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Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?
Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?

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3 The animal–industrial complex

The construction of demand for ‘animal products’ and the concomitant social structuring of harm against nonhuman animals can be analysed using the concept of the animal–industrial complex (AIC). This term was coined by Barbara Noske in her book Humans and Other Animals (1989). It refers to the harmful exploitation of nonhuman animals on an industrial scale, and how different industries are inter-related within legal, state-sanctioned frameworks, so that together they form a ‘complex’. More recently, the AIC was defined by sociologist Richard Twine as a ‘partly opaque and multiple set of networks and relationships between the corporate (agricultural) sector, governments, and public and private science. With economic, cultural, social and affective dimensions it encompasses an extensive range of practices, technologies, images, identities and markets’ (2012, p. 23).

The AIC today is dominated by the agrifood industry, which in turn is dominated by transnational corporations (TNCs). TNCs may originate and be formally headquartered in one country, but operate in many, often on a global scale. In her analysis of the political economy of agrifood, Almiron highlights that the world’s two largest TNCs by sales, Cargill (based in the United States) and Nestlé (based in Switzerland), ‘are strongly dependent on “livestock”’ (2016, p. 29), respectively ‘poultry’ and hen’s eggs, and cow’s milk.

Almiron (2016) highlights the close interconnections between agrifood and four other global industries:

  1. The seed industry and especially producers of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, which are primarily used for ‘livestock’ feed crops.
  2. The chemical industry, including pesticides (targeted at killing other animals who would otherwise consume crops intended for ‘livestock’ feed), fertilisers and herbicides.
  3. The pharmaceutical industry, which as well as killing tens of millions of nonhuman animals in experiments each year, also produces medicines to prevent or treat ‘livestock’ diseases. These diseases are harms generated by intensive farming conditions, such as crowding ‘livestock’ in confined, unsanitary spaces (Greger, 2006).
  4. The oil industry, which fuels mechanised farming methods, transportation, irrigation and fertiliser production.

‘Livestock’ farming also depends on state-maintained transport infrastructures to move nonhuman animals to slaughterhouses, and then their body parts or the products of female reproductive processes (milk and eggs) to retail, which are themselves industrialised in the form of supermarket and restaurant chains. In turn, the retail industry depends on the media industry to advertise animal products (Nibert, 2016). However, Twine’s definition emphasises that the AIC is ‘partly opaque’, meaning that some of its components and their interconnections are less obvious. For instance, state involvement includes legislation such as ‘animal welfare’ or food safety laws, and procuring ‘animal products’ to feed hospital patients, school pupils, prison inmates and others in public sector care. States also provide financial subsidies for ‘livestock’ farming.

Almiron (2016, p. 31) argues that ‘animal products’ are the most subsidised sectors of the global agrifood industry, receiving $52 billion in direct government grants in 2012 alone, among industrialised countries. State support also takes the form of establishing organisations to promote ‘animal products’. For example, in the UK, the dairy and egg industries historically received state support through the formation of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) in 1933 and the British Egg Marketing Board (BEMB) in 1956. The organisations were interconnected with the media through the promotion of advertising slogans such as ‘drinka pinta milka day’ and ‘go to work on an egg’ (Molloy, 2011; Harrison, 2013). Publicly funded media promotion such as this, and direct advertising by agrifood corporations, have proved very successful in stimulating increased ‘animal product’ consumption (Nibert, 2016).

Two images of advertisements. On the left, colourful text that reads: DRINKA PINTA MILKA DAY. On the right there is a cartoon of a child balancing on an image of an egg. The egg appears to be wobbling. Above is the text: Go to work on an egg.
Figure 4 Advertisements for the Milk Marketing Board (1959) (left-hand side) and the British Egg Marketing Board (1957) (right-hand side).

The advertisements shown in Figure 4 may look simplistic now, 60 or more years after they appeared, but the message they convey is all the more powerful for that. Both sought to normalise the consumption of ‘animal products’ as a daily routine. The routinisation of food practices through cultural representations such as these is crucial to the perpetuation of the AIC.

Part of the inter-related framework that allows the AIC to function involves Twine’s ‘affective’ dimension. This includes emotional attachments to consuming ‘animal products’, which are often deeply felt as core to consumers’ identities. For example, social science research has revealed the persistence of strong cultural associations between masculine identity and the consumption of ‘meat’ (Fiddes, 1991; Adams, 2004; Stewart and Cole, 2018). Images – also referred to by Twine – are central to maintaining these emotional attachments and identities. For instance, they may be triggered by advertising that encourages positive associations between family or romantic relationships and the consumption of ‘animal products’ (Stewart and Cole, 2018). You have seen that even everyday 1950s advertisements contribute to the construction of identities ‘fuelled’ by the consumption of ‘animal products’.

The affective dimension of the AIC is crucial to its survival. The social harms outlined earlier are indeed ‘partly opaque’, in that the plight of ‘livestock’ receives scant media attention (Freeman, 2016), despite these harms being relatively easy to research. Analysing the affective dimension of the AIC is therefore crucial to understanding how it operates relatively unscrutinised, despite the scale of harms that it generates.

So to conclude Section 3:

  • The animal–industrial complex (AIC) is a key concept for analysing the interconnecting social structures that construct demand for ‘animal products’.
  • The AIC is based around coalitions of transnational corporations (TNCs) whose profitability is dependent on the exploitation of nonhuman animals.
  • TNCs in turn depend on state-maintained infrastructure, subsidies and legal frameworks to ensure their smooth operation.
  • The AIC also depends on the media construction of positive associations between ‘animal product’ consumption and consumers’ identities and relationships.