Ethical Eating

Eating is not a morally neutral act. Of course few things are. But while the moral issues associated with some acts are well-known and universally accepted, with other acts the moral dimension may be less obvious and subject to dispute.

Because our food system is industrialized and globalized sometimes the moral issues are easy to obscure or conceal.  If we had a neighbor using enslaved children to make chocolate bars few us of would buy them, regardless of how cheap they were.  But if a company is using enslaved children to harvest cocoa in Africa we’re not likely to notice, and few people feel any guilt about buying their chocolate.  Likewise most of us would refuse to buy meat from a neighbor who abuses and tortures his animals, but we’ll buy meat in a grocery store from animals raised cruelly in high-intensity confinement feed operations.  Not because we approve of that way of treating animals–few of us do–but because we’re able to stay sufficiently separated from it to keep our consciences clear.

These are just a couple of obvious examples in a web of moral questions that surround what and how we eat. How we treat and care for our bodies is a moral issue.  How much food we consume is a moral issue.  Whether our food choices make us complicit in environmental degradation is a moral issue.  Whether we are helping to sustain a food system that contributes to poverty, hunger, food insecurity and destruction of indigenous agricultural systems is a moral issue as well.

Of course sorting through the moral issues can be difficult.  If forced to choose, is it better to eat organic or eat local?  If locally and naturally produced food is more expensive, does that make it a privilege of the affluent only? Does eating ethically require a person to be a vegetarian?  A vegan?  Is it only ethical to eat meat from animals raised humanely?  What about people who can’t afford that kind of meat, or who live in food deserts? There are plenty of vexing questions like these.

Now that I’ve put one major writing project behind me (for now at least), next up is an attempt to put together a practical guide to ethical eating.  Expect some posts on that subject over the next few months as the project moves forward.  You’ve been forewarned!

What we’re aiming for is something for folks who want to eat ethically, but who aren’t sure how to navigate through all the claims made about food these days.  Hopefully we’ll come up with something that gives people the information that need to help them make informed decisions, without being overly intimidating and without coming across as just some sort of list of rules to follow.

Now that the days are starting later and ending earlier, it seems I’ll have plenty of inside work to do.

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30 comments on “Ethical Eating

  1. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, is your practical ethical eating guide a work to be published? I’d be interested in reading the finished paper. Ethical and moral eating is indeed a dilemma in today’s food world. Not every one can eat organic food. I keep hearing that a large percentage of American are on food assistance. My mother in law being one. The SNAP card doesn’t work for the local roadside stand or the farmer’s market. You mentioned the disconnect we have from the mega grocery store to the actual food supply. Most people that I know don’t want to know how the food got to the store or how it was raised. On one of my trips to Louisiana to help with hurricane Rita fallen tree cleanup, a friend of mine went with us. In addition to working with the chainsaw crew we had to work in the portable kitchen that provided hot meals to the area. Huge gas fired grills were cooking boxes of chicken provided by a national relief organization. My friend’s job was to clean the chicken pieces before the chef cooked them. After half an hour he just couldn’t do it any more and for two years afterward he couldn’t eat any kind of chicken. If everyone had to kill what they ate I’m sure there would be a lot more vegetarians.

    Have the best morally ethical eating day that you can.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, the hope is that we’ll publish it (the plan being for my wife and I to co-author it). Your comment mentions some of the issues that have to be addressed. Btw, we do accept SNAP at our farmers market and there are even ways to get additional farmers market benefits for low income and elderly people. But the fact that more and more people are having to rely on assistance to afford food (and then finding themselves having to eat unhealthy food) is a major problem these days. And I’ve been saying for years that if Americans had to go back to slaughtering the animals they eat, a large percentage of the country would become vegetarians immediately.

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  2. bobraxton says:

    looking forward

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  3. Jeff says:

    I’m a tree-hugger. One thing that always bothers me about vegetarianism is that people who practice it apparently think that plants have no consciousness, unlike animals, and that they can’t “feel” pain. I’ll dispute that. Existence for any form of life other than plants requires the killing of other life – plants alone make their own food from the sun and minerals. The so-called carnivorous plants, like the Venus fly trap, are an exception. The only thing animals can do is to take the life of other animals (and plants) with reverence and appreciation, though it may be that humans are the only kind of animal that do so. Killing other forms of life for food applies to all forms of animal life – from the tiniest bacteria or virus to the most complex animals in existence, be they humans, elephants or blue whales. The rise of capitalism, which requires alienation for its existence, has destroyed any connection between us and other forms of life. That must change.

