This is the introductory post for our symposium on the Law and Political Economy of Meat.
This week, many Americans are celebrating one food tradition that is rooted in violence. Here on the blog, we are talking about another: the factory farm.
Meatpacking has always been a grim business for the animals whose deaths are its central project. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed other expressions of the industry’s disregard for life. Heroic journalism has documented the devastating outbreaks, primarily impacting Black and Latinx workers, in slaughterhouses across the country. The industry has responded with characteristic callousness. Just last week, Iowa newspapers broke news of a betting pool among managers at a Tyson plant wagering cash on the number of workers who would catch the virus.
In a world of limited attention, these stories nudged the meat industry into public consciousness and debate. Sustained coverage of pandemic workplace horrors has given rise to renewed calls to transform the food system and center meat in conversations about climate, labor, and health.
But while leftists begin to coalesce in opposition to industrial meat production, the imagined alternative remains ill-defined. Many on the agrarian left call for the reinvigoration of small-scale “regenerative” farming and agricultural cooperatives. Vegan leftists reject the very concept of sustainable meat as a delusion, akin to “clean” fossil fuels. Critics of veganism, in turn, take issue with the movement’s rhetorical emphasis on individual action, alliance with Silicon Valley disruptors, and history of racialized misanthropy. (There are well-reasoned responses to each of these objections, too.)
These lively debates ought not to distract us from solidarity in opposition to a common adversary. Transformation in any direction requires a coordinated challenge to the meat industry’s entrenched power. Law is central to this project.
Like big tech and the fossil fuel industry, “big meat” did not arise organically to meet consumer appetite; it is built and buttressed by law. By an antitrust framework that enables consolidation and restricts labor. By a law of contracts that permits indebted servitude. By a speech doctrine that amplifies and entrenches corporate interests. By environmental statutes that exempt degradation caused by agriculture. And by a patchwork of state laws and court cases that treat animals as property with no rights or interests of their own.
The law of animal agriculture is due for a reframing that foregrounds questions of distribution, power, and violence. A law and political economy framework can help us move beyond “mere critique” and towards a food system that is more just, democratic, and humane.
The goal of this symposium is to crack open these conversations on the blog. We hope this first series of posts, spanning diverse topics on the “law and political economy of meat,” will generate further inquiry, imagination, and argument in the coming months. If you have something to say about the LPE of food, farms, and agriculture (or anything, really), you can tell us here.