Food: A Question of Ethics

Each day we participate in a vast global industry that wields huge consequences to the health of the planet, the animals and to ourselves.
That industry is agriculture. Peter Singer and Jim Mason reveal the politics on our plates in an extract from their new book, The Ethics of What We Eat.

We don’t usually think of what we eat as a matter of ethics. Stealing, lying, hurting people — these acts are obviously relevant to our moral character. So too, most people would say, is our involvement in community activities, our generosity to others in need, and — especially — our sex life. But eating — an activity that is even more essential than sex, and in which everyone participates — is generally seen quite differently. Try to think of a politician whose prospects have been damaged by revelations about what he or she eats.
It was not always so. Many indigenous hunter-gatherers have elaborate codes about who may kill which animals, and when. Some have rituals in which they ask forgiveness of the animals for killing them. In ancient Greece and Rome, ethical choices about food were considered at least as significant as ethical choices about sex. Temperance and self-restraint in diet, as elsewhere in life, were seen as virtues. Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, advocates a simple diet of bread, cheese, vegetables and olives, with figs for dessert, and wine in moderation. In traditional Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist ethics, discussions of what should and should not be eaten occupy a prominent place. In the Christian era, however, less attention was paid to what we eat — the major concern being to avoid gluttony, which, according to Catholic teaching, is one of the seven cardinal sins.

The way food is sold and advertised doesn’t help. Despite the recent upsurge of farmers’ markets in the developed world, almost all food is purchased from supermarkets. Shoppers are not presented with relevant information about the ethical choices that surround food. Instead, the food industry spends billions annually trying to make us crave their products. That buys an avalanche of advertising that sweeps down on us from all sides but tells us only what the advertisers want us to know. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist who worked in the US Department of Agriculture  and on the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health (1988), has described how the food industry has crossed ethical lines in bringing political pressure to bear on what should be dispassionate scientific government advice on how Americans can eat a healthy diet.

Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me raised serious ethical questions about the contribution of fast food chains like McDonald’s to America’s epidemic of obesity. Our focus is not on these issues. There is already plenty of information out there about them. If you enjoy unhealthy food so much that you are prepared to accept the risk of disease and premature death, then, like a decision to smoke or climb Himalayan peaks, that is primarily your own business. Our focus is on the impact of your food choices on others.

A New Awareness

Over the last 30 years we’ve seen the first stirrings of a different kind of concern about what we eat. In Western Europe and the United States most veal is intensively reared, and many people there have stopped eating it after learning that veal calves are separated from their mothers soon after birth, deliberately made anemic, denied roughage or the possibility of exercise, and kept in stalls so narrow they cannot turn around. In the United States, veal consumption has fallen to less than a quarter of what it was in 1975.

Consumers also increasingly seek out organically produced food, for reasons that range from an ethical concern for the environment to a desire to avoid ingesting pesticides and the conviction that organic food tastes better than food from conventional sources. Today, organic foods can easily be found in supermarkets and are the fastest growing section of the food industry.

Buying organic isn’t enough, however, for the millions of vegetarians all over the world who refuse to eat any meat or fish. In the United States, a 2003 Harris poll found that almost 3 per cent of the population says they never eat meat, poultry, fish, or other seafood. In Australia and New Zealand, 6 per cent of people interviewed in a survey on food labelling said that they or a member of their family wanted to know what products are vegetarian or vegan. Avoiding meat and fish used to be as far as anyone went. Now vegans, who eat no animal products at all, are as common as vegetarians once were. In fact, the United States’ Harris poll found that half of those who said they never eat meat, poultry, fish, or other seafood also said they never eat dairy products, eggs, or honey. And it’s not just the vegans who are conscious of food. Throughout developed countries, people are learning to ask tough questions about where their food comes from and how it was produced. Is the food grown without pesticides or herbicides? Are the farm workers paid a living wage? Do the animals involved suffer needlessly?

Questions like these are part of a growing movement towards ethical food consumption. In 2005 two major US supermarket chains, Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, announced that they would not sell eggs from caged hens, and Trader Joe’s said it would not use caged eggs for its own brand of eggs. In Australia, Macro Wholefoods is a new and expanding chain that sells mainly organic food, and does not sell eggs from caged hens. As John Mackey, Whole Foods Market’s CEO, has said, these changes were the result of customer demand. Nor is this concern limited to highly educated people in upper-income brackets. It affects all forms of food consumption, right down to McDonald’s and Burger King, both of which have, as we shall see, recently taken steps that show them to be sensitive to ethical criticism of their products.

Virtually anyone, irrespective of income, can make a positive contribution to this movement. Making better food choices doesn’t require hours spent reading labels or rigid adherence to any particular diet.

Published in Kindred, Issue 22

This is an edited extract from The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Available from all good bookshops and online here.

 

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