming. People who believed in harmonious human-nature relationships and in egalitarian human-animal relationships preferred more traditional and natural dairy farms and were less accepting of modernity in farm practices and the treatment of farm animals than people who believed that humans are superior to animals or nature.
The main aim of this thesis is to gain insights into socio-cultural sustainable development of animal farming systems – the ‘S’ of the EES concept. The socio-cultural sustainable development of animal farming systems is defined by public perceptions of animal farming and includes concerns and underlying meanings about animal farming, which stem from specific socio-cultural contexts. The present study showed that the public considers that animal farming should entail aspects of tradition and naturality, as well as modernity. As such, the socio-cultural sustainable development of animal farming combines ’the best’ of these three worlds. What people consider as ‘the best’ modern developments, farming traditions or aspects of nature are culturally defined and context-dependent – these evaluations reflect the underlying collective meanings attached to animal farming. Hence, the definition of ‘the best’ can differ between countries. In the Netherlands, it refers for example to grazing cows and to automatic feeding devices. In addition, the study also found that different groups of people have different perceptions of animal farming. People’s values, convictions, knowledge and experiences lead them to be more appreciative of more modern, more traditional or more natural farms. Consequently, the socio-cultural sustainable development of animal farming differs not only between countries but also between groups of people within the same country.
One can say also that 'the best' economic and environmental aspects of animal farming are also culturally defined and context dependent in the sense that sustainable development itself is socially and culturally constructed. As such, socio-cultural sustainability stretches beyond the ‘S’ of the EES-concept and the implications of this are expounded in the following discussion.
The general discussion of this thesis has focused on the implications for the social acceptance of animal farming systems and on the implications for research into sustainable development (particularly of animal farming systems).
In general, one can discern two ways of making animal farming systems (more) socially acceptable: either adjust the opinion of the public or adjust and re-design the livestock farming system. Although the distinction appears quite simplistic it is helpful to look at the problem from these two sides.
Although ‘informing the general public’ is often put forward as the solution to make animal farming systems more socially acceptable, this is not as simple and self-evident as it may seem. The quantitative parts of this study did show that people with more knowledge about and/or experiences with farming had more positive perceptions of animal farming and were more accepting of modernity towards farm animals. Despite this the effect of information supply might be limited. First of all, because a large majority of Dutch respondents was not interested in receiving information about animal farming and second, because value-orientations played an important role in people’s perception and values are relatively stable and difficult to change. One could question the intended purpose of information supply. If the purpose of information supply is to positively influence people’s opinion about animal farming - based on the idea that the public has negative ‘misconceptions’ about animal farming – this can easily smacks of propaganda or manipulation. Moreover, supplying information might also have adverse effects on people’s perceptions; it might lead them to become more concerned or have a less positive perception of animal farming.
This thesis also raises questions about designing animal farming systems on the basis of citizens’ wishes and concerns. First, on a practical level it requires a conversion to apply the theoretical findings (of this thesis) to actual system innovations, for example, to translate modernity, tradition and naturality into practical solutions at farm level. Second, this thesis showed that citizens’ wishes can differ from their level of acceptance. Thus in an ideal situation people may wish for a traditional and natural way of animal farming, which suggests that they reject modern developments. Yet, in reality people make trade-offs between different aspects of animal farming as they are aware that their wishes are difficult to realize. To design farming systems around social preferences, one can ask the public to rank the different aspects and issues and derive a list of priority issues. However, this thesis showed that different groups of people have different preferences. Consequently different groups of people might set different priorities and make different trade-offs, resulting in different lists of priorities. For future studies and system innovations it would be interesting to take a closer look at different groups of people and the different priorities they set.
This thesis also has a number of implications for sustainable development, with regard to the way one approaches sustainable development and also for the way one studies sustainable development.
To start with the way one approaches sustainable development: this thesis followed a constructivist approach by looking at the collective meanings that underlie sustainability issues. Collective meanings are general ideas about what is characteristic for animal farming and give rise to notions of what is good and bad. One can extend this constructivist line of thought to the concept of sustainable development itself. Sustainability (of animal farming, but also of other phenomena) as a social construction is, under this understanding, a set of collective meanings about what is considered sustainable and what is considered unsustainable. This constructivist line of thought first of all implies the acknowledgement of multiple meanings of sustainable development, which are context-dependent. This study focused on dairy farming in the Netherlands and Norway and future research may find it interesting to look at other contexts – e.g. Southern Europe, the United States or non-Western cultures – and other farming systems – e.g. pigs or poultry. In addition, the constructivist approach also implies acknowledging that sustainable development is a value-loaded concept, which requires an ongoing debate about what is considered sustainable and what is not, since human values and needs shift over time. Collective meanings of sustainable development may include unsustainable as well as sustainable aspects. Whereas many sustainability studies focus on what they consider to be unsustainable in order to improve sustainability, one should be aware not to lose valuable aspects (i.e. positive aspects, non-concerns) that are not part of these sustainability criteria.
This thesis contains three implications for the way one studies the sustainable development of animal farming systems. Most importantly, one limitation of the constructivist approach is that it often only focuses on the meaning of phenomena and thereby tends to ignore the material world. Consequently, one should not only study the meaning of sustainable development, but also what is to be sustained – the material aspect. This requires an interdisciplinary approach to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the meaning and material elements. Such interdisciplinary studies need to combine expertise from the social sciences – about the meaning – with knowledge from the natural sciences – about the material. Thirdly, the constructivist approach opens up possibilities to develop new research methods to study the sustainability of animal farming. This thesis studied the socio-cultural sustainability of animal farming by looking at people’s on-farm sensory perceptions. This real life experience gathered from farm visits appeared a fruitful way to gain insight in people’s perceptions and underlying collective meanings. However, some issues, such as global and environmental ones are not revealed by direct perceptions and future research might benefit from seeking to include such issues in another way. The methodology employed in this study could be extended beyond the farm level, by for example making a ‘tour’ through a region, which would extend the experience from the farm yard to regional level. A final analytical aspect of this study that could be further developed would be to look at people’s sensory perceptions in more detail. In this thesis people’s sensory perceptions were analysed together, whereas other studies show that each sense can connect to different meanings.