    I wish you the best in your project – you’ve undertaken quite a task!

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    • Bill says:

      Yes you’re right that vegetarianism alone doesn’t avoid the complex issues of how eating affects other life in our biosphere. As you say, death is a natural part of the natural process. Hopefully we’ll be able to flesh out some of those complexities. Addressing the interconnectedness of all things and trying to encourage people not to think of food as a commodity will be part of it. But the plan is not to try to convince people to eat ethically, but rather write for people who have already decided they want to do so, but aren’t sure how.

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  4. ain"t for city gals says:

    looking forward to the posts…something that I am very interested in. One article that has stuck with me was from Mother Earth News….showing how you can eat organic for appx $1.35 a day which I thought was unbelievable. But then it went on to say that we all just plain eat too much and then it made a lot of sense to me.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks. The notion that you have to have a lot of money to eat a healthy diet is just wrong and is too often used as an excuse in my opinion. As a society we spend less of our income on food than any other society in history. We spend less than half of what Europeans spend, for example. I’m not convinced that it costs more to eat a healthy diet (even leaving out the future medical expenses) but if it does the additional cost is not much and would not crowd out the necessities of life for the vast majority of Americans. As for the dramatic increase in the quantity of food we eat versus just a few years ago, the results of that are evident all around us.

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      • nebraskadave says:

        I’m not so sure about a dramatic increase in quantity of food we eat but I would say the quantity of food that is prepared to eat maybe. We waste a lot of food in this country. Some businesses in my city have taken on the task of at the end of the day donating all their left over food to the homeless kitchens. Granted it isn’t the healthiest food to eat but at least it’s not wasted.

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  5. I look forward to your observations, Bill. –Curt

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  6. Great idea. It’s going to be a challenging writing job, for sure.

    …. If your child slaves were Hispanic, and working with their parents on the neighbour’s farm, would people be horrified? No. Quite a lot of produce is picked by families of farm workers, here from Central America, legally or otherwise. We see them all the time in the fields, and we’re accustomed to it. Many people remember growing up picking all summer for crummy wages and see it as something every kid should go through (me included!), and therefore be perfectly content to buy your neighbour’s chocolate.

    I know what you’re saying about the separation between us and how our food is produced allowing complacency. To some extent, I think it’s true. But I think people who are inside the ethical food movement have a hard time seeing it from the other side. I certainly do, anyway. I think we really need to do that to find ways to change their thinking.

    How many people buy fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate? Exclusively? A minority for sure. The distance from the issues faced by the people growing and harvesting coffee is definitely a factor. Excellent marketing on the part of Nabob and others is another. The same issue with clothes by the way – if we stop buying from Nestle/Nabob/big clothing company, won’t it hurt the farmers and workers at the other end?

    In the end, I think price might matter most for most people. A relative minority of people shopping with tight budgets actively stick to ethical food choices. Most make a lot of concessions in their minds to accommodate their finances. People with more disposable income feel that they gain that extra margin of savings because they are good bargain shoppers. For them, the all inclusive in Mexico is worth more than the ethicality of how their food was produced.

    Consider that it is quite acceptable to be invited to dinner and let your host know in advance that you’re vegetarian. No problem, your host says, we can handle that. What if you get the invite, and you say thanks, great I’d love to come, but just to remind you, I only eat local meat raised ethically, on pasture, will that be OK? You know how difficult that would be to say, because we have been trained by our culture to believe that hurting our host’s feelings is worse than eating unethical food. Why is it OK to refuse to eat food that isn’t Kosher or vegetarian, but not OK to refuse food that isn’t ethical?

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    • Bill says:

      The observations you make and the questions your raise are exactly the kinds of issues we’re going to try to help navigate. I’m looking forward to great feedback from you!

      A friend of mine recently told me that his family has been hesitant to try to change their diets because they didn’t think they could afford to eat ethically and because it seemed too intimidating (too drastic and too sudden a change). They’ve also been put off by the militant attitudes and snobbery of some “foodies.” We’re going to try to give people some ideas for how to start down the journey without having to make sudden and dramatic changes (although some may want to do that) and without feeling judged. People have a tendency to react very defensively to suggestions that they should reconsider their diets. A friend who is a pastor told me that when he did a sermon on ethical eating he got more complaints and negative reaction than on any other sermon he’d ever done–including any sermon on money (which usually gets strong negative reactions). It’s not easy. We’re going to try to write for people who have already decided they want to eat ethically, hopefully avoiding some of that problem.

