Understanding animal protection in food systems: A victim-based approach

Grantham Scholar Frances Payne examines how ideas about victimhood influence how wild and farmed salmon are protected in food policy. 


Globally, animals are afforded different levels of protection according to numerous factors, including different legal regimes, species scarcity or abundance, and the way that they are categorised as, for example, pets, farmed, wild, or pests. Salmon are one such example.  Within a context of growing concern for food security, the sustainability of salmon species is the focus of industry professionals, governments, consumers, and non-governmental organisations. While developments in aquaculture and conservation strategies grapple with the challenge of maintaining salmon as a sustainable food source, the farmed and wild salmon themselves are privileged with different levels of protection.

Pressures on wild populations of salmon have pushed their numbers rapidly towards the threat of extinction. Since its inception in the 1970s, aquaculture has been offering an alternative source of salmon, which could theoretically alleviate some of the pressure on wild populations. As socio-economic systems have come to rely on salmon farming and as the consumer demand for salmon increases, the industry proposes to double Scottish salmon farming by 2030. However, reports indicate that many salmon farms may, in fact, be having damaging effects on local wild salmon populations. Some attempts to address this include developments in technology, environmental protection schemes, and in some cases, moving farms indoors away from wild ecosystems. Nonetheless, farmed salmon remain protected by significantly lower legally enforceable welfare standards than other livestock.

As we look to develop democratic food systems that prioritise food security, sustainability, and animal welfare, it is critical to understand what goes into the decision-making process.  What are the priorities of different interest groups, and whose interests are prioritised in sustainability narratives? We must ask who and what we want to sustain and for whom, in order to ensure that the aims and practices of such systems are robust.

The project

The notion of victimhood has held important weight and symbolic value in several jurisdictions, with numerous policies informed by victim-centred narratives. Moreover, academic literature indicates that the way victim status is assigned or denied impacts on who receives particular forms of protection. As pressures mount against food systems and the individuals involved, from industry workers to consumers, to farmed animals and wildlife, how the needs and interests of such individuals are viewed, and therefore, how they are protected, is at a critical nexus.

Therefore, my research examines how understandings of the status of victimhood and the ideas of different interest groups influence how animal protection is weighted in decisions related to food systems. I adopt a case study method to address this, for which I focus on the case of Scottish salmon.

I look at the following questions:

(1) Exactly how and why are different victim types conceptualised in food policy development?
(2) Whose interests are being prioritised and whose are being excluded? And why?
(3) What impact are victim conceptualisation and protection narratives having on ‘sustainable’ food policy development?
(4) What alternative victim-based model might improve the way we protect animals?

The project is funded by the Institute for Sustainable Food, which is an interdisciplinary research centre based at the University of Sheffield and focused on finding dynamic solutions to the challenges of food security and sustainability.


In 2022 and 2023, Frances co-organised the annual symposium ‘ShARC Tales’ for Sheffield Animal studies Research Centre. The symposium brings together researchers from different disciplinary fields working on animal studies, including biodiversity, species conservation, farming, and the political and cultural representation of animals.

Frances is also a member of the Sheffield Alternative Protein and Cellular Agriculture consortium.

In December 2023, Frances was one of 12 University of Sheffield delegates selected to take part in COP28 in Dubai. She is now working with her fellow delegates to share what they learned, both at the university and in local schools. In February 2024, they were awarded a grant to deliver a practical suite of tools and experiences to help to ensure that future delegates can maximise their impact on the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process.

Frances Payne on social media

You can find Frances on Twitter.

And you can connect on LinkedIn.


Professor Alasdair Cochrane

Department of Politics and International Relations


Professor Rosaleen Duffy

Department of Politics and International Relations