Considering...The Ethics of Food

by Bonnie North

How do ethics apply to food?

Is it actually unethical to eat food that isn't healthy for you? Most people would say, "No." Foolish, lazy, self-destructive, yes, but in the end not truly a matter of ethics. What you do knowingly to yourself is, after all, your own private business.

But what about buying and eating food that, in its production, transport and marketing, is destructive to others, as in other people like yourself? Suppose it's destructive to other living beings, like say, butterflies, bees and songbirds, or cows, chickens and pigs? Suppose it's destructive to the health of the oceans? The soil of the Earth? The air that surrounds us?

Now we are talking ethics -moral choices that effect our relationships with and impact on others, the humans and animals, plants and birds and sea creatures that share with us the habitation we call Planet Earth... the only habitation we have, the only habitation we, and they, will ever know.

LAST MONTH, Phillips Harborplacehosted the Restaurant Association of Maryland Annual Industry Leaders Breakfast. Speaking at that gathering was Dr. Tim Ryan, the President of the Culinary Institute of America. He talked to the group about what he considered to be the three main rising trends in the restaurant industry.

He named "Food Ethics," the customer's concern with the ethical ramifications of their dining and purchasing choices, the fasted growing trend. He went on to emphasize the seriousness of the need to respond aggressively to this trend by reminding us of Will Rodgers' famous line:"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there!"

Dr. Ryan warned the group that: "In just the last six months I've seen that many of the things we've used for years are falling out of favor."

ETHICAL DECISIONS are generally complex and often require that one make an effort to learn more about the matter considered.

What are some of the ethical ramifications we find ourselves confronting when we decide what we shall eat? How does the production, transport and marketing of our food impact the world we live in and those with whom we share that world? Let's look at some aspects of modern food production and distribution, and some of the responses that have arisen to the ethics involved.

FACTORY FARMS have become the proverbial "cash cows" of the multi-national agri-corporations. Here, living animals are regarded merely as "commodities" to be invested in, developed and "processed," in whatever manner will serve to maximize corporate profits.

You don't need to be a PETA-Person to be horrified by this attitude -it does generally result in institutionalized animal cruelty. Many animals are kept forever standing in barren and unnatural settings and in such densely crowded conditions that their health is seriously threatened. Mega doses of antibiotics and pesticides are often necessary to mitigate against diseases that would normally decimate the entire lot in such unhealthy circumstances. Often they are given powerful synthetic hormones to speed their growth to an earlier "harvestable" stage.These are dangerous medicines and chemicals that wind up in the foods we eat, in the milk we drink!

Many animals must be mutilated (Like baby chicks who are de-beaked by holding their tiny faces to a spinning grinding wheel!) to prevent them from injuring one another in these crowded conditions. These, and other well-documented abuses, ("cost effective measures") are truly horrific and downright sickening. As more of us become aware of them, more of us are choosing to pay more for food that we can feel confident is untainted by such a gruesome karmic debt. As a result, pasture raised beef and pork, and cage-free, free-range chickens are beginning to appear even in our supermarket chain stores.

BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY is the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, which can be a region, biome or even an entire planet. The more we come to understand how things work here on Planet Earth, the more we see the notion of "survival of the fittest" disproven.

Most folks think Charles Darwin, who originated the theory of "Natural Selection," coined that phrase but he did not, and natural selection does not imply any such concept. The phrase comes from Herbert Spencer's theories of economics, where "fittest" is generally interpreted to mean biggest, most powerful, richest and too often, most immoral. Darwin's Natural Selection occurs within a given species as it adapts to environmental challenges.

Here on Earth, adaptability is the key to survival and biodiversity is crucial, for it assures more complex and flexible relationships within, and between, a greater variety of species, affording more likelihood of positive changes in adaptation to disease and disasters.

In the early 1800's, the Irish found a specific variety of potato, called the "Lumper," that grew well so they gave over all their fields to it. Seemed like a great solution for a growing population -but, since potatoes can be propagated vegetatively, all of these Lumpers were genetically identical to one another. When a potato disease to which the lumper was particularly vulnerable swept through the country, the potato crop was devastated. The result: the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's!