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      • That’s interesting about your friend’s sermon on ethical eating. Think there could be some guilt driving the reactions? 🙂 Love the Wendell Berry quote by the way. That’ll be going round in my brain for a bit.

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  7. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    As I started reading, I couldn’t help thinking that this is a problem that a lot of people would love to be wrestling with… SO glad you summed up with it!
    What if more people were taught how to grow their own food and support themselves; putting the capacity to be TRULY LOCAL within everyone’s reach? AND, speaking of moral decisions, if those in a position to do so, would employ the Golden Rule… What then?

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    • Bill says:

      Encouraging people to take control of their food by growing as much of it themselves as they can is our #1 mission. But of course not everyone can do that.

      Your comment about the Golden Rule is spot on. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Wendell Berry:

      “The outcry in the face of such obvious truths is that if they were implemented they would ruin the economy. The peculiarity of our condition would appear to be that implementation of any truth would ruin the economy. If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week. We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels. “

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  8. When I first started to read this post I thought “this needs to get out to a wider audience”! Glad to hear (or at least it sounds like) you are going to publish this info. These are thoughts I grapple with everyday and you put them forth here so succinctly – you have a way with words as they say. I look forward to more.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks. Our hope it to come up with something sufficiently worthwhile that we can get it published. We’ll see. If not, I’ll just put it up on here little by little. 🙂

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  9. EllaDee says:

    It will make very interesting reading. I’m always keen to know more about ethical eating because there is so much unethical to navigate… and every author of blog posts, articles or books contributes to the message that it’s not acceptable.

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    • Bill says:

      This made me chuckle, “there is so much unethical to navigate.” Sad but true.

      These days you can be sure that just about any food bought in a supermarket was unethically produced in some way or another. Sometimes we just have to try to figure out what the least unethical option is.

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  10. Joanna says:

    It is good to hear you are passing on your practical knowledge. I love that quote about the Golden Rule.

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    • Bill says:

      We’re hoping to just share some of the things we’ve dealt with as part of our journey. Surely not claiming to have all the answers.

      That quote from Wendell Berry is one of my favorites. The larger quote (and I love it all) is here: https://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/let-us-tilt-against-the-windmills/

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      • Joanna says:

        Passing on what we have gleaned from our journey is all we can do, but so necessary. We may as well let people learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. I love Eliot Coleman’s book about winter planting for that “The Winter Harvest Handbook.” He lists things that didn’t work for him, to show he didn’t succeed all the time, but also because it might work for others in a different setting. Although it doesn’t seem related, ethical shopping is similar. Different aspects will be better in different scenarios. I could go to the big town and do all my ethical shopping, but then I wouldn’t be spending money in local shops that employ local people and keeps the shops open for those who are not as well off. It’s a trade off. What was important was the consideration I put into the decision making process. If there is some fair trade item that I would normal buy on offer in our village, I buy it but often they are just not available at all.

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  11. avwalters says:

    This issue is just one of the reasons that I became an avid (rabid) gardener. How could I vouch for food grown elsewhere? Could I afford organic? Finding my way, within the limits of my budget and within the confines of my ethics, has moved me (literally to a new state) and to rebuilding a new life with a smaller, richer footprint–and starting next spring, with a new garden at its center.

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    • Bill says:

      Bravo for you! May more and more people follow that path!

      We’ve been on a similar journey of course. Becoming as food self-reliant as possible has been one of our priorities. Growing one’s own food is good thing for many reasons, not the least of which is ethical eating (and avoiding complicity in unethical eating). It may not possible for most people to produce most of their own food, but everyone can produce at least some.

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  12. Really looking forward to reading what you write. Always grappling myself, and never feeling a sense of absolute…..

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    • Bill says:

      It’s something lots of us struggle with, and we can’t always rely on what we’re being told. Sometimes the ethical choices aren’t easy or clear. Our goal will be to try to help people figure out what makes good sense for them. We’ll see…

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  13. You bring up something huge and pivotal. The morality of it all was going to be the bedrock of my book on holistic nutrition, the seed of which was the food site I shared earlier. Except for the small matter of A Holistic Journey taking off and rerouting me, revising my dreams. Anyway, yes, you touch on basic things Christians don’t think about. You know what is offensive to me? A fat preacher. I can do a post on that.

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    • Bill says:

      How about a fat preacher condemning others for not exercising self control?

      Studies have shown that pastors are more likely to be obese than the public at large. Overeating has now become an accepted vice and some of the fault for that has to lie with pastors who have failed to call it out as a moral issue.

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