Sarah Elton is an assistant professor and scholar of food systems, health, and ecosystems.
How does a more-than-human lens change the way we understand the food we eat?
Cheese has been made the same way for many centuries in a region of France called the Aubrac. Every spring, farmers walk with their cattle from the village barns up the mountains to an area where there are wide-open meadows. This multispecies march of mother cows, calves, a bull, and people, is called the transhumance. On the day that I joined a group of farmers and their cattle to climb the slopes of the Aubrac, the journey ended in a meal of potatoes and fresh cheese curd, mixed together to make a dish called aligot. It was delicious and filling.
Laguiole, the cheese this area is famous for, is produced from the milk of cows that spend the summer eating wild grasses in the mountains. The purpose of the transhumance is to accompany the cattle from the barns, where they’ve spent the winter, to meadows higher up in the mountains. The cows spend the summer months grazing on the wild grasses that thrive during the long sunny days. The same cycle continues every year: the grass plants convert solar radiation, water, and micronutrients into more complex molecules through photosynthesis. The cows ingest these plants, which are inedible to humans—because we cannot digest the cellulose that they contain. From the grass, the animals then produce milk. In the case of Laguiole, the milk is processed by cheese makers who work at a co-op. To make the cheese, an enzyme is added to the milk, breaking molecular bonds and allowing the curd to be separated from the whey. The curd is then pressed into a large block and left in a cold, dark room. Because Laguiole is a raw-milk cheese, the milk contains naturally occurring bacterial communities, which ferment the sugars and proteins in the cheese as it ages. Many months later the cheese is ready to be eaten.
So who makes the cheese? We tend to think of cheese as a food produced by cheese makers—by people. Yet as you read this text, are you certain that the cheese is made by the people in the co-op? Or could you say that the cheese is produced by a larger community of more-than-human actors, who all play their role along the production chain?
In the social sciences and humanities, theory typically focuses on people and the institutions and structures that they have created. But when we focus only on the human and on human social worlds, we leave out many non-human actors. Scholars working in a variety of disciplines, from sociology to public health, education, history, geography, and even law consider the ways in which our human social worlds are co-produced by non-humans. More-than-human approaches to social theory are part of this work.
What are non-humans? They are all the creatures with which we share this world—flora and fauna, and all sorts of creatures that are too small for us to see with our eyes, but that are nonetheless our daily companions. Non-humans include the plants that convert solar radiation into food and the microorganisms that ferment milk to make cheese.
When considering more-than-human influences on the planet, it is not simply individual animals or insects or groups of bacteria that play a role in our lives. Climate and geography, as well as all the elements of ecosystems, shape the way cities are built, politics are practiced, health is produced, and so much more. Our species exists in a total state of relation with all these other forms of life. In fact, we are so intimate with more-than-humans that we cannot exist without them. We cannot breathe without oxygen being produced by plants and trees. We cannot live without eating plants and animals, and we cannot digest some foods without the microbes in our gut that turn what we eat into metabolites that we need to be healthy. We cannot shelter or clothe ourselves without the materials that come from our ecosystems. We cannot do anything at all without non-human help. More-than-human theory attempts to fill gaps in the social sciences and humanities, fields that have, for the most part, left non-humans out of the analysis.
That non-humans are social actors and important to human worlds may be a new idea to many in a Euro-Western framework. But Indigenous peoples and many Eastern cultures have long understood that humans cannot be separated from what we often call ‘nature.’ This way of looking at the world may be new to a Euro-Western approach, but other cultures have been thinking this way for time immemorial. Kim Tallbear, a researcher who studies the way science is done, calls the impulse to see people as separate from nature a “settler colonial binary.” That’s because people from Europe, and the settler colonial societies that they founded such as those in North America, have held as a core belief for centuries the idea that humans have dominion over the more-than-human world, and that we live apart from other life forms. This Euro-Western view of the world rests on the assumption that humans are different and therefore separate and better. The scholarly term for this is human exceptionalism. It is bound up with patriarchy and white supremacy and has fuelled many forms of oppression, profoundly shaping the world we know today.
When we look at a wheel of cheese and only see the human labour involved in producing it, we are tricking ourselves into believing that only humans made the cheese. With a more-than-human framework, the labour of animals, plants, microbes, and even the sun and climate become more visible.
- What are other more-than-human or non-human actors that are involved in the food system?
- What do we miss out on when we focus only on humans in the food chain?
- What other parts of society involve more-than-human or nonhuman actors? Is there anything that exists free from the influence of more-than-humans? Is there anything that exists outside of relationships between humans and nonhumans?
Look at these pictures of different cityscapes. What do you see? If you are working on your own, jot down some notes about what you see in the pictures. If you are working in a group, discuss the pictures together. Now try looking at the pictures through a more-than-human lens. What do you see? How does the lens change what you see? Make another list of the various more-than-human actors you identify, and include a description of the role that they might play in the city. Draw on the knowledge of other disciplines, such as ecology, biology, and environmental sciences, to interpret these photos.
The website, Geneology of the Posthuman, offers short, online explorations of concepts that relate to more-than-human approaches such as agency.
- While it might appear that the word ‘human’ is embedded in the word ‘transhumance,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word has its roots in the Latin ‘trans’ for ‘across’ and ‘humus’ meaning soil or ground. So the transhumance is the annual migration of people and animals across ground. ↵