When corporations like Monsanto patent hybrid and genetically modified crop plants specifically designed to be intensively mono-cropped in tandem with their other products like pesticides and weed killers, this results in the destruction of natural biodiversity and dangerously consolidates corporate control over plant genetic resources.

Syngenta, a multinational corporation, is the leading developer of genetically manipulated crops. The best known of these crops are the so-called "terminator-plants" that have been engineered to produce sterile seeds. Terminator means that farmers will have to either buy new seed from Syngenta every year, or buy another patented chemical to "turn off" the sterility of their plants.

In response to this threatened corporate dominance of our food security The Global Crop Diversity Trust is working with the Norwegian government building the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. There, heirloom and threatened varieties of crop seeds will be stored in frozen vaults dug into an Arctic mountainside. The Trust assists developing countries with preparing, packaging and transporting their representative seeds, while the Norwegian government is building and maintaining the vault as a service to the world community.

Closer to home Seed Saving & Seed Sharing networks are popping up all over, and traditional heirloom varieties of familiar produce items like tomatoes and corn are gaining popularity in the marketplace.

CARBON FOOTPRINTING is a fairly recent concept that addresses the impact an individual, product or company is having on the planet. Carbon footprints provide an indication of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted as a result of producing goods and services. In our globalized economy much of our foods are actually produced thousands of miles away. James Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency," writes of the "6,000 mile Caesar salad," and though it sounds kinda extremist, he's quite literally correct! It's been estimated that the carbon footprint of a typical Burger King style hamburger is more than SIX POUNDS of toxic emissions! Wow...

Buying local, supporting local farmers and livestock operations, is making more and more sense to anyone who stops to consider these things. Here in our area there are a number of organizations promoting the bounty of wonderful foods produced nearby.

The Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance's "Buy Fresh-Buy Local" campaign works to support and further develop a vibrant and sustainable local farm community in Maryland. The Maryland Dept. of Agriculture has recently launched a project called "Maryland's Best" that has a fantastic web site full of resources for buying local. In the same vein, "So Maryland, So Good" is a campaign designed to help consumers identify truly Southern Maryland products. And let's not forget our great neighborhood Farmers' Markets and local Community Supported Agriculture farmers!

SLOW FOOD INTERNATIONAL is a movement founded upon the concept of eco-gastronomy -a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet. The Slow Food movement was born in Italy more than 20 years ago in opposition to "Fast Food" and the "Fast Life" which in the name of "efficiency" and "productivity" disrupts our communities and our homes, while it degrades the global environment and our local landscapes. From the Slow Food Mission Statement:
"Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work. We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of, and a partner in the production process."
Carlo Petrini, the father and founder of Slow Food, was nominated as one of Time Magazine's "European Heroes" in 2004. The Slow Food movement now has more than 80,000 members worldwide, and more than 150 members active right here in Baltimore.

THE PERMACULTURE MOVEMENT began in the late 1970's when Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren worked up what they described as "a design system" for creating sustainable human environments. It insists upon a set of ethics demanding that we think and act responsibly in relation to each other, to all other species and to the earth itself.
"All Permaculture Design is based on three ethics: Care of the earth (because all living things have intrinsic worth); care of the people; and reinvest all surplus, whether it be information, money, or labor, to support the first two ethics."  - Bill Mollison

Based upon a deep understanding of natural systems, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature that proposes "protracted and thoughtful observations, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor." The result is agriculture where an extremely high yield can be achieved with remarkably less energy inputs.

Permaculture Design courses are occasionally offered at Heathcote Community in northern Baltimore County and Heathcote's resident Permaculturist, Karen Stupski has drawn up a very comprehensive on-line course that one can take from home. Clearly growing numbers of people do have ethical concerns about food. Still, ethics are deeply personal things -each of us must decide on our own how we feel about these issues and how we intend to respond.

I suggest that we take hold of and weld the power that our purchasing choices have in a consumer-driven, capitalist society. We need also to take heart that our efforts, through grass-roots movements like Seed Saving, Slow Food, Buy Fresh - Buy Local and Permaculture, do create gradual, but substantial, cultural changes.

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